BS – Big Society or Bullsh…..?

The problem of the past thirty years

The best account of British politics since 1979 I have read is Simon Jenkins’s Thatcher and Sons. In it, he says that Thatcher had two important legacies (two “revolutions”) and that both of them were carried on by her successors as Prime Minster: Major, Blair and Brown. From p5:

The first revolution set out to liberate the “supply side” of the British economy and give new spirit and confidence to private enterprise. Taxes were cut, labour markets freed through employment law reform and competition enforced, notably in financial services. The private sector was also invited to reinvigorate the public sector, and the boundary between the two was blurred and, under Blair, transformed beyond recognition…

The second revolution arose from the management of the first but led in a quite different direction. It was a revolution not of will but of power. Thatcher centralised government, enforced Treasry discipline and regulated both public and private sectors to an unprecedented degree. Where state ownership retreated, state control advanced in the form of an unprecendented volume of new legislation from both Westminster and Bruseels. The British state did not roll back its power in the late twentieth century. Today its size and cost is as great as it was in 1979 and its intrusion into the lives of its citizens is probably greater.

This second revolution is very significant. Although Thatcher prided herself on being a Hayek-esque radical, that was only partially true. She was, as Jenkins argues, a control-freak by instinct. There was lots of centralising of power under Thatcher. I’ll give two examples from Jenkins, from health and education.

Thatcher’s first Health Secretary, Patrick Jenkin, decentralised health management and wanted local authorities to, in his words, “respond to local needs rather than be a conveyer for detailed orders and advice from the centre”. (Quoted from Thatcher and Sons, p111) Jenkins then picks up the story (p111-2):

Within two years, Jenkin’s NHS was accused of being out of control and in need of centralisation. Jenkin was replaced by Norman Fowler, who declared that the NHS was not over-bureaucratised but ‘under-managed’. [The head of Sainsbury’s, Roy Griffiths, was then asked to come up with a solution to this problem].

(Griffiths) recruited 200 chief executives to take over Fowler’s regional and district health authorities, whose lay members were relegated to consultative status. These managers were required to report direct to an NHS board in London, from which emanated Whitehall’s first battery of ‘performance indicators’ in 1983…

There now began a process of institutional centralisation that took over twenty years and matched nothing outside the Soviet bloc…NHS managers were told to log waiting lists, appointments, referrals, lengths of stay, operations, incidents, peri-natal deaths, anything to which a number could be attached. The craving for statistics became obsessional, as did that for photo opportunities.

This centralisation did not just include health service reform.  In education, under Kenneth Baker, there was also a massive increase in Whitehall control. The national curriculum was introduced, meaning that 90% of teaching hours were directed from central government, and, as in the NHS, schools were made to log everything that could be logged: hence the introduction of school league tables in 1992. Also, the Treasury took control of teachers’ pay which would “turn them, like NHS staff, into de facto civil servants”. (Jenkins p120)

New Labour was also inherently centralising. With its sofa governments, endless target-setting and 3000 laws, it carried on both of Mrs T’s revolutions. As Larry Elliott summarises in another excellent analysis of New Labour in government, they showed a great desire to interfere with individual liberty (DNA databases, CCTV cameras etc etc) but would shun from regulating either the banks or the market.

Jenkins’s solution to the problem

The solution that Jenkins proposed was one of decentralisation and the effective establishment of local government (ie something a bit more substantial than Prescott’s “regional assemblies”). In his own words (pp328-9):

My third revolution would formally, fiercely and emphatically take powers from the centre and restore them to British counties and cities and subordinate communities in precisely the way that other European states have done with success and to general public satisfaction. The powers would be those that have been usurped over the past half century…Whitehall can withdraw its assumed control over education, planning and economic development merely by saying so and dismantling the regional offices through which these are ruled. The policy initiatives, ring-fenced budgets and “policy silos” can be abolished and replaced with the clean-cur block grants as before. Exactly this process was enacted in Sweden in the 1990s.

