Friday, 28 January 2011

The Big Society

The Big Society is one of the more strange flagship ideas of the 2010 Conservative Party, especially when you consider both the public's reaction to it and the enthusiasm that the government has for it. This idea, according to the Conservatives, is "to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'". On the superficial surface this seems like a good-natured idea. After all, who could disagree with Giving More Power To The People? However, to discern its true purpose we must look deeper.

The Big Society is at its most fundamental level a mechanism for reducing state spending on public services, or outright removing those services all together, and hoping or encouraging for a volunteer sector to move in and take its place. It seeks to deliver control and management, and ultimately responsibility, for public services to the actual public themselves. This devolution of power to the people sounds almost leftist in nature, but in reality is nothing but an excuse to further the causes of privatisation that we are already seeing invade education and healthcare. The idea sounds nice and lovely in isolation, but if we place it within the economic and social environment of Modern Britain we can find its many flaws and come to a conclusion upon its purpose.

First, we must look at the concept of a volunteer. One of the main lovely points about the Big Society is that libraries, schools and other public services are run by volunteers. Everybody loves volunteering and volunteers, those that give up their free time to give something back to their local community. A relatively selfless act. However, the key thing that stands out is that the people who are able to volunteer for these positions must have free time. The working class and those worst off in society, those that would benefit the most from public services, simply do not have the free time to contribute to this Big Society idea. Middle class people, those that can perhaps afford to have only 1 parent working in a household whilst the other volunteers, obviously have good amounts of free time to dedicate towards the running of local services. Within this, we find the first contradiction within the Conservative's Big Society concept. It is not a devolution of power from the state to the people, but a devolution of power from the elite in Whitehall to the elite in society: the middle class. Those that would truly benefit the most from the public services have very little to no say in them, as the amount of time they are able to dedicate is simply not there. This would obviously lead to public services being run from a biased position; by the middle class, for the middle class.

It would be worth it to quickly look at this transfer of power from Government to "People" a little closer, and what it actually means. Ever since the disaster of the privatisation of the railways hit the UK, the Conservatives (and Thatcherites in particular) have been taking the blame for the damages caused by privatisation, and rightly so. They were responsible for causing it, and it is this notion of responsibility that is key for this power transfer. If the Government transfers the power and responsibility for running public services, what little there is left of them, to the public then it will be the public and local people to blame for their failure. It is an attempt to escape the poisoning nature that the failures of neoliberalism have, especially on the Conservative's electability. By shoving this responsibility onto local people, the blame for the failure of the services cannot be pointed at the Conservatives.

It is interesting to note that the public's initial reaction to the Big Society idea was not one of enthusiasm at all, leading many to wonder why the government is so keen to keep pushing with it. Even Nick Clegg, although this is hardly surprising given his nature of late, has come out in support of the Big Society idea, claiming that the "big society" and liberalism as the same, which I happen to agree with as both are idiotic, childish ideologies. The enthusiasm of the government is opposed to the lack of enthusiasm for the general public for this idea. An example illustrating this opposition was illustrated in the Private Eye earlier this month, relating to the proposed sale of the Forest of Dean. Private Eye reports:
Anger at the proposed sale is particularly acute in the Forest of Dean, where a campaign group, Hands Off Our Forest (HOOF), has been mobilised and 3,000 people rallied earlier this month to make their voices heard.

Notably absent was local Tory MP Mark Harper, who believes the forest sale to be an example of Dave’s Big Society in action as it would allow local people to buy and manage things as they see fit. As environmentalist Jonathon Porritt and many others point out, however, thanks to rights and entitlements secured over centuries, people in the Forest of Dean already see “the Dean” as their forest anyway.
This attitude is not isolated to the Forest of Dean. Many locals feel that they already own their local libraries, forests etc. In a way they do, these resources were paid for through taxpayer's money and belong to the taxpayer. The Government urging people to pool together and buy their local resources and services that they feel they already own is ludicrous, perhaps electoral suicide. Getting local communities and organisations themselves to bid against one another to secure facilities that they already own will produce not only a negative atmosphere of competition at a local level, but a general resentment of the government.

Conservative's apparently blind faith in the Volunteer sector almost matches their blind faith in the Private sector to pick up the job losses these policies will cause. The Big Society is a Big Sham. After all, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.

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