What might Cameron’s big society be?

Sunday, 25th April 2010 at 16:20 UTC 18 comments

Like many people, I’ve been forced to wonder what on Earth David Cameron means when he talks about “the big society”. Apart from obviously being a reflection of the term “Big Government” it presumably has some other meaning, though its difficult to pick out quite what they have in mind.

We’ve heard about these “active community groups”, though its rather hard to assess what they’re meant to do: are they going to regulate people or institutions? Are they basically a space for Tory apparatchiks to promote opening private schools and closing state schools? This seems to be just about the only other concept we’ve heard about. Somehow I doubt it will be a group empowered to prevent a new Tesco or Sainsbury’s from opening in an area, though its quite possible it will have some involvement in licensing crackdowns.

I’m pretty sure whatever I write about this is going get me accused of "jumping to conclusions”. Given we have two weeks before the Tories want us to decide to vote for them, surely there should be more explanation of the details of such a vision? “Wait and see” is an even worse form of politics than “first past the post”: people should at least know what they’re attempting to vote for. So the only way to get a conclusive view on this vision Cameron has for us all is to take a couple of jumps towards it. After all, we do need to know what he intends to give us in replacement for stripping away social protection.

A recent call for a full “Policing Review” cited the fact that fewer institutions were serving the society’s need for a moral compass, and that greater and greater numbers of police were therefore required to do the job, with PCSOs effectively existing to remind people how they should behave in public in much the way the vicar might have done in years gone by. Perhaps its this supposed vacuum that the Big Society is aimed at addressing.

Don’t lets lose sight of how much damage Labour have done in their social control policies. Alongside all Labour’s successes, it has often chosen to bow to reactionist pressure to crackdown on youth and other areas of society that are seen as ‘problematic’. On my recent trip to Canada I described ASBO’s and other provisions to some of those I met, and the responses were largely based on disbelief. Of course, going camping, detonating fireworks, playing loud music and so forth are rather easier to accomplish in Canada without drawing attention to one’s self in a country where its possible to walk in a straight line for a day and not see a single human. In Canada, anti-social behaviour is more a case of where you do something than if you do something.

But what it all comes down to is this: when I think of conservatives coercing everyone into community groups, I imagine myself having to endlessly try and soften every outcome, knowing that the main aim of the group is to use the ‘majority’ to fight the ‘minority’, to enforce socially conservative values and to ensure the middle-classes police everyone else. I imagine having to put the case for even letting residents of a local squat take part in their community group meetings, or attempting to prevent local bars from being shut down.

I don’t see the Tories giving communities power over the economic conditions in which they live their lives, or the power to politely decline intensive community policing. What the Tories must have in mind, whether they admit it or not, is the assumption that those who turn up to such community groups will blindly vote every reactionary way possible to crack down on social deviancy in every one of its guises.

As a Christian, I also worry that the Tories might be banking of the church to do some of its social policing for it. I meet people every week who are still angry at the historical role of the church as moral police officer to all of society. Whether its marriage or drinking, or any number of other issues, the church’s historical role as source of moral enforcement in society is still loathed, and the church’s relationship with society still soured by that experience. But ask any old school social conservative if they are happy with the diminishing role of the church in this area, and they’ll tell the church isn’t doing its job. Have a theological debate with them, and they’ll look completely baffled. Any assumption the Tories want to empower the church can only be assumed to mean “we want the church to focus on morality and not the gospel”. Essentially, they want a Republican-style Church-as-states-apologist setup, one that even most Anglicans are trying to move away from.

So don’t expect Cameron’s big society to promote free thinking or radical decision making, but rather to ensure that his own views become those of “society”. Just because it sounds empowering, doesn’t mean it will actually involve in critical decision making being passed down.


Entry filed under: Community, Conservatives, Elections, Participation, Politics.

Who cares about “the argument” anyway? Bigotgate: Brown was right first time

18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Greg  |  Sunday, 25th April 2010 at 21:11 UTC

    This is a pretty standard right wing idea, that charity is better than state aid, because members of a more efficient society will have more to give to those less fortunate than themselves. It’s the principle Thatcher expounded from the Good Samaritan, even if her exposition did make me cringe. I’m completely mystified as to the source of your sixth paragraph, my only idea is that it’s baseless scaremongering, which is worrying. Tribal loyalties do not make for a good election.

    • 2. Graham Martin  |  Monday, 26th April 2010 at 16:32 UTC

      Yes, but Greg, do you actually believe that “members of a more efficient society” actually give more, as a percentage of their earnings? As a percentage of their wealth? Do they double their charitable giving, but pocket a vastly bigger wage increase? Do they give away enough to reduce their carbon footprint because they are giving away enough that they can no longer grossly over-consume? I rather think not! Are you going to personally go and encourage these people to “give everything you have to the poor and follow me”?

