Opinion: the big society broken record

Our society really is big. And it suffers from no lack of definition. It’s a big society. It’s a broken society. It’s a big and broken society. The big society needs to save our broken society. There is such a thing as society, but it’s not the same as the state. And once, there was no such thing as society at all. There’s as good a choice of societies as you’d find at a student freshers’ fair.

Cameron’s election campaign was fought on his two favourite societies – the big one and the broken one. The big one bombed on the doorstep – campaigners couldn’t explain what it was and the public felt it was a nice idea that didn’t quite reflect Britain’s consumer-driven, selfish, modern society. It sounded too convenient to call for an army of volunteers to conteract the effects of a state preparing to roll back on its responsibilities in massive public sector cuts. Was, and is, the Big Society about filling a gap in after public sector cuts or about creating stronger communities? Shouldn’t a Big Society be a good idea all of the time, not just when you need an army of volunteers to run a closing local library? Since Cameron’s big idea seemed to go in and out of fashion within even his own government, how could it ever be taken seriously or expect to grow roots in society (big or small) itself?

The broken society divided opinion. It sounded negative on the doorstop – too generalising, too dismissive of the positives and too simplistic an assessment of our society. However bad things got on Monday night in London, as the accused mounted up in courts this week to receive their community sentences, we saw a broad mix of people responsible. An isolated, perhaps self-isolating, underclass – yes. But also university students, classroom assistants and others who made dreadful misjudgements as London’s “shopping riots” (the best description I’ve read so far) take hold of the capital.

The big and the broken have both been on hold over recent months. Cameron relaunched both yesterday, speaking of the broken society as if it were something that had just happened – like a smashed shop window on Clapham High Street that we need a whip-round to fix. It is, in truth, Cameron’s very small big idea. He claims the reason he came into politics “is to build a bigger, stronger society”. I don’t doubt it is. But the riots have proved that he lacks the vision to realise that ambition. He also appears to lack the tenacity and sustained interest in that cause to realise his ambition. If he really thought our society was broken, why does it take a night of riots just to get it back on the agenda again? It underlines a tendency in Cameron’s government to focus on the simplistic ideas, something I blogged on earlier this year.

When you hear a senior Minister speak, they will almost always begin with a lengthy spiel on deficit reduction. I’ve seen this happen at home and abroad, often to rather bemused audiences. It’s a handy shield during major public spending cuts, it helps finger Labour for the misery inflicted on households but it’s in danger of becoming the sole raison-d’etre of the Government.

But the real lesson and opportunity from this week’s riots is that the Government needs to take up a cause, sustain interest in it and devote real energy to resolving it. Both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats need to be able to look constituents in the eye at the next election and show more than just better balanced books, important though that is. We need to look deeply at the causes of last week’s riots – Cameron’s list was broadly right – “schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities”. Add to that bigger issues including distribution of wealth, fairer taxes and whether it really is sensible to cut police numbers and expect reduced bureaucracy to cover the gaps.

This can’t be about simplistic slogans of big or broken society. Let’s not just label or guess at what’s wrong with our society – let’s actually keep up the focus long enough to get to the bottom of what’s wrong with it, what’s good about it and how we can make it better.

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9 Comments

  • I absolutely agree that the Government needs to do more than just fix the deficit (as vital as this is). The work of the Centre for Social Justice has done a lot of the groundwork on these issues (take or leave their policy prescriptions, but they’re much better informed than the knee-kerk responses currently being offered from all quarters and their report on gangs should be required reading). We need to engage seriously with the issues you list (well, you quote Cameron listing) – schools, welfare, families, parenting, addiction, communities – as well as the more ‘lefty’ responses of employment and inequality.

    I just wonder whether our party is going to be comfortable with the answers offered on how to fix society. Tough love on welfare and family breakdown, for example, is not traditionally a liberal strong suit. Maybe this needs to change. But if we are not comfortable with them, will we have any credible, evidence-based, distinctively Lib Dem alternatives?

  • Further to my previous comment, I have just read what Nick Clegg has been saying. Brilliant. Sensible revisiting of policy on gangs, and an excellent idea of community payback schemes to get looters working to clean up the streets they wrecked. Let’s hope there are more ideas where that came from!

  • I’ve got to admit that every time I’ve heard Cameron talking about the big society I’ve half expect to Gandalf to appear. I don’t think the problem with the concept is the Modern Consumer world. I just think it’s a fantasy that jumbles up disparate elements from all over the shop.to produce a sort Utopian neo-liberal High-Tory-Anarchist vision of the end of history, based on altering peoples consciousness or something.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 16th Aug '11 - 3:01pm

    If Cameron likes quick fixes, here are a few for starters.
    Problem is that the solution involves slaughtering virtually every sacred Tory cow in the land:

    Impose a far more progressive tax system
    Slap windfall taxeson public utility companies
    Reduce the country’s wage differential to 20-1
    Scrap tuition fees
    Double investment in youth employment and apprenticeship schemes
    Incentivise house building and tighten the ‘affordable’ quota
    Double pensions

    In other words – equalise opportunities and living standard across the board to bring the UK into line with its north european neighbours.

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