Big Society? More like Big Fallacy

(c) Leon Kuhn

Henry Fowler is a recent politics graduate

The ‘Big Society’, David Cameron’s flagship policy, has been widely discussed and criticised. In an age where austerity measures are undermining key public services and exposing the vulnerable in our society, Cameron is replacing these vital services with a nudge to encourage a great volunteer spirit. This agenda mirrors past prime ministers’ attempts to engage society in an understanding that being a part of the UK contains rights; but one has to be responsible within society to gain these rights. This concept has been called numerous things, Tony Blair called it communitarianism. What is consistent with this policy, whatever shape it takes is farcical and shallow.

Cameron’s premise for this policy is not to fill the void left by cutting of our public services, but as he has been saying since 2007 to heal our broken society. He gesticulates that as a society there is not enough volunteering or giving of time outside of work for either family or community. The debate around the Big Society, especially the way it is presented on the BBC, has been focused around Britain’s very low standing in an international league table of volunteering. However, the statistics refer to autocratic countries such as Turkmenistan, where volunteering is compulsory.

In Daniel Stevens’ report, titled “International ‘volunteering league tables’: their value in understanding progress towards a ‘big society'”, he clearly states that the comparison between Britain and other autocratic regimes in determining volunteering participation is simply inadequate. What Stevens’ report does show is that bar the Netherlands and Sweden, Britain is top of the middling countries in Europe above France, Ireland and Germany. This indicates that Cameron and co’s fixation on voluntary participation within Britain, and the current claim that levels of voluntary participation are too low is just not true. Stevens concludes that there is no point comparing countries different in nature, say autocratic or democratic. When comparing countries in Europe those with a socially democratic style of government tend to have higher participation in voluntary work in the community. Therefore, it is not policy but a focus of a government that enables participation in the voluntary sector, establishing a ‘big society’.

This should give great encouragement to the broad left in Britain. If the Big Society is what Cameron says it is, Britain needs a different focus of government based on social democratic values, not a neo-liberal cuts agenda. Furthermore, if there is not the crisis in terms of participation in the voluntary sector in the UK that Cameron proclaims, what is the hidden agenda with the big society. Many have argued that it is to replace services, and cover the cuts justified in the name of eradicating the deficit.

Furthermore, the current economy which includes a lack of job security and now the cutting of key services which people rely on seems a recipe for disaster. How does Cameron expect people to volunteer in a country with such a fragile economy? Moreover, who traditionally in the UK has volunteered? Is it the working family with long hours and family commitments or is it the affluent and retired?The reality is the latter. Therefore, in the face of this economic fragility and cuts to services, is it plausible that those working with family commitments or single parents etc have time to volunteer? No.

Sadly, the growing bracket of people who are volunteering, usually in the hope of paid employment as a result of volunteering is graduates. The mountain of ‘voluntary’ internships advertised daily to graduates within certain sectors have become a necessity in non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and charities.

So far, the Big Society seems more like a Pig Society. The relentless bankers’ bonus culture persists as banks bailed out by the taxpayer continue their lucrative short-term-focused trading. Furthermore, this Pig Society consists of a lowering of corporation tax combined with other corporation and financial incentives; the welcome mat has been officially laid out.

While Cameron continues this pursuit of an inconsistent and unpractical policy, the left must outline theses oversights and fallacies incorporated within the big society agenda. It is vital that the left engages with the debate and answers Cameron’s big society by pointing to nations such as Sweden and highlighting that if the big society truly is about voluntary participation and not a cover cuts, the Big Society combined with a cuts agenda will not achieve this. What is needed is a new outlook. We have a lot to learn from our socially democratic neighbours.


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