Replacing big government with a big society

I had a lengthy conversation last week about the Big Society and associated electoral successes and/or failures. As I have written before, the concept behind the Big Society (that government cannot and must not do everything, and people, families, communities and businesses must take responsibility for themselves) is something I find hugely attractive. But the person I was speaking to had two problems with it.

The first was that the election campaign was not the time to launch such a complicated and – at first glance – potentially off-putting message. On this, I tend to agree – it’s an easy thing to caricature (as Labour started to do) as ‘evil Tories abandon you’ and DIY government. It needs time and active demonstration to prove to people that it absolutely is not designed to simply abandon people, nor to cut costs for ideological reasons, but to enable them to have more control over their own lives. I don’t think that enough was done to sustain the campaign’s focus on this, nor to really demonstrate what is – by definition – not something that just signing a piece of legislation can deliver.

The second problem was that he thought people were appalled by being told what to do by their government in this way and thought that they lived in real communities already and had no interest in falsely recreating them. I’m in two minds about this… I have just moved into a flat where I can see right into my next-door neighbours’ kitchen (and they see into mine). I had thought it was just me being anti-social but I had lunch with some friends last week who confirmed my theory that actually because, in big cities, we live in such close proximity to others, we tend to put bigger barriers around ourselves. 

This could be one explanation for why in cities, the Conservatives seemed to do relatively worse than elsewhere: a sort of, ‘I have to interact physically with so many people every day in the tube, in the street, at home, and I don’t want to be forced to do it any more than I do already because I want more privacy not less’ attitude.

Despite the in-campaign carping, the actual Big Society in Government document published last week is a great start.   Much of it focuses on creating and boosting  social enterprise.

Something I found interesting towards the end of the election campaign was the ‘revelation’ that such a large part the economies of certain regions of the UK are driven by the state – Northern Ireland and the North East were the two that were mentioned, but I’ve heard (though despite extensive searching I can’t find a source…) that in every region apart from London and the South East, a greater proportion of GDP is based on state spending than private enterprise.  This is clearly unsustainable – but the Tories’ answer is not to simply chop and slash and burn. It’s to encourage private and third sector bodies to grow their share.

This is a far better way to approach the problem. It means that the growth is organic, not forced, and therefore more sustainable. And it means that a Conservative government is not wielding a nasty axe. There are arguments to be had about why the Tories’ campaign was unable to refute that attack successfully; but I think the proof will be in the pudding. This coalition government is not out to get people. It wants to help them. Part of helping them has to be cuts in wasteful spending, and sadly part of it is going to have to be cuts in spending that actually we would quite like to keep. But the point of the Big Society is that it can help people in a different way than by just telling them what to do, or by doing it for them.

This is the change that has been talked about for so long. It’s a different way to approach things. The government needs to start as it means to go on, and focus on what’s really important to it. But as well as good intentions, it really really needs to persuade people who believed Labour’s slurs about abandonment that we don’t want to hurt them, and it really really really needs to persuade people who scoffed at the very idea of being closer to their neighbours that this isn’t about forcing them, nor is it about necessarily being closer to your neighbours – but it is about being more in control of your own life.

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