Tuesday, 20 July 2010

too glib to say Community Politics is the same as the Big Society?

Mary Whitehouse, Hyacinth Bucket and Pierre Poujade would all have welcomed the big society launch yesterday and most of all Eric Pickles banal championing of it. I am not sure that the glib assertion that the Big Society is just Community Politics by another name or even less convincingly that it is just Liberalism can be sustained.

There are obvious concerns about how universally these ideas can be applied. Coming home from work late last night I stopped of at the ‘take away’ to get some food. I was served by a woman I recognised from her day job. She is not alone in having to hold down two jobs in order to balance the family budget. It is not my experience that the working poor are idle but- rather like their US counterparts –they work incredibly long hours. I observe anecdotally that that is particularly true of women. I therefore really doubt that they can spare the time to join Cameron’s new model army of volunteers and does that mean if they can’t spare the time to run the local library it shuts?

I sincerely doubt that the Tory women who relish the idea have much understanding of social disadvantage. I remember long and difficult debates on Cheshire County Council when such women railed against childcare initiatives because there was no need for them. They hadn’t used them, but rather they had clubbed together with their friends when they wanted a day out and could not comprehend that others may lack the resources to do so. I see no strategy to address that problem.


Social disadvantage is one anxiety concerning this ‘big idea’. A second is the misunderstanding of Voluntary Action. Personally I have always preferred Beveridge’s definition. Folk are often fond of calling Bveridge in aide when they want to promote some vast national state run welfare provision. It is true that in his youth he did come under the influence of the Webbs with their propensity to champion bureaucratic state solutions, but listen to Beveridge in 1948 when he is a Liberal :

‘I take as the characteristic of Voluntary Action independence from public control. …’voluntary was normally used to denote ‘unpaid’. A ‘voluntary worker’ was someone who gave unpaid service to a good cause………In recent years there has been a significant shift of meaning here. Nowadays many of the most active voluntary organisations are staffed entirely by highly trained and fairly well paid professional workers, The distinctively ‘voluntary’ characteristic of such bodies is the product , not of the kind of workers they employ, but of their mode of birth and method of government. A voluntary organisation properly speaking is an organisation which, whether its workers paid or unpaid, is initiated and governed by its own members without external control.

We have all become so used to New Labour’s ruthless desire to dominate every nook and cranny of civic life that it sounds almost daring and forbidden to suggest that independent and self directed organisations should operate. Surely they should sign up to an Area Agreement to govern their actions. Listen again to another Liberal Jo Grimond writing in a pamphlet published by the YLs in 1973:

‘The salient feature of British politics is not the conflict of class and class pr Tory and Liberal and Labour , though these conflicts exist, it is the conflict between the government and the governed. Part of the success of the Liberal Party is not only due to its adoption by many as a means of protest. It is that it is associated with the governed. This is, or should be, the root of community politics.’

Of course there are some things in the big society that everyone would endorse. Some of us would like to see a more decentralised welfare society grow up which was not dependent on such a heavy hand of central government but one in which to quote Grimond again is ‘mobile, elective, participating and personal,….in which argument and dissent are appreciated and which welcomes eccentricity, abhors conformity and the lowest common denominator. None of which reminds me of many the Tories I have met in the last 40 years.

There is so much missing from this vision. How come we can no longer talk about the decentralisation and democratisation of work? For generations Liberals constantly argued for the common ownership of industry. Richard Wainwright used to regularly urged Liberal Assemblies to adopt policies in which ‘labour hired capital’. We are now stuck with one dominant model of the firm. If we want to democratise our society this would be a good place to start.

We have made the case that England is one of the most centralised states in the Western world.  I am not convinced that these small scale operations will be able to stand up to the power of that state. Local government can’t. The line between Whitehall and the village post office is so long. In Cameron new state there is no countervailing power no check or balance on the actions of the state.  Just because Prescot-a politician that reminds me so much of Pickle in that he was failure in government but lauded in opposition-screwed up devolution in England does mean that it wasn’t a good idea. I have always struggled with the idea that academies or direct grant schools were ‘freed from local government ‘ but are now in chains to central government to whom they have no chance of standing up.

There is a Liberal dimension to this debate, it emphasises redistribution of resources. We have become too mealy mouthed about economic inequalities in our society. Just because the last Labour government failed to tackle the problem doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

Beveridge back in ’48 imagined a welfare society where control and power was decentralised and folks lives were enhanced by the independent exercise of that power. It is worth reading those early chapters of Voluntary Action the vision it conjures up would certainly have given Mrs Whitehouse no comfort. As Grimond said when commenting on such notions:

..direct democracy has often been used by people who do not believe in democracy at all. Further populism, admirable in many ways, can spill over into fascim’



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