Jeremy Browne writes: Why liberals should support the Big Society

I am instinctively very supportive of the Big Society. But it is not a new concept and I have another name for it. I call it liberalism.

My liberalism is a belief that power should start at the bottom and feed upwards. It is about personal empowerment, choice and, sometimes, quirky individualism. It is about self-pride, community and, often, a suspicion of authority. It is human in scale and organic in its development.

I have a nervous attentiveness to the need to protect this precious but delicate grassroots liberalism from the steam-roller of the overbearing state. What my liberalism is emphatically not is authoritarian or bleakly conformist. It does not idealise the placing of power at the top in the hands of the mighty and then working downwards. It is instinctively unsettled by orthodoxy and drab uniformity.

Those who are hostile to the Big Society have caricatured it as the abandonment by the state of those most reliant on essential services. They argue that only the top-down, all-knowing, one-size-fits-all centralised state can save us. They are wholly pessimistic about the capacity of people to be creative, independent and generous-spirited. We must, they argue, all be forced into a centrally moulded template for our own good.

But the Big Society is not a rejection of any role for the state; just of the assumption that the state should be the starting point when seeking to resolve any problem. It recognises that an over-weaning state can suffocate individual or community endeavour. Sometimes the state is better suited to being an enabler rather than a direct provider. Nor is it an attempt to ‘claim credit’ for small acts of existing charity. Quite the opposite: it seeks to encourage those acts to multiply.

After the budget has been brought back into balance, the public sector in Britain will still be spending a higher proportion of national income than it was during most of Labour’s time in office. To claim that the Big Society is code for the wholesale dismantling of the state is an unfounded and silly paranoia.

The Big Society can have many manifestations, both big and small. The hospice in my constituency gets less than 20% of its funding from the NHS. It relies on voluntary contributions of time and money. Many people who make that commitment are grateful for the care that their relative received at the hospice. They feel a personal bond with the organisation, as do many in the wider community. What’s wrong with that? The hospice is neither discriminatory in its admissions nor a threat to other health services. Its contribution to the community is no less valid because it is not wholly reliant on state funding or direction. We should celebrate it.

We should go further, looking at how communities can best manage their areas in ways that make them feel safer and happier. And right down to the individual level, rather than looking to the state to always solve difficulties, people can make a positive difference themselves.

Someone recently complained to me that her grandson had to clear the snow from her pathway. But why is that wrong? People have been helping their elderly relatives for thousands of years. It is part of what makes us human. Why should the state be expected to usurp the role of the family, or the kindly neighbour? Of course some isolated or lonely people need additional assistance, and the state is a potential provider of this service, but the essential task of making sure that everyone is looked after should not be confused with the nationalisation of compassion.

What can make liberalism hard to explain is that, unlike most political philosophies, its principal objective is not to do things to people. Instead liberalism aims to empower people to do things for themselves. It is a liberating rather than a prescriptive idea. To be antagonistic towards this notion requires a depressingly pessimistic view of the human condition. Rather than being a cause for resentment or friction, the liberalism of the Big Society should be both unifying and inspiring.

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42 Comments

  • Julia Hayward 14th Feb '11 - 5:33pm

    “Those who are hostile to the Big Society have caricatured it as the abandonment by the state of those most reliant on essential services. They argue that only the top-down, all-knowing, one-size-fits-all centralised state can save us.”

    Completely false dichotomy, I’m afraid. Empowering people to do things for themselves is all very laudable, but there are a lot who need resources to be empowered, not just the freedom from state interference. No amount of exhortation to community spirit will, for example, provide a scheduled bus service for those who have no access to a car. There is an alternative to the centralised state and the laissez-faire Big Society, and that is proper democratic and accountable local government, a concept which seems to be anathema to both Tory and Labour and which both have been complicit in dismantling and discrediting.

  • For you to quote the local hospice as the successful embodiment of your liberalism/big society shows just why the whole thing is deeply flawed.

    Whilst hospices across the country do fine work and are real assets to the often very wide communities they serve, they’re unfortunately very limited in the number of beds they have to offer – if there are too many patients for the number of beds then people get left waiting. When you’re talking about terminally ill patients in enormous amounts of pain caused by cancer and/or organ failure do you not see the problem? They just don’t have the luxury of waiting time.

    Supposing they lose that significant NHS funding (in say, the next round of cuts – think Ireland) then that’s fewer beds again and the excess patients will need somewhere to go.

    The big society is already with us but it needs the security of central government funding to carry out it’s mission effectively.

