What might Cameron’s big society be?
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.