Big Society: Big Delusion

TOM MOULE testifies as to why the Big Society is nothing more than a Big Excuse.

big society Cameron conservatives funding government cuts higher education politics tom moule tory

What’s big, hairy and can’t climb trees? The Big Society! Get it? Don’t worry if you don’t, nobody else gets it either. It’s just characteristic of  Cameron’s flagship scheme, which seems to be met with bewilderment every time it rears its head. So why does his defining policy make so little sense to so many of us?

The Big Society claims to be about encouraging people to take a more active role in their communities. This seems intuitive enough; after all, why shouldn’t people lend a helping hand in and around their local area? This ethos is necessary to move towards a greater level of social solidarity. Yet the government seems to have a fairly selective idea of what constitutes being an active member of society. The banding together against Cambridgeshire council’s cuts was not a movement symbolic of the Big Society, but society in general.

The aim is phrased as a change in emphasis; the engine of social change should be social responsibility instead of state legislation. But living in society has always entailed that we take on board some responsibilities. Already, over half of us get involved in voluntary work around our communities. Parents already take an active role in their children’s education, as is clear from the vast sums of parent governors. The idea is to use this as a substitute for state provided services, replacing them with ‘social enterprises’, community run public services like schools. Apparently its time citizens and charities got to work on “tackling deep-rooted social problems.”

The Big Society makes a big adversary in the form of the Big Government. But it is a big delusion to ignore the actual harm that the impact of the withdrawal of state funding will have across the public sector. Just look at the way universities and future students alike will suffer due to the monumental shift towards individualism in higher education. And then there’s the Liverpool council, who have decided to pull out of the Big Society because the severity of government cuts will go against any efforts to improve the social prospects of their citizens.

Dave plays with his Big Society

Don’t pretend this is for deficit reduction; the government won’t see a penny coming in from this until 2016. The cuts will affect the quality of teaching resources too, as has been all too clear at Cambridge, with the loss of the one-on-one supervision for arts students.

Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of community service volunteers, has rightfully condemned the government for decimating the potential of our society’s volunteers, despite trying to claim their central importance. Her justification is that the £1.1 billion cuts in local government funding will make it impossible for charitable organizations to remain afloat. The Conservative manifesto tells us that “Britain has a proud and long-standing charitable tradition, and we are convinced that the voluntary sector should play a major part in our civic renewal.”

This is just characteristic of the rhetoric that is unsupported by progressive funding measures, which makes it hard to see how the Big Society is expected to galvanise volunteers into action.The government’s initiative for new academy schools, is another example. Michael Gove says he wants to empower schools through this initiative, but, in abolishing the ‘Building Schools for the Future’ scheme, he doesn’t seem too bothered about school buildings falling to pieces. How big can a society really be if its representatives won’t bat an eyelid over scrapping such programmes?

The Big Society may sound like a welcome change, however it is just the well picked word “society” with the poorly chosen word “big” in front of it. Beneath the fancy title is in fact a scheme merely designed to make savings. A ruthlessly speedy defecit reduction programme, that will have devastating consequences for our public services, and in many instances make it harder for people to give time to community action. Nothing more lies behind the rallying rhetoric.