  • See, this article is a good example of why so many Labour people loathe the Lib Dems, and why your poll ratings have plunged so low. It’s one thing to just silently watch the Tories do their Tory things, like junior partners in other European coalitions might do; it’s quite another to actively defend it, making excuses, claiming that it’s “fair” and in tune with Lib Dem values. Back when the emergency Budget and Comprehensive Spending Review were done, when the Lib Dems were still respected (before the tuition fees saga when their standing went into freefall), it’s conceivable that, had the likes of Clegg and Simon Hughes not actively defended them and claimed fairness was “hard-wired” into them, there would’ve been a backlash from people and the Tory agenda might’ve been stopped there and then – but they’ve chosen to actively help them achieve it.

  • Andy Robinson 14th Feb '11 - 6:18pm

    “Those who are hostile to the Big Society have caricatured it as the abandonment by the state of those most reliant on essential services. They argue that only the top-down, all-knowing, one-size-fits-all centralised state can save us. They are wholly pessimistic about the capacity of people to be creative, independent and generous-spirited.”

    So taking a position that’s different from yours and reducing it to a crude caricature in order to attack is a bad thing, then?

    Regardless of what position you take on this issue, I think the sheer hypocrisy of that statement neatly sums up my absolute frustration with modern politics. Why bother with intelligent discussion of an issue when you can just attack as anyone who disagrees with you?

  • Bless. Someone in parliament telling us the ‘ big society’ has to come from the bottom up.

    Can you really not see the contradiction ?

    Grassroots change isn’t imposed from above. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

    (just had a call from the local special needs support group, manned by volunteers, telling me my son’s funding has been cut for next year.. dont suppose you’d like to take him in jezza ?)

  • Its borne from a lie.

    If you were really interested in this concept you would encourage it, help it to flourish and then cut back state contribution when the need was no longer there.

    But of course, you can dismiss that as ‘silly paranoia’ I would dismiss this article as ‘ arrogant hypocrisy’ in much the same way.

  • The Big Society is simply a catchy name to mask a right-wing cuts agenda. Tories and rightist LibDems (those currently at the top of the party) are determined to do what Thatcher did not – really cut back the state for ideological reasons. This will not hurt the Tory party because this is what is expected of them. It will destroy the LibDems; great and irreparable damage has already been done by the likes of Mr Browne, and the real electoral collapse has yet to come. I wonder how many seats the Liberal Democrats would have won at the general election had they fought it on the right-wing platform that they now advocate. Six?, nine perhaps? Let me put it this way – if the LibDems had a manifesto at last election that advocated huge public service cuts, cuts to workers’ rights, trebling of tuition fees, privatising chunks of the NHS, selling of woodland, allowing bankers to continue huge bonuses whilst cutting benefits for the poor etc. etc., I would never have voted for them in a thousand years, and there would have been many thousands like me. And that for the LibDems is the future.

  • Grammar Police 14th Feb '11 - 6:52pm

    To be fair all Jeremy said was “To claim that the Big Society is code for the wholesale dismantling of the state is an unfounded and silly paranoia” – which is exactly true.

    @ Andy Robinson, do you not realise the irony of your statement? You’re caricaturing his comments just as much as you imagine he is caricaturing those who disagree with the big soc . . .

    Same goes for @ Terry gee.

    The idea behind the ‘Big Society’ and the need for cuts are entirely seperate. If the economy wasn’t in such a state then cuts would not need to be made on the scale they need to be made.

    Helping people to help themselves is a good thing to do whether or not the Government is flush with cash!

  • In that case why are the government reducing support for organizations that I rely on that epitomise the ideals of a big society ?

    Oh yeah. You support the ‘silly paranoia’ argument. Makes any further discussion redundant doesnt it ?

  • It’s all very well arguing that we should emulate the U.S. model of society but in that case why did you join a party committed to social democracy?

  • Grammar Police 14th Feb '11 - 7:51pm

    You’re just proving my point Terry; only happy arguing against straw men.

    I think there are perfectly valid grounds to object to both the concept of the Big Society and how it’s being implemented, and also to the way the cuts are being handled. You haven’t raised any though, you seem to prefer to just sit and snipe. As I said, the Big Society idea and the cuts are actually two distinct things. They’re not connected.

    There are a couple of points that I might make to the question of why “the Government” are reducing support to organisations you rely on that epitomise “the ideals of a big society”.

