From Big Society to Chaos

For Progress Online, 5 November 2010

So the Cabinet Office minister responsible for the ‘Big Society’, Francis Maude, has promised a future that is “chaotic and disorderly”. “If I had a plan, it would be the wrong plan,” he told the Conservative Party conference fringe, praying in aid the principles of free market capitalism.

At last we now see a link between the concept that defines this Government’s approach to social policy and Mrs Thatcher’s many-times-interpreted phrase “There is no such thing as society.”

The voluntary and community sector, the organisations that make up our civil society, came into being precisely to combat chaos and disorder. Alongside structures that emerged in Victorian municipalism, refined by the welfare state, disorder has been tackled by succeeding generations of those who not only believe that society does exist but that its values, its potential for combating disadvantage, are worthy and right.

Mrs Thatcher’s phrase is generally interpreted as meaning that ultimately individuals and families shape communities. ‘Society’ may be an intangible concept, even an irrational entity. It is now accepted that the provision of supporting services ought not to be the exclusive bailiwick of government: grass roots communities ought to determine how services are delivered locally. But if we have learned one lesson about the way we live over the years, it is that services need structures to maximise their effectiveness, extend their reach and relate to other services.

To deny the need for coordination is to preach anarchy: something close to what a previous Conservative leader called “the unacceptable face of capitalism.” Maude’s idea that progress can only be assured by smashing everything up, throwing it in the air and seeing how it lands might be truly revolutionary, but it belongs in the nineteenth century.

So whilst arguing that “It ain’t my responsibility, guv” on public platforms, Cabinet Office ministers are bringing about the destabilisation that they are advocating: abolishing incentives for capacity building within the third sector, slashing the funding to its coordinating umbrella bodies and cutting back on instruments of government generally – the natural partners of voluntary sector providers – local authorities, quangos (even helpful ones) and PCTs. Faced with up to £5 billion of cuts, they offer voluntary bodies an emergency fund of £100M or just 2% of this.

The vacuum that is the Big Society today presents civil society with opportunities as well as threats. But ultimately the withdrawal of money is not as big a threat as the removal of support, partnership and planning: the promotion of chaos and disorder.

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