      Whilst I realise I massively short-handed some of my concerns about these community groups and what they might be empowered to do, I’m at a loss as to what you mean by your “sixth paragraph” comment. What do you mean by tribal loyalties? To Labour? Yes, policy before party, I agree with you. To the marginalised and those challenging prevailing social attitudes? No, I think that is where my loyalty lies.

    • 3. Tom  |  Wednesday, 28th April 2010 at 22:41 UTC

      Not entirely sure if you are disagreeing with Graham or merely stating the obvious that this is a right wing idea? Are you pro-Cameron and his Tories, could you be less elusive?

      It is true that tribal loyalties do not make for a good election but it is also accurate to say that tribal loyalties do trump reason and policy in all British elections

  • 4. Tom  |  Wednesday, 28th April 2010 at 22:37 UTC

    Does big society vanish if their is a big state? In the absence of a state will big society suddenly appear? Does big society not exist now because of the state? Didn’t the state evolve to take on the tasks that society (and a big one at that) was unable to do? Does society have capacity to combat problems created by individualism? Is it the government who can influence the size of society or is society influenced by wider ‘movements’ in history (eg. consumerism, media and belief).

    In truth it is a sound bite, it sounds appealing but has nothing to do with politics.

    • 5. Greg  |  Wednesday, 28th April 2010 at 23:27 UTC

      Graham seems to think that this big society thing is something sinister, whereby Cameron uses ‘community groups’ as a means of increased government control and enforcing his draconian ideas on everyone else. I’ve pointed out that they’re nothing big or scary and that Graham should really read up on the Tories before criticising them.

      If you want to know where I’m coming from, my main belief here is far stronger than my appreciation for any of the three parties this time round, and it is that if you criticise someone, anyone, without knowing your stuff, being certain that you’re accurate and ready to back up your case, you are morally the lowest of the low and deserve to be taken down. Graham does this on far to many occasions, and it really annoys me.

      As for the origins of the state? I’m not a great historian but believe it involved kings, armies and power games.

      • 6. Tom  |  Thursday, 29th April 2010 at 11:16 UTC

        Fair enough about your reasons for posting. Re-reading my comment I was probably a bit aggressive in suggesting you be less elusive.

        I think you are right about the emergence of the state. However, I would argue there has been something of a transition in the enlightenment era about the reason for the state, even if this is non-existant in many countries and corrupted to an extent else-where.

        I think the state has come to be a system of management that is necessary and I would argue that many developing nations are characterised by firstly corrupt politicians and secondly a lack of state capacity to provide any form of equity. This is often linked to an inability of a state to implement a taxation system. In the place of the State then foreign N.G.O.s come and have to fill the role of state. This creates problems in that the foreign N.G.Os arrive with insufficient understanding of the area they are working in and often their own ideas about what the area they work in should look like. It is rare that these NGOs work together with one vision and often they become competitors. This also often leads to dependency.

        Many of these countries have ‘large societies’ (sorry to be vague about specific examples).

        So my point is that the state, although it has a crappy history and still does, can become the servant to the people and a efficient management system allowing structure and cohesion to activities that society cannot, and will not perform.

  • 7. Greg  |  Wednesday, 28th April 2010 at 23:01 UTC

    What I meant is what I said. I don’t see any source for the paranoia in your sixth paragraph, either in the Tories’ manifesto or in previous policy, so I can only assume that you’re either bound by prejudice or you’re scaremongering. A bound, prejudiced opinion is of no value, it’s a pity you’re still allowed a vote.

    I also love how you’re arguing against people being empowered! And what comes next, people get richer and you think that’s bad too, because their carbon footprints will increase. I’ll tell you what, how about we try and sell a government which promises to make everyone poorer and less empowered, that’ll go down a storm.

    The best bit is that you’re scared of a ‘big society’ but I remember you arguing the exact opposite here: https://grahamsgrumbles.wordpress.com/2010/01/15/community-snow-clearing-labour-or-tory/ about Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” interview (misquoting her, showing you hadn’t read the interview but were proof texting). You’ve made the same response to what you thought were two opposite options, so you’re either dishonest or you’re living in fairly land, or you really need to grow up. Which is it to be?

    • 8. Tom  |  Sunday, 2nd May 2010 at 14:51 UTC

      I don;t want to speak for Graham, but again the questions above apply. How can Cameron create a big society by limiting government? I imagine that most people have a problem not with the idea of a big society but about the rationality behind suggesting that society does not exist because of big government.