    The cuts are happening because of the state of the economy following the global downturn and certainly not helped by Labour post-2007. I’ve no idea which organisations you’re referring to and don’t want to insult anyone, but perhaps, just perhaps, not everyone agrees with you that said organisations are the best use of the available money **when compared with other cuts that might have to be made instead**.

    Another possibility is that the cuts are being badly made by a local Council (for example, my own Labour-run council is proposing to cut money for freedom passes for those with mental illnesses – but is willing to find £5million to pay for a new system of wheelie bins).

  • Patrick Smith 14th Feb '11 - 7:51pm

    The so called `Big Society’ is not the same thing as building stronger more cohesive local communty but it does to be fair to the `new politics’ espoused by Mr Cameron embrace some positive elements of liberalism at `grass-roots’.

    The `Big Society’ remains a vague concept and has escaped any attempt at a pithy defintion by any politician including our own JB in this piece.

    If `Big Society’ means anything it is allegedly , `to create a climate that empowers local people and communities,building a big society that will take power from politicians and give it to people’.

    As a Liberal I welcome the dismantling of the monolithic and authoritarian State that has stripped local people over recent years of their local neighbourhood birthrights, in favour of opaque non evidenced format for decision making in the Town Hall.

    I want to know for example how local people can measure their new local led empowerment in terms of ability of local councils to raise and set a fair business rate in line with consultation with the business community?

    I also ask about what local powers are being given to local communities on planning consent,recall and making data transparent and accessible to the residents and open to scrutiny?

    Nick Clegg has led the debate well on the new Localism and Freedom Bills and local residents should offer their views and comments as the legislation is taken through Parliament.

    In LBWF the ill advised Labour led Council have voted to abolish the popular locally accountable neighbourhood based Community Councils, that enabled local people to listen to and question local government officers in an open public forum on local services and resources, including schools,libraries and road safety.

  • The Big Society threatens both the Little Society and Individual. Collective action, in line with what our party stands for, should be conducted in a democratic and therefore inclusive way. Big Society risks being exclusive and un-democratic.

    The Little Society, the individual, and the democratic, inclusive ‘state’ or society or group or community do not need a ‘Big Society’ to flourish.

    And as much as we may hate the state, where it is democratically accountable, it is much more legitimate than the group of individuals I profoundly disagree with who have just won the contract on my local hospital.

  • *just to clarify, ‘they’ haven’t won the contract on my hospital, but I am using hyperbole to make the broader point…

  • I see no Iceberg 14th Feb '11 - 8:18pm

    “The Big Society” is almost as good as “Alarm Clock Britain”.
    The public aren’t going to change their mind about it no matter who many times Cameron relaunches it, and this is the third time he’s tried BTW. Good luck with this P.R. disaster hanging over the coalitions head in May.

  • @I see no Iceberg – except that ‘alarm clock britain’ actually has qutie a lot of value and purpose behind it which I support (certain rights etc…), wheras the Big Society has a value and purpose I am not happy with. I wouldn’t casually dismiss them quite like that if I were seeking to make a valuable and constructive point.

  • I see no Iceberg 14th Feb '11 - 8:48pm

    I would Henry.
    If you think Alarm Clock Britain was such a success then why haven’t we heard any more from Clegg about it ?

    Meaningless Public Relations Spin is still meaningless Public Relations Spin.

    We heard enough of this rubbish from Blair to last a lifetime so it’s not going to fly second time around from the mouths of Cameron or Clegg.

  • David from Ealing 14th Feb '11 - 8:57pm

    So what are Jeremy Browne’s views on the cuts in the libraries service in Somerset? My mother, who is no longer with us, lived near Wellington. When she could drive she used the library in Wellington and the mobile library – she had a huge appetite for books. At the age of 79 she had an accident and couldn’t drive any more. She then had to use only the mobile library. Now the County Council is proposing cutting the number of mobile libraries from 6 to 2.

    Volunteers are useful, but they are no replacement for professional, qualified librarians. As someone who grew up in Somerset and who works in a library which has a number of volunteers – and depends on them for many of its operations – I know that. Liberal Democrats need to take a stand on this issue. Libraries are an essential service and once they are gone they are gone. As someone with 39 years membership – which began in Somerset – I feel that many of the good things in our society are being torn apart by the Government, of which we are part.

    There are parts of the Big Society which are good – but please let’s not go along with everything the Government proposes. If that’s the case we might as well pack up and vote Tory.

