I took part in a debate today at the annual voluntary sector event, The Gathering, entitled The Big Society, the Good Society – what future for civil society in Scotland.
My first reaction to David Cameron’s speech on the Big Society was actually quite positive. After all here was a Tory leader using the ‘S’ word when his mentor Margaret Thatcher famously said “I don’t believe in society. There is no such thing, only individual people, and their families”. I quote it in full because some on the right now try and argue she didn’t actually say this.
Sadly my positivity didn’t last long when the Tories came to power. The Big Society quickly became a cloak for the ideological dismantling of the state. Cuts that undermine the voluntary sector as much as public sector and close many of the facilities that are the bedrock of local communities.
I also have a problem with the politics of the Big Society. It claims to support fairness but ignores the economic causes of unfairness. It favours democracy but offers no constitutional reform and it talks about mutualism but remains committed to market mechanisms. In total, it seems to add up to little more than a call for volunteering. It is not surprising that polls show people don’t understand the concept or are sceptical.
So what does this mean for civil society in Scotland? Of course almost all of the actual measures don’t apply in Scotland, but the concept? I argued that we may ditch the Big Society brand, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t debate the concept of society.
I work for a big voluntary organisation. I believe in community and play some part in it by belonging to national and local organisations that reflect issues of concern and interest to me - from climate change to real ale. Sometimes this is just membership support and at other times I take action. That can include practical action including intervening when an elderly neighbour was harassed or getting together with other residents to stop a developer building flats on my local park. I therefore believe in community action, but where do you draw the line between community action and the role of the state?
When my mother comes out of hospital and needs social care we look to support from her GP and Social Work. We want a service that meets her needs but we don’t want the hassle of a budget or a ‘choice’ of providers through direct payments. Although I accept that this may be appropriate for others. Do I want my local library run by volunteers? Probably not. I suspect the worthy committee might want to make decisions on which books to buy that are better left to professional librarians, with their independent standards and access to a network of library services.
You could argue that the solution to that dilemma is with me to participate. But like many people in this over worked society, my time is limited. By the time I get home, eat and have some quality family time, there is little left over. This is reflected in the Big Society polling evidence. When the Big Society is explained people are generally fine with the concept. But when asked if they are prepared to do more they indicate that this is the role of the state. Of course they are less enthusiastic about extra taxation, a paradox often described as Scandinavian services on US tax rates.
There are other paradoxes. We live in an amazing society with new technology, consumer access, greater wealth overall and more tolerance of diversity. On the other hand we have grotesque inequality, poor mental health, rising alcoholism and drug addition. So for me the Good Society is about a much more fundamental change than who runs my local care home or library, important though I think that is. It’s about tackling poverty, the work life balance, improving children’s life chances, protecting our environment and securing the opportunities, as well as meeting the challenges, of an aging population.
Above all it’s about inequality. More equal societies do better on every count. That’s the real ‘Good Society’ and frankly we can’t expect a millionaire Prime Minister, in hock to the hedge fund managers for his party funding, for action on that!