Britain’s big gamble puts the citizens at the wheel

Published in the Financial Times (December 28th, 2010)

Lady Perry, a former chief inspector of schools in England, uses an anecdote from her time as a young teacher in Canada to explain the concept of the Big Society. It was half-time in a curling match, and she was chatting with fellow players in the hamlet of Grand Coulee. The thaw had arrived after another harsh winter, turning the dirt track to Regina into an impassable quagmire.

In her typically British way, she exclaimed that it was disgraceful they were cut off every year. “We should press for them to build us a proper road.” After a brief pause, one of the locals said: “Pauline, who’s them?” She replied that she didn’t really know, but presumed the provincial or local government should take action. After another pause, a team mate said: “Pauline, round here if we want a road, we build it. Them’s us.”

“Them’s us” sums up the idea of the Big Society with brevity and brilliance. This idea has provoked debate and derision over the course of the year – dismissed as meaningless waffle, condemned as cover for cuts, mocked as a return to Victorian philanthropy and blamed for the Tory failure to win outright at the election.

But UK prime minister David Cameron has remained resolute. He told me as we worked on a speech on the subject just before the election campaign that this was his big idea, and he has stuck to his guns despite sustained sniping. There was surprise that it formed such a large chunk of his party conference speech. Now it is gradually being accepted as the driving force behind a coalition government determined to remould Britain at such pace it is being called ‘Maoist’ – and not just by Vince Cable, the business secretary.

For those wanting a less colloquial explanation, the Big Society is an attempt to transform the relationship between the state and its citizens. Using the weapons of devolution and transparency, it seeks to empower individuals, improve public services that fail the most disadvantaged and reconnect the civic institutions that lie between the people and the state.

So why is the Big Society such a radical idea? As one of its leading proponents in government admits, it is a massive social experiment – stripping power from the state in the expectation that individuals, communities and enterprises will pick up the reins. “As in most such experiments, it is based upon instincts and understanding rather than empirical data,” he says. “It will be two to three years before we begin to see if it is playing itself out properly. But the direction of change will be remorseless and I’m confident it will transform Britain.”

This tussle between the responsibilities of state and citizens is at the centre of political struggles across the west, from France’s battles over pensions to the backlash against Washington in the US. Unsurprisingly, the Big Society ideas – far removed from the rampant individualism of the Tea Party – are being watched with growing interest by moderate Republicans.

In Britain, they fit comfortably with a nation fed up with over-bearing statism and corporate irresponsibility. The latest British Social Attitudes survey revealed growing distrust of both state and big business, combined with a desire for smaller, more local institutions.

One community worker blogged about attempts to bring together locals in a small festival in a park. “It required a 30-page park use form. We were told it may take six months to get permission. Oh, and we’d need public liability insurance. If we wanted to do any kids’ activities we’d need criminal record checks on any volunteers. The police would need to clear the road. We couldn’t serve any food or drink.” They ended up hosting an unofficial event.

There are two strands to the Big Society. First, there are the public service reforms in areas such as education, health, housing and welfare, designed to improve delivery by shifting control from “nationalised” public services to activist users of services, social enterprises, charities, workers’ co-operatives and private companies. The legislation on free schools has already been enacted, with several other key reforms unveiled.

The second strand comprises what are seen as “deeper” reforms, intended to create dynamic new levels of community participation. These are centred around the localism bill published this month, along with planning and policing reforms that will lead to local referendums, a few more elected mayors and the right for communities to buy threatened assets such as pubs and post offices.

“They are not just shifts of substance but will build entirely new forms of social relationships and social capital,” says one minister. “When people have sat together for hundreds of hours and shaped their own community they will form new and more profound relationships.”

These policies are being pushed by a small group of idealists centred in Downing Street, inspired as much by technology as by traditional conservative values. Although dismayed by media scepticism, they have been pleased by Whitehall’s response. Civil service documents are littered with references to the Big Society. Seminars on the topic by Robert Devereux, permanent secretary at the Department for Transport, have been packed.

There has, however, been some resistance from within the coalition. Departmental ministers, supported by town hall politicians, stopped plans to create many more elected mayors and give them tax-raising powers. There has also been “extreme foot-dragging” from the banking industry over the creation of a Big Society bank to be funded by dormant assets.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website, says many party activists still think the Big Society is a silly idea. He is supportive, but worries that the government has failed to bring the idea alive. “You cannot rely on the state to resolve social problems so it really does matter that they succeed,” he says. His biggest fear is that too little is being done to change attitudes in the voluntary sector, arguing that reliance on state funding has led it to mimic the public sector and stifled innovation.

My own experiences battling bureaucracy as the parent of a child with profound disabilities led me to support the idea of devolving power in public services and handing control wherever possible to users. Perhaps the most infuriating criticism is that such ideas only work for the middle classes, which raised its head in the debate over free schools. It seems little more than snobbery to say disadvantaged people are not equipped to run their own lives. Indeed, support for charter schools in America is strongest in the poorest areas, where decades of failure is so evident.

There is growing interest on the left in the Big Society, not least since supporters argue that it could redefine the centre ground by altering people’s relationship with the state. Labour is divided between those wedded to the statism of Gordon Brown and those intrigued by new ideas of community involvement.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, has talked about “taking that term ‘Big Society’ back” and is expected to ask Maurice Glasman, an academic who has championed grassroots politics through the London Citizens charity and talks of the need for a more locally focused “Blue Labour”, to lead this fight. “It’s a challenge to us because we became too removed from people,” says one leading figure. “The idea you pull levers in Whitehall and solve problems in my constituency is self-evidently absurd.”

Slowly but surely, people are starting to understand the Big Society. It has become a catch-all term, but it is also a radical government’s blueprint. “We want to be able to go to the electorate and say we’ve sorted the finances, shifted power and improved public services,” says one minister.

This is a giant gamble – and one that could ultimately define this government far more than the spending cuts.

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