Local government would revert to local democracy, as expressed through local elections, from the great corporations of Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds to the smallest village parish…Primary care and hospital trusts should revert to the local government administration that existed before the Second World War…

Essentially, small is good. Especially on the Continent, where smaller units such as Iceland and Luxembourg are the most efficient providers of public service.

Part of this revolution would involve allowing local authorities more power to raise taxes: in Britain, only 4% of public sector revenue is raised from local taxes, compared to 50% for Sweden, 18% for Germany and 13% for France (Thatcher and Sons p331).

The big society

I have now written over 800 words and not even mentioned the “big society”. Thanks for your patience. What I wanted to show with the extensive quotations from the Jenkins book is that Cameron is offering a solution to what is an actual, existing problem. We may not like the Big Society as an idea, but we must accept that government, as it stands, is too centralised. Cameron obviously feels this too. From the speech he made a couple of weeks ago officially launching this whole business:

For years there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre, from Westminster.

But this just doesn’t work.

I’m guessing most of you already know what the Big Society is meant to be, but let’s just quote Cameron’s speech again and get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

Essentially, it is the decentralisation of power from Whitehall that would allow:

New powers for local communities to take over the running of parks, libraries and post offices.

More powers to plan the look, size, shape and feel of housing developments.

Powers to generate their own energy and have beat meetings to hold police to account.

He even mentions schemes like volunteers taking over schools, local transport and pubs.

So if a pub or a post office that was serving a useful function to the community was in danger of going out of business because it wasn’t making enough money (in other words, market forces were at play), Dave wants the local community to be able to use government money to buy said pub and run it in the interests of the community.

It’s not the sort of thing you expect to hear from a Tory Prime Minister. It sounds like something you might advocate in the pub after a few drinks with a few other friends who were interested in politics. Andy Burnham could have mentioned this idea, called it “aspirational socialism”, and people would have nodded sagely and/or raised their eyebrows. Because this all sounds vaguely socialistic; this idea of people working not for profit, but for the common good. It’s not the first time Cameron has used leftist language either; in February he asserted the right of public sector workers to form “co-operatives”, that wonderful left-wing buzzword.

This appropriation of leftist language does two things. First, it makes me feel uneasy. Call me cynical, but when a Tory Prime Minster starts talking the talk of the left, you know there’s something fishy going on. Second, it makes me want to not completely reject the proposal out of hand, because to do so makes you sound like a clunking statist.

It’s a pity it won’t work, though.

My initial reaction is that there are three main problems with this idea of the Big Society:

1) Participation

In Thatcher and Sons, Jenkins seems almost to have pre-empted Cameron’s announcement of “The Big Society”:

People will volunteer to be consulted ad hoc. They will rise and fight a threatened housing estate, wind farm or hunting ban. They will do “just in time” politics. But regular participation is beyond their comfort zone. (p309)

He seems to attribute this remark to what he calls Bernard Crick’s “fear of politics” (of which more below).

There are two main strands, I think, to the participation argument.

The first is that, as Bob Crow said on QT a few weeks ago, we already have “the Big Society”: (tens of) thousands of volunteers at sports clubs, charity shops, amateur dramatics, community events etc etc etc etc etc. Paul Sagar has come to a similar conclusion, saying the Big Society actually exists within local government at the moment.

The second, contrasting argument is: is there enough demand to be part of the Big Society? The Tories invited everyone to “join the government of Britain” in their manifesto; what remains to be seen is how many say yes. There has been a lukewarm response to Michael Gove’s “free schools” plan, and a recent Demos poll said that only 15% of people probably would get involved in Big Society-style volunteering projects.

One would prefer to be less cynical. However, earlier this week a woman suffering from cerebral palsy seems to have starved to death after her mother (also her carer) died, with no neighbours checking if they were OK for weeks. It’ll take a heck of a shift to transform Britain from apathetic neighbours into a nation of community leaders.

2) Financial

Try and make sense out of the following two sentences:

a) Dave wants charities to play its part in the Big Society by organising local youth clubs, running services such as rehabilitating offenders etc.

b) Lots of these charities are going to be hit by cuts of 30% as councils look to reduce services.

