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Ruth Porter: The family is a crucial - and oft-forgotten - element of the Big Society

Picture 14 Ruth Porter is Communications Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

During the Big Society discussions, the sight of some Conservatives running scared from the idea that the best way of responding to problems is a messy patchwork of responses has been deeply unsettling. Somewhere along the way we seem to have developed a preoccupation with institutional, tidy and uniform solutions that were once the preserve of statists.

Although perhaps a cheap trick, invoking the support of long lost heroes is powerful, and I’m pretty sure that while Burke would have been a supporter of the Big Society, if he were here now he would have pointed to a critical element that we’re not giving close enough attention in all our discussions – that of family and community.

Building a Big Society must surely be about building a more connected society with more functional relationships, everything else flows from this. The state has gradually taken over many of the responsibilities that families used to take care of. Social bonds break down where they’re not needed. Financial support for someone out of work is provided by the state, company for the elderly by local libraries (if the media is to be believed), child care by nurseries, social housing by local authorities.

We’re more comfortable with it being this way as it removes any sense of duty or debt to those around us and instead replaces it with a sense of entitlement. It may well be that for some people the family networks around them have broken down to such a point that they’re not able to help or they may simply be too poor, but these cases should be the exception where help from charities or the state is then sought, not the rule.

Relationships and webs of social connection are inherently messy and complicated things. They tend towards invisibility. This jars with the policy agenda of the Big Society so far. Looking at the list of definitions and aims it seems much more concerned with structure, institutions and formal arrangements:
  • Establishing a Big Society bank to help provide funding for new charities and to assist existing ones in capacity building.
  • Building cooperatives in the public sector to create an ownership society.
  • Setting up a national service programme.
  • Prompting people withdrawing money from cash machines to give to charity.
  • Changing the way public money is given to charities, so they are paid more by results.

Some of these ideas may be an improvement on the status quo, but they don’t encapsulate what this should really be about – restoring to families and communities the need for them to engage with people around them. Empowering people means the state must let go. Responses to problems will be messy and diverse, some will work better than others and many will be at such micro levels as to be invisible to the state. This is hard when government seems to feel a constant need to audit and appraise.

John Stuart Mill described the effect of the state taking over starkly, he said:

“A people among whom there is no habit of spontaneous action for a collective interest—who look habitually to their government to command or prompt them in all matters of joint concern—who expect to have everything done for them, except what can be made an affair of mere habit and routine—have their faculties only half developed…”

For centuries the Catholic and Protestant churches understood this with their respective doctrines of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty. The idea is that family should be the first port of call for those in need. If it couldn’t provide support then one looked to church, to community and only when all other avenues were exhausted was the state to step in. This is a fundamentally conservative notion. We seem though to have lost sight of it, finding it too distasteful and difficult to allow difference. It may be that modern politics and the advent of media obsessed with clarity, entertainment and pacification has made it hard, but this is no excuse. Conservatives have always understood the need to shape our cultural context, to mould the environment we find ourselves in and make it better.

What then can Cameron do? Peggy Noonan perfectly described society as at its best when radiating from a thousand points of light. Cameron should point to these lights, not just the charities and the organisations, but the families, the strong webs of connection that fall below the radar, where a neighbour lends a vacuum cleaner to the person across the hall or a young man bothers to visit his grandfather twice a week. The Big Society is about things which are and should be ordinary, but somehow we’ve lost sight of this.


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