  • “As I said, the Big Society idea and the cuts are actually two distinct things. They’re not connected. ”

    This just isn’t true. David Cameron and George Osborne are cutting so much because of ideological reasons for a small state / “big society” (and the Liberal Democrat useful idiots in the Cabinet are too stupid to see this). Look at what Francis Maude said on Question Time said last week: “the big state has failed; people have to realise they can’t rely on government to keep doing all they’ve done”.

    Encouraging volunteering and community action as EXTRAS to what government do for the most vulnerable in society are very positive things – but that’s not what Cameron’s “Big Society” is about – he thinks government should withdraw completely from helping people, and that the poor should be entirely at the mercy of charity and volunteers. In Cameron’s view, if there’s enough volunteering in an area for the poor to be helped, then great; but if there isn’t, then the poor will just have to lump it – in Cameron’s view, it would be a price worth paying. And call this paranoid all you want – again, just watch Maude on QT.

    People who say the cuts are undermining Cameron’s BS don’t actually understand what the BS is about – they are very much one and the same – why do you think Cameron and Osborne have regularly said the cuts are permanent but the 50p tax rate isn’t?

    And I’m someone who voted Lib Dem in 2005, and considered it last year… never again.

  • …. They are wholly pessimistic… for the wholesale dismantling of the state is an unfounded and silly paranoia…. To be antagonistic towards this notion requires a depressingly pessimistic view….. Rather than being a cause for resentment or friction…

    This sadly is another of those arguments that Ive seen trotted out lately – it’s not what we are doing is wrong, we’re not going to argue the politics of it – it’s just you that the rest of you are all so confused and depressed about the whole thing…..

    I’m just confused and depressed by waffle.

  • Grammar Police 14th Feb '11 - 10:29pm

    @ Daniel perhaps you should read this: http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2010/12/02/6080/

  • Ed The Snapper 14th Feb '11 - 10:39pm

    The “Big Society” is just an excuse by millionaire politicians to replace paid local government workers with unpaid volunteers. People will be given a stark choice: either your local service (eg library, post office) will be closed completely or you will have to do all the work yourself (unpaid). Already poor people will have to give up more of their precious time. You won’t see any cabinet ministers giving up their (highly paid) time, though. Most people already do a lot to help their friends and neighbours. They don’t need a politician based in Westminster to tell them to do so.

  • “@ Daniel perhaps you should read this: http://labour-uncut.co.uk/2010/12/02/6080/

    Perhaps you should watch Francis Maude on Question Time. Incidentally, like I said, I’m someone who’s voted Lib Dem in the past, so I can hardly be characterised as a Labour tribalist. But I guess Lib Dems are still in the grip of Stockholm syndrome and will only see what they want to see…

  • Ed The Snapper 14th Feb '11 - 11:03pm

    “To claim that the Big Society is code for the wholesale dismantling of the state…”

    Can Jeremy Browne tell readers of LDV who has made this incredible claim?

  • D from E.

    I think you raise some interesting points here. They are as follows:

    – are libraries an “essential service”?
    – given budget constraints, if they are essential, what other services/council-funded activity should be dropped before Libraries?
    – should local taxes be raised if central government grants are reduced?
    – who ultimately should be accountable for local government spend?

    My personal view is that central government grants to local government go against Liberal principles of devolving power downwards. Local politicians should be responsible for raising and spending on local services, and accountable to their electorates (with a fair voting system).

    And that, I think, is the problem. All these issues are interconnected and need fixing together. If we had a fair voting system and greater local tax-raising vs central tax raising, then local politics would actually matter more to the majority rather than being, as it currently is, a minority sport. Then, if local politicians spent too much on Chief Exec salaries and outreach co-ordinators rather than on libraries, their local electorates could have the final say on them.

  • Matthew Huntbach 14th Feb '11 - 11:42pm

    Browne, like other Tories, really hasn’t a clue why the sort of attitudes that encourage what they now call “Big Society” have dwindled over the years.

    They blame the state, but they can’t see the real villain is big business and the way it encourages us to be passive couch potatoes. Browne and other Tories moan about people expecting the state to do things, but they don’t moan about people expecting big business to provide them with things that communities used to provide co-operatively themselves. People sit watching Murdoch TV and reading the Murdoch press, all of which encourage them to be morons.