These sentences aren’t compatable, are they? Which means that the Big Society is not, and cannot, be a “cover for cuts”, as one popular lefty narrative has it. In a way, it would be nice if it was: I’d rather services were provided by voluntary groups than not at all. Instead, all this seems to reinforce the fact that Cameron doesn’t know his Maynard Keynes from his Milton Keynes. You don’t have to be a great economist (or a town in southern England) to know that the drastic cuts will affect ALL sectors of the economy: private, public and voluntary.

In the speech, Cameron said that projects would be funded with a “big society bank”, with money coming from unclaimed savings in Building Society accounts. This sounds like the governmental equivalent of looking down the back of the sofa, trying to find some spare change for a packet of quavers. Although it was claimed this could raise £400m, in actual fact the figure could be more like £60m, nowhere near enough money. So where’s it’s coming from? Nobody knows…

3) Accountability

The main advantage of the proposals by Simon Jenkins is that responsibility for local services can be placed at the door of local officials. If these officials are incompetent, they can be removed at elections. It’s called democracy. Kinda works.

However, how are the unelected voluntary or community organisations going to be accountable to the wider public for the services they provide? Will the government really give millions of pounds to unaccountable, unelected organisers with no strings attached? Actually, in the case of NHS reforms, yes they are. Dave was asked about this in his “meet the proles” event in Birmingham. Here’s what the Guardian’s live blog said:

1.49pm: Back on Cameron’s “big society”. A man who works in the voluntary sector asks how providers will be held to account under his vision of delivery by non-state providers. Cameron explains that he thinks local organisations are often best-placed to deliver. The user of the service will hold them to account – whether that is the government that has agreed the grant for local provision or the person receiving the service. Councils will play a role, too. He thinks that is enough. He admits his “big society” will be a bit messy sometimes, but he’s convinced it will be better than believing that the state always knows best or is always best-placed to deliver.

So…the state doesn’t know best, but will still hold the service providers to account. Good thinking there, Dave.

It’s now we come to Bernard Crick’s “fear of politics” that I flagged up earlier. Simon Jenkins again, p309:

I do not believe that Britons are inherently less democratic than others…[but people usually serve communities on] health authorities, police authorities, development agencies and training councils. These people serve on one condition, that they need not submit themselves to election. The condition reflects what Bernard Crick has called Britain’s “fear of politics”, an aversion to democratic responsibility. Some might call it a hangover of monarchical deference.

It’s an aversion we will have to be, er, averse to for proper, accountable local provision of services.


We have almost come to the end. If you’re still here, thanks for reading the previous 2200 words. If you’ve scrolled down most of this post because you can’t be bothered reading it and stopped here because you’ve seen “Conclusion”: a) I don’t blame you, it’s rather long b) it is worth scrolling back up and reading what I’ve read, honest.

Centralisation is a problem, but the Big Society is not the answer. It’s quite worrying that details are so sketchy, for a plan that Cameron says he has talked about, and been passionate about, since before being Tory leader. Cameron has been leader of the Tory party for five years, and for the last couple of years he has been almost certain to be the next Prime Minister. The Big Society was the centrepiece of May’s election campaign. So why are the details of this plan, like the costing, not finalised yet? It feels like the coalition is making up policies on the back of an envelope (NHS reforms, Welfare Reform, Big Society) and not fully understanding the consequences of what they are saying. Or if they do understand the consequences, not being honest in spelling out what these consequences will be.

This is already too long, so the blog in a sentence: Big Society flawed for three reasons, put it right or get out of sight.

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4 Responses to BS – Big Society or Bullsh…..?

  1. Hannah says:

    Firstly, excellent article.

    The Adam Curtis documentary series The Trap makes some interesting points along the same lines.

    My take on this that the “Big Society” is fundamentally meaningless waffle. It fails for the reasons that you point out because the prerequisites for the strong, stable communities and societies that it relies upon are fundamentally at odds with the needs of the liberal markets that the Tories also want to promte. Financially, what is going to happen is that the poorest communities are going to be expected to provide labour for free, while their sources of income from benefits and unskilled wages are being redistributed towards the wealthy by cuts and market liberalisation. In terms of participation, their links to communities are being undermined by the expectation of flexibility and mobility within the labour market, and at heart the Conservatives do not want accountability to the bulk of working people, in fact they fear it, because it threatens their interests.

