It’s been a good few weeks for Big Society bashers. The weak economy, deteriorating approval ratings, Liverpool Council’s dramatic withdrawal from the pilot authority scheme, and Hoodless’ resignation have provided a great launching pad for sceptics’ missiles.
Given the high political capital of the Big Society, these strategic and predominantly partisan attacks should come as no surprise. What’s odd, though, is how quickly and ferociously MPs and hacks from the Tory Right have seized the opportunity to stick the boot in, ranging from reasonable and tentative expressions of concern to hysterical derision of ‘Alinskyite plots’ and ‘vapid aspirations’.
I had a stab at identifying the causes for this Tory ill-will towards the Big Society in an impertinently polemical piece for ConHome last December. It upset some commentators for painting with too broad a brush and casting aside all Tory criticism of the idea as anachronistic.
It’s worth saying, then, that, anachronistic or not, much of the motivation for this Tory dissent makes a lot of sense. It is rooted in a genuine concern for our Constitution, values and the political identity of the Conservative Party. To this mindset, the innovation and radicalism of the Big Society was always going to be challenging.
But it does not follow from this that being a Big Society believer somehow makes you an iconoclast. It follows even less that the Big Society’s novelty means that it must de facto be an inheritance from New Labour, as some would have us believe.
To the contrary, Big Society thinking can be applied to diverse policy areas in a way that addresses the concerns of the Right far more effectively than the stodgy structures currently available. And it can do it in a way that is consonant with the libertarianism that so many of the Big Society’s critics claim to espouse: by respecting the diversity of individuals and going with the grain of behaviour, rather than trying to impose a Rightist worldview from the centre.
Those are some pretty bold claims, so here’s something to back them up by way of what can result when five policy areas traditionally associated with the Tory Right are looked at through the power-shifting lens of the Big Society.
- Greater economic autonomy, at a more local level, resulting in parish level budgets, made viable by the freeing up of citizen time.
- A more participative economic model on the ground, helping businesses to reduce spending by pooling resources and purchasing in a manner appropriate to their specific, local partnership.
- Increased economic growth, by encouraging peer-to-peer finance, franchising and trade between small and medium enterprises at home and abroad.
- Less centralised administration, giving more of a say to local people – who actually understand their communities – over how migrants can be more effectively received and helped to immerse themselves in local life.
- Better distribution of refugees and asylum seekers, achieved by concentrating aid and economic development budgets on cities closest to where people are coming from.
- Better citizenship assessments, awarded on the basis of the candidate’s contribution to society.
- Having closer and more functional communities, bonded by a common sense of political ownership, particular to their geographical area and shared concerns. (This is not a trite point; social fragmentation and the erosion of personal responsibility – which makes possible so much crime in the UK – are closely linked.)
- Making possible community-led sentencing, for certain social transgressions combined with a push towards a more restorative approach to justice where, for example, offenders and victims can meet.
- Better neighbourhood watches, through greater, and more inter-generational, cooperation.
- Taking subsidiarity seriously, by encouraging Europe to focus less on its bloated, centralised competence and more on key cities and smaller, developing countries.
- Harnessing Britain’s diaspora, to help promote trade links outside the US/EU.
- Holding the EU to account, by campaigning for greater accountability to its citizens and a reversal of its centralising tendencies.
- Allowing schools to be more creative in their money management, by allowing them to make the most of their assets by sweating them through side Trusts managed by bursars, directing profits back into their mission.
- Making teacher training more competitive, by opening up provision to any willing source and linking payment to the quality of service provided by trainees.
- Designating schools as educational time banks, where use of school buildings and other related assets can be traded for time given by members of the community on an hour-by-hour basis.
This brief barrage of ideas gives at least an indication of just a few ways that the bottom up, person-centred philosophy of Big Society makes better sense of the priorities of the Right than the market-centralised model we’ve become so used to.
But this is oddly imperceptible to Tory Big Society Refuseniks because, ironically, they have yet to make the transition from a mind-set where the centre does everything to one where people take more control of their lives.
This first requires that we stop conceiving of all solutions as having to come from the centre.
To illustrate what I mean, the question on everyone’s lips isn’t ‘how can I be the Big Society?’ but ‘when is the Government going to implement the Big Society?’ This highlights the really pernicious nature of Big Government: it has denuded the popular consciousness of the ability even to think about a freer system of living that isn’t somehow imposed by central authority.
In the days when our population was younger, tax-base larger and world economic power was concentrated firmly on the West, we could just about afford to be more centrist. The real challenge of the next few years is convincing people that the old model is dead. We have to reclaim the ability to think in terms of what we can do for ourselves and for our Country. The Big Society provides an opportunity to do this in a way that is genuinely and traditionally Conservative. Not only that, it gives Britain the chance to lead the world, not by Empire, but example, pioneering a truly original way of living together.
How, then, could any Conservative claim to be opposed to it?