      I could start a political discourse arguing that we need less government and more carrot cakes. The 2 are not linked but I could argue that we have not had enough carrot cakes because the government is too big. Why is no one questioning his logic? The real reason for a lack of carrot cakes is more likely to do with a lack of ovens, or cook books, or carrots.

      The other argument for me is- do we want to be empowered to run schools etc.. teachers I know have enough trouble with know it all parents telling them what to do, with no knowledge of reality.

  • 9. Helen  |  Saturday, 1st May 2010 at 22:31 UTC

    Greg, don’t wish away someone’s right to vote, for whatever reason, that’s kind of the point of democracy.

  • 10. Helen  |  Saturday, 1st May 2010 at 22:39 UTC

    Greg, don’t wish away anyone’s right to vote, for any reason. That’s kind of the point of democracy. People who wish for tyranny, even a better organised, more sensible tyranny, shouldn’t complain if that’s what they get. And I know you would complain, so stop doing it 🙂

  • 11. Helen  |  Saturday, 1st May 2010 at 22:47 UTC

    Greg, don’t wish away anyone’s right to vote, for whatever reason. That’s the point of democracy. Anyone who wishes for tyranny deserves to be its first victim. So a bit less of that, please 🙂

  • 12. Helen  |  Saturday, 1st May 2010 at 23:53 UTC

    Argh, stupid phone kept telling me it was an invalid address, hence three very similar comments. Graham, could you delete a couple of them? I think the last is best 🙂

  • 13. Greg  |  Tuesday, 4th May 2010 at 20:19 UTC

    Helen, you lefties are so in love with banning things :p Of course I don’t want Graham to be banned from voting, for all the obvious reasons. There are ups and downs to every system and I really don’t need to mention the ups for universal democracy, which outweigh the downs. The downs are, however, genuine, and they include that lots of people vote for the wrong reasons, such as Graham with his tribalism.

    Tom, CallMeDave is trying to create a big society by encouraging people to think that way. You may have noticed he’s touring the country in a bus right now, speaking to lots of people about it. More seriously, the Tories’ own description is at http://www.conservatives.com/Policy/Where_we_stand/Big_Society.aspx right at the top of their manifesto, two clicks away from their homepage. I hope you are actually trying to find things out, rather than score points here?

  • 14. Helen  |  Tuesday, 4th May 2010 at 21:51 UTC

    Greg, I am surprised at you, you’ve made an obvious logical fallacy. If I criticise you for something you say, you can’t criticise me for something I theoretically might’ve said 🙂
    Graham, have you stopped being an anarchist? You seem to think we need government to make us do things? I hate to say it but Greg’s a better anarchist than you… 🙂

  • 15. Greg  |  Tuesday, 4th May 2010 at 22:06 UTC

    Helen, I’ve been pointing out Graham’s inconsistencies for awhile now, I await his conversion to free market economics as part of his return to true anarchism. However, I’ve made no error. You said I was wishing away Graham’s right to vote. I wasn’t, I wouldn’t deprive him of that. In my semi-ideal world he’d realise his inadequacies and exclude himself. Of course, in my ideal world he’d get over himself and take a more objective view – see my current Facebook status.

  • 16. Helen  |  Thursday, 6th May 2010 at 23:30 UTC

    Ah, forgive me for making an assumption based on what you said rather than what you meant… You said it was a pity Graham was allowed a vote, thereby, however humorously, suggesting that you’d view taking away Graham’s right to vote as good thing… Then you suggest I’m in love with banning things cause I’m a lefty? I didn’t ban you, I just told you not to. I assume that as a free agent you can decide whether you should follow my instructions.

  • 17. Greg  |  Friday, 7th May 2010 at 13:32 UTC

    Ah but you see Helen, that only works if you operate inside a leftie big state framework. I didn’t say I wanted to ban Graham from anything, I said it was a pity he was allowed to vote. “Something is bad => we must regulate/ban it” is not a foregone conclusion, even though the last government don’t seem to have ever learned that. Something may be a pity, but I don’t intend to do anything about it becuse that’s not my place. Since you made the same mistake as Nu Labour et al, it seems you’re operating within the same framework as them, hence my comment aimed at you. It’s a smaller logical leap than you made.

  • 18. Helen  |  Friday, 7th May 2010 at 14:36 UTC

    I’m trying to do the gymnastics you’re clearly doing where defending the right of everyone to vote is being in love with banning things.
    I’ve come to this conclusion; you’re an idiot.


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