What is the ‘Big Society’ if not an attempt to rebalance the governing forces in our lives – that of the State and big business. This duopoly, increasingly co-dependent, exercises power and control through patronage, scale and inertia. The two are locked in a smothering embrace. New Labour’s ‘third way’, an honest but failed attempt to break the duopoly, only served to strengthen the reliance between big business and the public sector.
For many, particularly the poorly educated or those with limited assets, it represents exclusion – a type of spectator sport – as decisions are ever more centralised and taken by a self serving elite.
One could argue, ‘it was ever thus’. But no period of history is ever comparable. The UK faces unprecedented issues – a large and ageing population reliant on state aid, high levels of personal and government debt, multinationals wielding significant political influence and increasing personal freedoms and expectations. Technology and science now play a central role in our lives whilst philosophy and faith, often a counterbalance, are relegated to the sidelines.
Life and living has never been more complex, but fundamentally people haven’t changed. Basic needs that bind people, families and communities – belonging, safety, being social – have been demoted or taken for granted and it is our ‘wants’ that are increasingly indulged. Consumption is the new creed. The shopping mall our place of worship.
And yet one cannot deny the considerable benefits that this duopoly has provided – from job creation to universal healthcare. This is the irony. Whilst we accept and (over) depend on this model, we have also come to resent its primacy and one dimensional approach – impotent to challenge, improve or replace via established democratic methods. It is no wonder that people are frustrated, cynical and anxious. In today’s 24/7 culture, where our ‘wants’ are satisfied instantly, there is an expectation that the same should be true of our ‘needs’. But there is no quick fix or proven template.
To succeed the ‘Big Society’ must act as a correcting force to the supremacy of the State and big business. Its credo must become a genuine option – re-shaping how the State and big business carry on and by offering those without power and control an alternative means to obtain it. It must dilute and challenge the influence of vested interests by creating new opportunities to deliver more effective and responsive public services. It must explore ways of creating, rewarding and sharing wealth more equitably. It must free people to think and act more creatively.
It is a philosophy that is underpinned by our basic needs and has appeal both to the left and right. It is nothing new – from mutuals and co-operatives to philanthropy and volunteering – the Big Society has always played a role in our way of life. But it has remained on the periphery and in the last century has been marginalised by the increasing dominance of the duopoly.
It will take time and political courage to see the benefits for this and future generations. It will require innovative policy making, local co-ordination and a consistently high profile to promote its ethos and challenge the current orthodoxy.
It will require real incentives to help people get involved and protection to ensure early success becomes the norm.
Above all it will require the Government to yield more power and wealth to its citizens – trusting them to do the right thing for their families, communities and colleagues.
How will we know when we have achieved the ‘Big Society?’ Is there an end point or natural conclusion?
No, it will be continuous and incremental. The ‘Big Society’ will feel like a better balanced society – socially, morally and economically. Something that you can’t easily measure or test for, but one in which people are satisfying their intrinsic needs more successfully. One in which people feel they have a part to play and can play it.
It just might provide the answer to the question, ‘What have I done with my life?’ If more of us can answer that question positively then we’ll know we’ve helped in achieving ‘The Big Society’.