David Cameron’s Big Society – bright ideas, or real substance?

My starting-point here is David Cameron’s Big Society lecture (Hugo Young lecture, November 09) and David Willett’s article, The Spirit of Cooperation, in the March edition of Prospect. Cameron’s was an impressive lecture (though one wonders just how many speechwriters were involved)  He talks passionately of redistributing power from the state to the individual, of community involvement and action. 

‘This, then, is our new role for the state.  Galvanising, catalysing, prompting, encouraging and agitating for community engagement and social renewal. It must help families, individuals, charities and communities come together to solve problems.’

The agencies he sees as carrying this through are three: social entrepreneurs, running successful social programmes, community action, and ‘the majority of the population’. The big society demands mass engagement: a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.  At the heart of bringing about this engagement are social norms, ‘how other people behave’. He quotes academics who argue that with the right prompting or ‘nudge’ governments can effect a whole culture change.

David Willetts’s article explores a philosophical basis for this, highlighting the benefits of mutual cooperation, reciprocity  ‘in everyone’s self-interest’, and building and maintaining reputation.  ‘Small face-to-face groups are particularly good at generating these sorts of behaviour.’  We’re talking of reconciling freedom and opportunity with the equally important need for belonging and commitment.

We’re back with notions of a social contract based on enlightened self-interest, a bottom-up small-state approach pitched against a top-down big state. In Cameron’s Britain instead of a big state we will have a big society.  The aim has to be to design social institutions, not pass laws to change behaviour.

Family has a key role (picked up in Willetts’ new book). ‘The good news is that early experience of strong reciprocity in nuclear families seems to reinforce a belief in universal values and laws.’ Strong families care for elderly parents as well as children, and Willetts argues that ‘strengthening these inter-generational clinks can be a powerful way of rebuilding social capital too.’ Behaviour learnt within the family is replicated in wider society.

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So much of this agree with. My own experience of family life, school governing bodies, coaching cricket – and indeed working life – confirms for me the importance of community, working with not against each other, with the new being valued by the old, children by parents, staff by managers, players by coaches.

The problem is that I don’t see how Cameron’s politics are really likely to cause any significant change.  Parents setting up new schools has little to do with community action, much to do with one or two strong and opinionated individuals. Most forms of community action require strong leadership, and there are many examples of that in society as it is now. There may be more in Cameron’s Britain, or maybe not. Hearing George Osborne, on Five Live recently, trying to justify local cooperatives which might run local care units or even primary schools, was embarrassing. I fear they are ideas without substance.

I also think arguments about a broken society are deeply irresponsible, as most commentators agree. (Though, not surprisingly, the Murdoch-controlled Times.) We’ve had the press gleefully undermining the political class, and we now have the opposition arguing that our social fabric has collapsed. (Ask most people if their own corner of society is broken and they’ll say no.) From that level of disillusionment it will take a lot of ‘belonging and commitment’ to compensate, and if Willetts and Cameron are looking to a new improved family life to provide that, they will have a long wait.

Their plans for local government involve devolving down to communities, all worthy ideas, but incoherent, and requiring a change of attitude toward society that the sense of disillusionment that much of their political day-to-day, as opposed to philosophical talk, engenders, works directly against.  I don’t think the Tory rank and file have a clue about what belonging, commitment and community would involve for them. For Cameron’s immediate circle, of course they do. But Cameron knows that it’s not great society talk that will get him elected, but doing down Labour, and with ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson running his PR machine not surprisingly it’s pretty nasty.

I just don’t believe the ground-level community engine that’s needed to drive the big society is there now, or will ever be. Talk of well-designed social institutions will never get us there. Social institutions are by their nature imperfect. They need, I’m afraid, legislative force to underpin them.

One other consideration: who designs these well-designed institutions? There’s much talk, encouraged by behavioural economists and the like, of ‘nudging’ behaviour. If friends of your friends smoke you’re more likely to smoke, and vice versa. See the reference to social norms and ‘how other people behave’ above. You can see how Cameron’s recent re-conversion to tax breaks for married couples fits in. Strengthen marriage, strengthen the family and cross-generational links. Build up a sense of belonging.

Again, I can see the sense in this. But such changes are normally generated from below, by broader social influences, not by tax breaks and wise words. The press could have a major role to play, not so much by promoting community, but by cutting out the sense of social breakdown they so love to promote. Bad news always trumps good news.  As long as the press continues to play its current games I’m pessimistic about any significant social change.  We know, for example, how doubtful the hard right backers of the Telegraph and Mail are about David Cameron. They won’t give him much time before they’re sniping.

Don’t think I’m arguing here for a continuation of Blair/Brown over-manipulation of society, too much centralisation of power, intolerance of dissent, micro-management, legislation, too many directives.  I too want communities to have a greater freedom, but I don’t expect too much of them.

As I argued in an earlier blog what we need is balance, respect for institutions at all levels, be it community, local and national, and understanding that at every level there are good people, now as then, and will be. We need to encourage the empowering of local people and communities that is already happening now, but also recognise that responsible local and national government is the right way to interpret, balance and direct local aspirations.  

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To give a little more substance to my argument, let’s take Michael Gove’s much-discussed school reforms as an example. He’s proposing a major programme of new schools, and that means major changes to teaching and curriculum, new buildings, new pay and conditions for staff, and significant local disruption as other schools locally adjust to a new well-financed kid on the block.  (The jury is out of course regarding whether it’s the academy format or the additional money pumped in that really drives improved performance in academies.) Just maybe we’ll all be swept along by sense of exciting change, and we’ll not be phased by the apparent chaos around us, but I doubt it.

How long will we have to wait before these reforms bed down, and we can enjoy the brave new world of community and cooperation we’re promised? Will the reforms really be about community, or much more about committed and opinionated individuals driving change of their choice? All this talk of community: new schools are intended to provide freedom of choice, and we’re likely to find children travelling further from their local community, undermining rather than fostering the sense of community encouraged by genuinely local schools. How long will it be before government intervenes to put education back  on a more structured path?

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Finally, at another level, while I find all Willetts’ talk of reciprocity and reputation as key drivers of social behaviour fascinating, and I like his focus on family, he like almost everyone else in politics seems to be frightened of the words ‘care’ and ‘compassion’. There’s no mention of a moral basis for society, no mention of Christian or any other morality. Have we a chance without it? I’m not certain we do.

Willetts’ social contract is based on enlightened self-interest, and that indeed has been the basis of modern political theory. But there’s also been a moral consensus underpinning developing democratic societies, and that has been the cement holding society together. These days there’s much outrage, but little sense of a wider morality. We may develop communitarian instincts within the family. But we have few external standards of reference. It’s evident from public debate and press agitation just how lost we are without those standards.

That’s why this blog is called Zenpolitics. There’s an understanding of human nature that we have instinctively and that we’re scared to own up to in private life, let alone public life.  If I’d called this Jesuspolitics I’d have even fewer readers than I have now. Zen at least is cool. But the message of both is similar – how  damaging the pursuit of our own self-interest can be, how much we benefit by putting others ahead of ourselves.

I’m a realist. A moral world won’t happen, nor should it, given the way morality can be twisted, though I’d like at least to see a sense of compassion much more firmly rooted in our society. How that can be achieved is another subject, only touched on here. But without it the new big society communitarian utopia just hasn’t got a chance.

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