    The sort of dog-eat-dog “isn’t it fun and freedom that we’re all worried sick about being thrown out of our jobs next year?” society the cluless millionaires encourage – because they have enough money and contacts that mean losing a job isn’t a real worry – is the death of any “Big Society” attitudes. People who are worried sick about losing their jobs, who are having to put more and more hours in thanks to “the cuts” meaning those still in work carry on until they drop exhausted, don’t have time and energy to go out and volunteer to do other things. That sort of thing requires people to have stable jobs and home lives, so they can feel confident to take it a bit easy at work and so have time and energy for volunteering. People who are paying puffed up house prices, because we were all encouraged to join in this puffing up because owning a house with an uncomfortably large mortgage is “investment” or “climbing the housing ladder” (and the council house alternative was taken away) can’t afford to do anything but work at their paid jobs and drop exhausted at the end of the day.

    This is what real life is like for real people. Tories can’t se this, because they are clueless millionaores, totally out of touch. I wish our country wasn’t run by such people.

  • Ed The Snapper 14th Feb '11 - 11:53pm

    From Matthew Huntbach: “People who are worried sick about losing their jobs, who are having to put more and more hours in thanks to “the cuts” meaning those still in work carry on until they drop exhausted, don’t have time and energy to go out and volunteer to do other things. That sort of thing requires people to have stable jobs and home lives, so they can feel confident to take it a bit easy at work and so have time and energy for volunteering.”

    You have hit the nail on the head. I salute you, sir. Should I work overtime this sunday or should I work with my scout group? That is exactly the dilemma that I face.

  • The game is up, the lib dems are led by free market neoliberals

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/feb/14/liberal-democrats-ditched-leftwing-voters?commentpage=2#start-of-comments

    TIme to reverse the 1988 SPD-liberal merger

  • JustAnotherVoter 15th Feb '11 - 9:47am

    As a life-long LD voter, I find it inspiring that MPs have the courage to write and talk about liberalism like this – real liberalism. I feel compelled to comment after reading the disheartening attacks above. The liberalism you discuss here is exactly what I voted for, Mr Browne.

  • I see no Iceberg 15th Feb '11 - 11:05am

    Strange that Mr Browne should come out for this so forcefully when it’s common knowledge in Cowley Street that even Clegg thinks this is a disaster and is an entirely Tory initiative.

  • You are right that many of the declared aims of the Big Society chime with Liberal vlaues of self-empowerment and grass-roots community spirit. However, you blithely dismiss as “paranoid” fears that Cameron’s rhetoric is merely cover for massive cuts and the dismantling of the welfare state. Obviously there are many things wrong with the welfare state as Labour left it, and it is it right that action is taken to counter the culture of benefit dependency that flourished under the last government. But so far all the speeches have not produced an alternative. I am currently on my gap year. Whilst planning my year I decided I wished to spend part of it volunteering in the UK. I applied for a placement with Community Service Volunteers (CSV), pledging 4-6 months of my time. I was initially given a warm reception and told there would certainly be a place for me. That was in September. I wished to volunteer between January and June. Despite my repeated enquiries, a placement has never materialised. You see, although no salary is paid, the projects do have to provide subsistence money and accomodation. This money supposedly comes mostly from government. And now, apparently, there is no more money coming from government. Bog Society in action? I think not.

  • I think Liberal Democrats need to take a step back and consider the differences between what Liberal Democrats believe the “Big society” means, and what the Conservatives define it to be, because each day it seems to change and the latest version from Mr Cameron is pure Conservative rhetoric from the 80s and 90s

    http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/Politics/David-Cameron-Big-Society-Prime-Minister-Takes-A-Gamble-With-Relaunch-Of-Initiative/Article/201102215930423

    but I am sure it will mean the same thing in the end….

  • In my opinion the PMs ‘Big Society’ idea is akin to reinventing the wheel, but it’s being reshaped as square.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Feb '11 - 9:12pm

    A Brown

    The game is up, the lib dems are led by free market neoliberals.
    TIme to reverse the 1988 SPD-liberal merger

    Yet another one – I’ve seen this line repeated so many times recently from people who clearly weren’t there in 1988. This is a frightening indication of the way those with power can get history re-written. The economic extreme right-wingers seem to have used Orwellian techniques to get people like A Brown here to believe that “liberalism” as it was pre-1988 was their sort of politics. It wasn’t. The pre-1988 Liberal Party tended to be to the left, not to the right of the SDP (not SPD – that’s the German party). Quite a few Liberal who opposed merger did so on the grounds that the SDP seemed to be moving towards what was then called “Thatcherite” economics. David Owen pre-figured Tony Blair in wanting to move his party that way. It could also be seen in the SDP contribution to the “Dead parrot” document.

    The first re-write of history had the Liberal as all mad extreme left-wingers, of course, took into hand and made sensible by the SDP. So the direct opposite of what A brown now believes.

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