George Campbell Gosling, Oxford Brookes University
What’s wrong with the Big Society? It’s dead, that’s what wrong with it. It’s not just resting. I’m an historian, so I know a dead policy initiative when I see one and and the Big Society has definitely passed on. It is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It is a late policy. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If it wasn’t for the recent launch of the Big Society bank, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is, we might say, an ex-policy.
After two years of the Coalition, charity is not dead. But the voluntary sector is certainly having a difficult time in Austerity Britain, as the Charity Finance Group’s latest report continues to show. The 4.2% drop in paid staff over the past year contrasts perversely with the fact the sector is more crucial than ever in a time of (now offical) double-dip recession, as seen in the startling growth of foodbanks. Despite this renewed importance for charity, there seems to be little doubt that the Big Society, like Monty Python’s Norweigen Blue, is no longer with us. The influential Conservative Home editor, Tim Montgomerie, suggests the ‘big society’ – which had failed to resonate with the public – should be ditched in favour of a focus on ‘competitiveness and growth’ as a ‘better message’. And his plea has not fallen on deaf ears.
With the Prime Minister’s media guru, Steve Hilton (who coined the term ‘big society’) having cycled off into the sunset, there seems to be no real effort to keep it alive. This is a vindication for those who always saw the ‘big society’ as little more than a slogan or a cover for cuts. It will not surprise many historians, who have been more than usually sceptical – writing on this blog and elsewhere. Pat Thane has highlighted ahistoricism, making the case that ‘there has always been a big society’. Meanwhile, coming from rather different perspectives, Glen O’Hara and Frank Prochaska have both come to the same conclusion – that the big society project is pitted against some deeply-entrenched long-term historical trends. These are all points well made, and mean we should not have been surprised if the language changed or the whole project ultimately fell short of lofty goals. However, as we mark two years of David Cameron’s premiership, it is a different death that has befallen the ‘big society’.
What, in fact, is most striking is the lack of influence the project has had within Cameron’s own government. As Colin Rochester and Meta Zimmeck noted in their review of 2011:
“The Coalition… demonstrated that its interest in and commitment to the voluntary sector was ‘so over’ by its downgrading of the Office for Civil Society – including budget cuts, high staff turnover, administrative muddle and even the loss of its organogram.”
Alongside this downgrading of the area of government responsible for the ‘big society’ were repeated demonstrations that it was an irrelevance to those policies pursued in other departments. The Giving White Paper of 2011 was startlingly contradicted by the 2012 Budget’s cap on tax relief for charitable giving, including Gift Aid. With half of last year’s charitable donations in the UK coming from just 7% of donors, serious concerns were immediately raised on the impact of this cap on large-scale donations. A campaign against what was dubbed the ‘charity tax’ (a sideways reference to the same budget’s ‘granny tax’) was launched under the slogan: GIVE IT BACK, GEORGE! This has included some influential bodies: NCVO, the Charities Aid Foundation, Cancer Research UK and the Samaritans amongst many others. When Big Society Captial chairman Sir Ronald Cohen was questioned on Channel 4 News on the impact of these tax changes, he said: “It could certainly have a bigger negative impact than the amount of money flowing in to us.” Whatever the merits of the policy, this conscious contradiction is more damaging to the ‘big society’ project than the cuts from all sides, because it makes it clear how far it is from the heart of decision-making in the Coalition.
At the end of 2011, the parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee reported on the ‘big society’, noting that the government seemed to have ‘no coherent plan’ to deliver on the rhetoric. Perhaps most critical has been the sheer lack of such thinking in the high-profile health and education reforms, despite the fact Cameron used to call public service reform one of the three strands of his big society ‘mission’ (the other two being social action and community empowerment). The talk was of charities, employee-owned mutuals and social enterprises playing a bigger role. However, it is notable that the newly ‘mutualised’ civil service pensions scheme is a lonely example and that it is only 25% controlled by staff. We have moved from the buried idea of charities running forests to the proposed privatisation of the roads, with little evidence of mutualism being seriously considered for public sector reform. What we are witnessing is not big society policies failing to deliver, but rather a government failing to enact policies in line with a now-abandoned philosophy.
It has certainly not helped that Steve Hilton’s exit followed so many others. It was unsurprising that Lord Wei lasted less than a year in the role of ‘big society tsar’, after being parachuted into the House of Lords to take on the role. It was reported that he only found out after agreeing to take up the position that it would be unpaid. He had then reduced his hours, partly in order to secure an income, only three months before leaving the role altogether. It was more shocking when A4e founder Emma Harrison stepped down from her role, variously described as ‘family champion’ or ‘back to work tsar’, amidst arrests and accusations of fraud associated with government contracts. Perhaps most characteristic, however, was the rejection from Liverpool. The city had been named as a big society vanguard area in July 2010, along with Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead in Berkshire and the London borough of Sutton. However, after six months it withdrew from the pilot scheme, with City Council leader Joe Anderson writing to the Prime Minister:
“How can the city council support the big society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of these vital and worthwhile groups?”
Asked if he was worried Liverpool would now lose out, he said withdrawing from the scheme ‘won’t make an iota of difference’. And this is the overwhelming sense after two years of Cameron’s premiership. According to the CFG, half of the voluntary sector now sees government policy as irrelevant and 82% of the rest as having a negative impact. It may have sat ill within the Conservative Party, it may have been an agenda cynically adopted by some and there may have been problems of communication, but the ‘big society’ did represent an opportunity to remould citizenship as something more than consumerism. There were many reasons why various specific policies would have struggled in the current economic and political climate, but the potential was there. As such, for all the launches and relaunches, what the ‘big society’ now represents is a missed opportunity.