In times of political uncertainty great politicians have been able to ease the concerns of their subjects by indulging in a little bit of harmless populist nationalism. For Conservatives the chance to use a little Winston Churchill-style rhetoric is always too tantalising to pass up, yet as we saw in David Cameron’s speech at the Tory Party Conference, the use of populist nationalism can backfire.
When introducing his concept of a Big Society to a bored and sceptical looking party faithful, the Conservative Party leader called for political power to be taken away from government and put into the hands of the British people. “Your Country Needs You!” was Cameron’s mantra; and moments after he’d uttered these words, across the country hundreds of nerdy amateur political commentators, like myself, were busy on Photoshop trying to convincingly transfer David Cameron’s face onto the famous Lord Kitchener poster.
These stirring words were meant to inspire the Conservative Party into some kind of spirit of national togetherness yet, as many have pointed out, his use of the World War One propaganda catchphrase seems somewhat unfortunate. After all, a man who has become so associated with policies that are widely seen as being unnecessary and destructive should probably not look to evoke the slogan of a government which spent it’s time in power embarking on a policy of unnecessary destruction; no matter how stirring he thinks their slogan may be.
So first of all, what is the Big Society? Well that is a difficult question. Despite his rhetoric about ‘small government’ and ‘people power’, David Cameron hasn’t spent very much time detailing what his Big Society idea actually involves and this lack of detail has left the idea open to heavy criticism from the left. The new Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has savaged the idea saying, “People in the voluntary sector know that, for all the talk of a big society, what is actually on the way is cuts and the abandonment of community projects across Britain.” This view echoes those of many who believe that the Big Society is just a cover for the draconian spending cuts about to come. But is the Big Society really just a Big Con?
At its most basic level, the Big Society promises to give communities more powers, to transfer power from central government to local groups and to foster new relationships between public services and their users. In practice this should mean enabling parents to take a more active role in the running of schools and allowing cooperatives to take over failing public services (i.e. local post offices, library’s etc). What’s more it promises to do all this while also saving money. How very grand.
Indeed the concept, in principle, should be lauded by everyone on the political spectrum, after all who would really stand up and say that they were against strengthening families and encouraging greater community involvement? Meanwhile, those on the left who deride Cameron’s idea of letting community run co-operatives take over failing public services would be well served to remember, as Dianne Abbot has pointed out, “mutual societies and co-operatives (were) the bedrocks of working class self organisation in the nineteenth century”. Yet perhaps the greatest criticism one can have of the Big Society is that its principles seem so palatable to so many.
If Tony Blair’s time in office taught the British electorate anything it taught us that policies that seem to promise the best of everything generally deliver nothing at all. Blair’s ‘Third Way’ principle which promised to combine strong, free-market driven, economic growth with social justice and a strong welfare state, ended up giving us an economic crisis, the largest prison population in western Europe and a partly privatised welfare system.
Ultimately only time will tell whether the Big Society will prove to be the big con that so many people think it will be. For now the best question to ask David Cameron and those in charge of formulating the government’s spending cuts programme is whether, ultimately you can strengthen communities and families through cuts to jobs and benefits.