    From the point of view of the Tories the purpose that the “Big Society” serves is as a cover for the retreat of the State, which David Cameron explicitly contrasted it with. In essence, what he’s saying is that we can remove state functions and these mythical community organisations will step in to take it’s place. The motivation is an ideological hatred of the State as the only force that restricts the freedoms of the privileged section of society from which the Conservatives draw the bulk of their support. For those with a weaker position in society, there are all sorts of other powers restricting their lives, but conservative libertarianism isolates government power as the big bad because it’s the one that the privileged perceive as the existential threat. Liberalism can sometimes collude with this by overemphasising the threat of state power and neglecting, for example, corporate and individual power. For conservatives, the veneration of The Market, then provides the rationalisation for this. What they’re saying is “see, we can be left to behave as we like and the greater good will spontaneously emerge” (this is one of the main points of the documentary I linked above.) This is then where the control freakery you identify within public services comes from. The conservative mindset, because it demonises the state and venerates the market, believes that those in public services are inherently untrustworthy, and must be brought into line by imposing a pseudo-market with competion and incentives imposed from on high.

    Localism is part of the solution- as it increases the democratic power of communities and increases the responsiveness of services to those communities- but not all. In my opinion there has to be a balance of different sources of power (state and non-state) and the size of the response has to mirror the size of what it’s regulating. For example, sometimes the state is the only thing that can adequately regulate corporate power and sometime even supra-national authorities are need to properly keep them in check. I also think that the nation state is the best place to codify citizens’ ultimate rights and responsibilities because they command the most historical loyalty, have the most cultural coherence, the monopoly on force and distinct boundaries.

    Ultimately we always have to come to terms with the question of restriction of individual freedom. In fact, the case you link to of the disabled woman and her mother neatly demonstrates that. The immediate response is to blame Social Services and the community, but it appears that the mother rejected the support offered by the Social Services and isolated herself from her neighbours. The question is then, did the authorities have an independent duty of care to her daughter that would have allowed them to imposed themselves, even when she rebuffed them. It also arises from the erosion of community services such as nursing and primary care that could have kept a closer eye on them.

    Sorry for the mega-post, it didn’t seem as long in my head! Again, great article with lots to chew on.

  2. Thanks for that Hannah, that’s really nice of you. Am actually surprised how well this was received, I thought it was a bit of a muddle. I’m obviously more talented than I thought! Will take your paragraphs in reverse order:

    1) I was unsure whether to mention the case of the disabled woman and her mother. I certainly didn’t want to paint it as a “Social Services disaster” case because that’s not how it seems initially. However, I think that the case about the neighbours not checking up on the family when the car hasn’t left the drive etc is a valid one, in terms of the point I was making. If you want to write something about individual liberty in this case, feel free, and I’ll stick it up here 🙂

    2) There does indeed have to be a serious debate over what gets regulated at what level. There was a Lunar discussion a few months ago on the future of the union – I don’t think you were there – and we were talking about what exactly should be controlled by national parliament, a uk parliament etc. Certainly some things need to be set at a national level, but stuff like hospitals, police etc should probably be kept local.

    3) One of Cameron’s main problems is that he seems to think there is THE STATE and THE PEOPLE with nothing in between. Hence his apparent distate for local government. I’d agree with most of your other analysis here.

    4) I’d also agree with your argument about the Big Society. It quite angers me that this is the case, since there’s a potentially great idea buried between layers of dogma and ignorance. And I really must watch The Trap, will probably watch it once I’ve FINALLY finished the West Wing…

  3. Hannah says:

    It’s funny that you mention an article on individual liberty. I was thinking of writing something along those lines- possibly hanging it on the latest Barnardo’s press release on CAFCASS and family court delays.

    • Please feel free to write one! It’d certainly be interesting. There was an interesting discussion on newsnight about stuff like the smoking ban as well that you could reference.

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