The Big Society – Ideology or Practical Austerity?
“It is exciting to have a real crisis on your hands, when you have spent half your political life dealing with humdrum issues like the environment.” Margaret Thatcher.
In this case Thatcher was referring to the invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentina in 1982. With victory in the South Atlantic Thatcher trounced the opposition in the 1983 general elections and used her overwhelming majority to impose her social and economic policies on Britain. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is interesting is how our current prime minister is exploiting a moment of crisis (although the current Great Recession has lasted much longer than the Falklands War) to drive through ideological change on Britain.
There has been much hullabaloo in recent days, as David Cameron has launched his ‘Big Society’ project as a radical shake-up in how numerous services are delivered to the public.
It is worth reflecting on why at this time the ‘Big Society’ has become a central plank of coalition government policy and its possible origins.
We have now entered an ‘age of austerity’ that will see savage reductions in public spending, to allow for the eventual balancing of the national books, coupled with Cameron’s vision of a Britain run by empowered communities cheerfully running local services. Anyway, this is his BIG IDEA.
What Cameron has not told us is how he arrived at his concept of a ‘Big Society’ and what influenced him to develop this philosophy. To shed light on this requires a brief analysis of how Tory ideology has looked across the Atlantic for inspiration and nourishment.
The Conservative Party has long viewed the US Republican party as kindred spirits and since Thatcher has considered American conservatism as reconcilable to the aspirations of Middle England. Lower taxes? Cut benefits? Free market economics? Mantras of the Tories and Republicans. Nothing new here.
What is interesting is how a recent mantra of the US-right has been taken-up by David Cameron albeit disguised in the form of the ‘Big Society’.
There is a strain of US conservatism that is rabidly opposed to central government and the machinery of government in general. In essence individuals and communities should deliver goods and services and set the rules of the game without the interference of government in a free market. Thus ‘Small Government’ becomes the flipside of the ‘Big Society’ coin.
The parlous state of government finances has provided not only the perfect opportunity for Cameron to implement his vision of a community empowered society but also as a means to foist an American expounded ideology that government is bad and should be marginalised whenever and wherever possible.
The danger with Cameron’s community project is that he fails to understand the role government and the institutions of government play in binding together society as a whole. Take away, or reduce, the glue of national and local government and we run the risk of society fracturing and a growing polarisation between those communities with the ability to self-manage their services and those that do not.
As the old adage goes “out of crisis comes opportunity”. Cameron has not been slow to seize his opportunity but does Britain really want to be a ‘Big Society’ or just to be better governed?