Oberon Houston is a Conservative blogger and regular contributor to ConservativeHome.
I attended a charity dinner the other day and one of those present was a senior Conservative and minister in the Coalition Government. I mentioned to him that I was going to write a piece for ConservativeHome on the ‘Big Society’, and I asked if it was true that most members of the Government didn’t really understand what it was. A dark look of suspicion flashed over his normally cheerful, amiable face:
“Do you work for Steve Hilton?” he glared, referring to David Cameron’s Director of Strategy and key proponent of the Big Society message.
“No, I’m just doing his job for him,” I laughed, “trying to explain what I think it is.”
“Well, I’m glad someone is,” he snapped angrily as he turned and stalked off.
If such hostility and frustration is present at the very top of government, what chance does the public have, I wondered? Many Conservatives fully au fait with core policy are disorientated by the Big Society message. One email I received from a Conservative member last week typifies the confusion:
“…the big society philosophy means the state stops doing so much and sets people free, now this means two things, one is to remove the right to take your money and waste it in essence. But the other part means people have to do more individually to replace the state functions, what does this mean for everybody? Are we supposed to become boy scout leaders, care for the aged or what, I'm not sure where the personal responsibility part goes?”
No, I replied. What it means is saying that central government won't decide what your kids' education will be, where they go to school, or what they learn (within prescribed requirements). Or which hospital you go to for treatment, your GP – the one you chose – will send you to the treatment centre which has the best provision and the best expected outcomes for you. The failing hospital with MRSA and bottom of the league for surgery survival will be culled off by the good ones, and when the good hospital expands it will do so into the capacity left behind by the failed provider.
The same goes for successful schools, when they want to grow they will be required to expand into the catchment areas of the failing schools and take them over. Poorer areas will have a pupil premium to attract quality schools to their areas. Parents will be able to pick which school their kids go to, ensuring the best flourish and bad ones disappear. This simple concept of choice and empowerment is the seed, the genesis, which will relentlessly drive up performance and standards.
Now this transformation only works if power is devolved away from the state and handed to the people. Unhappy with your local police service? Demanding that local voluntary organisations are involved in local policing initiatives? Then elect a chief who supports it. Charities want to run a school? That’s in, just successfully make the case and get the parents to support you. Have a private business and think you can run the local school better and turn a profit? Prove it, if parents send their kids to you then fine. Every independent school does so, why shouldn’t state funded schools? Think of a post code lottery with the lottery removed and instead a nation of people empowered to change their communities for the better.
It’s an evolutionary process though; to begin with the current local providers will remain, but will be more accountable to the people in the community they serve. But the potential goes much further than that, down the road, independent services run by local communities will become a reality. This is the vision Cameron and Hilton are trying to sell. To those who say this is unrealistic, that amateurs cannot run services as well as the state, just look at the RNLI and ask yourself if the state could provide such a fantastic service for the same money?
Imagine all public services, still paid for by the state, but accountable to the people they serve instead of faceless politicians and bureaucrats in London. That’s the long term vision Cameron is trying to articulate. One which heralds the end of the sixty five year consensus of centralised state service provision and the beginning of a new age of modernisation and excellence in public services. Driven by the people, using the huge power for improvement and innovation that real choice creates.
When reading Tony Blair’s book A Journey I was struck by a short passage describing his pensive mood on election night in 1997 as it became clear Labour had won a landslide victory:
“I had set out an outline programme of sufficient substance to be credible, but lacking in the details that would have allowed the opposition to damn it… did they [victorious and jubilant Labour supporters] really think a manifesto written essentially to capture the mood of a nation was good enough to govern a country?”
One triumphant veteran Labour MP later boasted:
“We have a 30% lead over the Tories on our policy on the NHS, yet we don't have a policy on the NHS!”
It is remarkable to me that Labour swept to power with so much fanfare and expectation, yet had such a flimsy grasp of what the nation needed to succeed. After thirteen years in power the lacklustre results, despite all the money and tinkering, speaks volumes. Contrast this to the Conservatives, who have a brilliant programme for the modernisation of our public services, yet they cannot explain it to themselves, never mind the nation.