Monday, 7 February 2011

How the self-appointed enforcers of the big state are killing Big Society at birth

I want to agree with Julian Dobson. I really do.  For most of the time he understands what Big Society is about. But then he goes and spoils it:

We are already starting to see a big society gathering momentum in response to the cuts. It is coming from campaigns against library closures, to save schemes like Bookstart, to persuade giant corporations to pay their taxes.

This isn’t Big Society. This isn’t reclaiming the independence of communities. This isn’t progress towards a mutual, co-operative, voluntary society. It is instead a sad reminiscence – people campaigning for government from somewhere else, for others to pay for that government. It is almost a repeat of the squadristi enforcing the laws, running the trains and manning the tax offices – because “if the government won’t do it, then we will.”

The worrying thing in all this isn’t the upsurge in activism – we should welcome that – but that this is activism in defence of the state. UK Uncut and others have become the self-appointed enforcers of big government – and are tearing down any hope of a ‘Big Society’ since that revolts against the over mighty state they support.

Liberating society from the constricting, suffocating comfort blanket of centralised state direction was never going to be easy. But advocates of local action like Julian – with their talk of moving “from a centralised, controlling big society to a distributed, cooperative society” – diverge from that objective when they speak of what government should do:

The message to government, meanwhile, is that it’s time to stop lecturing us about your vision of a big society and start engaging on our territory. Come and talk to the public servants who are being made redundant. Speak to the service users who are losing facilities they rely on. Listen to the people who are struggling to make ends meet, worrying about debt, who don’t know what future their children will have.

How will listening to groups who have the simple objective of stopping government withdrawing from provision so community can take over make a Big Society happen? Do people like Julian not appreciate that while community activists, charities and organisers bemoan the cuts, the private service sector – firms like SERCO, Carillion and A4e – are seeing opportunity?

Where are the groups talking to local government about how youth services can be transferred to voluntary sector provision, how community groups can manage libraries, how regulatory services like planning and pollution control can be delivered by social enterprise? Why are activists sitting in shops rather than taking over libraries? How are individual people – those who want something to happen in their street, their village, their back yard – being supported by experienced activists to get on and do that thing rather than being pointed at mere protest?

I am disappointed – cross that destruction from UK Uncut has pushed aside construction from Big Society. That the only solution activists can think of is to yell at government – to hold out the begging bowl, to tug a little harder at the benevolent trouser leg of the state and to tie ourselves ever more tightly to nanny’s apron strings.

There was a time when I hoped that Big Society would give these people the permission to act positively – to build societies fitted to localities, to take control of our places again and to grow out of the need for the grand schemes of centralised government.

It seems I was wrong. Activists want the central, controlling state – which means having the Big Society killed at its birth.

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1 comment:

Julian Dobson said...

Well, Simon, I'd be shocked if you agree with me - but for me a big/good society is one that is able to articulate a view of what government should do, as opposed to government selling a vision of what society should do.

I don't see anything destructive in asking corporates to pay tax on an equitable basis. Quite the reverse: those who argue for it are acting civically.

As for your question about activists doing stuff other than protest, there are numerous examples if you look around. What they lack, though, is the finance, time and energy to take on everything that central and local government have decided they no longer wish to bother with.