Lansons Conversations

Whatever Happened to the Big Society?

The 2010 General Election was remarkable for its illusory approach to our national status. While our leaders spoke about the debt mountain, it remained a somewhat abstract concept as a result of their failing to say which public services would be cut to help balance the budget. Otherwise Messrs’ Brown and Cameron took every opportunity to publicly agree with Nick Clegg, a man whose party they had formally decried for its inability to be a serious player in Government.

Amidst this sea of obfuscation one shining example of a new policy stood out and this was David Cameron’s extolling of the “Big Society” or “BS”, as abbreviated for this newsletter. The BS was described by David Cameron as being about:

“a huge culture change…where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace…don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face …but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities. It’s about people setting up great new schools. Businesses helping people getting trained for work. Charities working to rehabilitate offenders. It’s about liberation -the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.”

Over the past four years the BS has been subject to a combination of ridicule and erudite debate; with the negative side focused on whether it was all spin to start with and the positive side seeking to use it as a means of defining the role of the State in 21st century Britain.

This philosophical discussion has now been transcended by the floods of 2014, with politicians and communities having to revisit the role of the State in the most stressful of circumstances. One can only imagine how David Cameron would have fared if, instead of arraigning the powers of the State to support flooded communities, he suggested that peopled “help(ed) themselves and their own communities” and did not “turn to…central government for answers to problem they face”.

The stark reality as faced by Coalition Ministers and their Labour Shadows alike is that people expect the State to provide help when they need it and this ranges from those in flooded communities to the elderly seeking long-term care funding. People believe that this is what they pay their taxes for and should rightfully expect in a civilised society; it is their contract with the State and one that remains inviolable, in albeit the most exceptional of circumstances.

Given this premise the BS policy concept, as advocated by David Cameron in 2010, is made redundant as a workable means of delivering critical public services; whether in the case of national emergencies or on a routine basis in local communities.

The problem for Ed Miliband is that to date he has shown no alternative agenda to the BS. This is noticeable in his response to the flooding crisis, which has focussed on the failure of politicians to grapple with climate change, as opposed to stating how Labour would have done things differently. His policy default mechanism would formerly have been to refer to a need for stronger State and a greater investment of taxpayers’ money in flood defences – as opposed to David Cameron’s “Smithian” reliance on an “invisible hand”. This option is no longer open, leaving Labour just as vulnerable as the Conservatives on the touchstone issue of who would govern best.

So the question as we look towards the 2015 General Election remains similar to that faced in reality in 2010 i.e. which party or parties are best able to manage the Government of the UK? I still believe that this remains too close to call, with the only certain factors now being that the BS is no longer a runner and people are now less likely to “agree with Nick”.

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