This is how the Financial Times editorial reported on David Cameron’s speech to the Tory Party conference: “Having exhumed the idea of the ‘Big Society’, he struggled to breathe life into it. He denied that it was a cover for cuts. But fog descended when he tried to explain.”
When even the main bosses’ newspaper can’t make sense of Cameron’s “big idea”, then it’s clear that the Tory leader has a problem.
It’s hardly surprising many people see the “Big Society” as little more than window-dressing for the wholesale destruction of the welfare state. The huge cuts that the Tories are proposing to make on 20 October mean they are right to do so.
Public spending will slashed by between 25 and 40 percent—much deeper than anything even Margaret Thatcher was able to achieve in the 1980s. It will mean massively reduced welfare, as well as an estimated 600,000 job losses in the public sector.
Cameron’s big idea also tells us something about the Tories’ vision for British society and about the confidence of the coalition to push through the kind of cuts they want.
Cameron first promoted the Big Society idea last year as a solution to problems of poverty, unfairness and inequality. He even quoted Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level—a savage attack on the inequality that thirty years of Tory and New Labour policies have produced.
But what does it all actually mean?
A recent Cabinet Office document points to four main strands to the idea.
The first is to “Give communities more powers”. It states that new powers will allow community buy-outs of local facilities and services faced with closure—post offices, swimming pools, libraries and so on. The reason they are faced with closure, needless to say, is the coalition’s cuts programme.
Quite where local communities will find the money for such buy-outs is not explained, since Cameron’s proposed “Big Society Bank”, based on funds taken from unused bank accounts, will go nowhere near to matching the scale of the proposed cuts.
The plan also says that trained and qualified staff would be replaced by local volunteers.
It’s a non-starter. Very few of us have the time, energy or inclination after a hard day’s work to run the local post office, swimming pool or library—let alone have the skills to match those of the trained and qualified staff currently in post.
The second claim is that the Big Society will “encourage people to take an active role in their communities” through volunteering and involvement in “social action”.
One apparently serious proposal is the introduction of a national Big Society day. Another is that 5,000 new community organisers will be trained to work in deprived areas, create neighbourhood groups, and encourage involvement in “social action”.
In the past, such social action would have included campaigning in defence of services. It’s unlikely, however, that this will be part of the job description of these new organisers.
Rather, their emphasis will be on showing people in the poorest communities how to make more use of their already extremely limited resources.
Moreover, quite how “voluntary” such involvement will be is far from clear. According to the Cabinet Office document, regular community involvement will become “a key element of civil service staff appraisals”.
The Tories also plan to set up a National Citizen Service for 16-year olds, apparently to give them a chance to develop “the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens”.
The need for such a service reflects the fact that astronomical university tuition fees on the one hand and growing youth unemployment on the other mean that fewer and fewer working class young people will be able to acquire these skills through higher education or paid work.
Again, it’s not hard to see how involvement in such a scheme will quickly move from being “voluntary” to becoming an expectation, with employers favouring those with such experience for jobs.
A third claim is that the Big Society is about to “Transfer power from central to local government”. Here, the aim is to shift responsibility for spending—and making cuts—to local authorities.
That way, the resulting anger will be directed not at the coalition but at local councillors.
But the only devolution of power that has taken place to date has not been to elected councils but to unaccountable middle-class parents’ groups and local businesses who want to set up academies and “free” schools.
The final strand of the Big Society is to “Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises”.
The idea that charities should take over many of the functions of the state is central to Cameron’s idea. But it’s a sick joke.
Firstly, despite New Labour already having encouraged voluntary organisations and charities to take over the running of services, charities still only account for 2.3 percent of workers in the welfare state.
Secondly, voluntary organisations are among the biggest victims of the cuts so far, with £11 million taken from organisations in England and Wales that encourage volunteering—and a further £8 million cut from youth volunteering schemes.
Nor, as the document claims, will employee-owned co-operatives empower millions of public sector workers to “be their own boss” and help them deliver better services.
On the contrary, as the experience of many voluntary sector organisations which have to compete for funding has already shown, it will lead to a race to the bottom. The workers in these co-operatives have to cut their own wages and conditions to compete for contracts.
However, it would be wrong to see the Big Society idea as purely a cover for cuts. It also has a more serious ideological purpose.
Above all, it is an attempt by David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and their co-thinkers to deal with the problem of what they call the “Broken Society” and with the issue they see as being at the heart of that problem, namely “welfare dependency”.
The reason that poor communities are poor, their argument goes, has nothing to do with capitalism or inequality. They say it is because the welfare state has encouraged people to become over-dependent on state services and benefits, and unwilling to take responsibility for themselves and their communities.
The Tories think that reducing public services through cuts will encourage people to look at themselves and their neighbours. Somehow this process will help to recreate the kind of community spirit that allegedly existed at some time in the past.
It’s an argument we should reject. It’s an attempt to turn the clock back to a pre-welfare state era when working-class people had no choice but to rely on each other and on charities which would classify poor people as “deserving” or “undeserving”.
The whole argument is based on a series of myths. The truth is that the vast majority of people want to work, if only jobs were available.
That’s why in the 1960s when capitalism was booming, unemployment was at historically low levels. And to the extent that society is indeed “broken”, it was the policies of the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s that did most of the damage.
It shows the most astonishing brass neck for some of the richest people in the country, like Cameron and Osborne, to criticise the poorest people in our society for reliance on the state.
Meanwhile their chums in the banks only continue to make their bonuses as a result of the billions spent by that same state in bailing them out.
One final point. The fact that Cameron and his cronies in the coalition feel the need to promote the Big Society to put a positive gloss on their cuts is a sign not of strength but of weakness.
By contrast, Margaret Thatcher felt no such need.
The dithering over the child benefit cuts during the Tory Party conference and Cameron’s subsequent apology showed, this is a government which is unsure of how much it can get away with and what resistance it will encounter.
The creation of the welfare state was a huge gain for working-class people. We must not allow the Tories to take it away.
Iain Ferguson is a senior lecturer in social work at the University of Stirling