The Unreliable Big Society

If the Big Society didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. But what the hell, let’s invent it anyway. That appeared to be the conclusion of a debate between Progress and Res Publica on Monday evening.

Tessa Jowell and Stephen Twigg argued convincingly that there was little new in the good bits of the Tory flagship policy: that under Labour community assets had been transferred to communities, parents had forced new schools to be created, Foundation trusts had given folk a say in how key parts of the NHS were run. Even the Big Society Bank is built on Labour legislation. They could have added that new legal mechanisms for social enterprise had been created, the science of commissioning from the third sector had been developed and that in Total Place a real tool for assessing and addressing community needs had been devised. (Too late, and with insufficient enthusiasm, but it had been devised).

Francis Maude argued that the era of post-1945 big statism was now over; it had all been too rigid and inflexible to meet society’s needs. He was clearly in conciliatory mode (if not a time warp), with none of his earlier “If I had a plan it would be the wrong one” platitudes. He said that volunteering, localism and public service reform were good things (hear, hear).

Phillip Blond’s view was that ‘malign statism’ produced uniformity, which prompted extreme individualism, which led to people needing more protection from the state… and as Big Society was under attack from both left and right it must be worth supporting.

Where the debate scored highly was in distinguishing between the politics and philosophy of BS on the one hand and its practicality against a background of severe cuts on the other: “We’re all in favour but we wouldn’t choose to start from here.”

Maude’s case that “75% of all voluntary organisations don’t receive government funding so won’t be damaged by the cuts” missed the point. These are the smallest charities, they are not service providers. Their loss, should it ever happen, could not compare to the threatened loss of half our Citizens Advice Bureaux. He has yet to explain how emasculated local authorities (or anybody else) can ensure comprehensive coverage of services for the most vulnerable when the charity market alone cannot.

Cuts aside, the title of the debate invited us to distinguish between the Big Society and the Good Society. I don’t think anyone left the meeting thinking there was an ounce of difference between the two.