Timothy Barnes: The Big Society does not have to have a Red Nose
As Red Nose Day gets into full swing, it is easy for those of us with political views on life to see it as part of the Big Society: fundraising for volunteer-based activities working on worthy projects. In the Financial Times, yesterday, the local volunteers manning Ellington Library in Northumberland were being hailed as champions of just such Big Society activities, although they saw the term as being sufficiently damaged that they “would rather David Cameron didn’t go on about it”.
And as Ruth Porter of the Institute of Economic Affairs wrote here yesterday, our understanding of the Big Society is great, although she sees the terms as not being broad enough to include crucial elements such as family.
What these examples demonstrate is confusion over the term and whether it is is helpful.
For me, the term “Big Society” encompasses all of this and more. It is about core Tory values: self help, responsibility and community.
A few years ago, when I was first selected to run in a local council election, I spent a wet, wintry, Wednesday evening in a humid and over-heated meeting room in Camden’s Town Hall. My mind wandered at one point during a discussion about the proceedings of a no doubt very important sub-committee meeting.
As I looked around the room of fifteen or so local Conservatives, most of them elected Councillors, I was struck by how many other rooms like the one I was in must have been holding similar meetings up and down the country, on that same night: council meetings, school governor and PTA meetings, neighbourhood watch groups, CAB groups, self-help societies, tenants' associations, local museum fund-raising committees and thousands of other gatherings of unpaid individuals who care about local amenities and their communities enough to devote time and effort to influencing them in some way. Surely no other country has such a high level of citizen engagement as the UK?
Critics of David Cameron’s proposals dismiss some of the work of such volunteers as fringe activities. But they fail to recognise that they already supply some of the most important functions in civil society. Magistrates, for example, are all unpaid. Typically giving up one or two days a week they sit in local courts as the first tier of our judicial system. On top of the time they devote to seeing cases, they also have to undertake training, prison visits and education activities that mean that the role is no small time commitment for them and the benefit it has for local communities by having local people who understand what they see before them, is vast.
Community support officers, prison visitors and many other unpaid people bring their personal skills and experience to the criminal justice system to such an extent that it is hard to imagine how it could function without their involvement.
Arguing about whether the Big Society will come to pass seems futile. It is here and, in all likelihood, everyone reading a website like ConHome is already an active participant in its working. After all, most of us are party activists with a variety of local causes in our blood. The question for David Cameron is how to extend this type of engagement.
Because there are issues in doing that. It has not been a well-marketed initiative. Most people are dismissive of the initiative without understanding it and the over-simplistic media message has not helped. There seems to be an impression that the Big Society is volunteering just to paint fences or that it is designed to target the rich into making more donations from their wealth. The very breadth of what it means makes the Big Society seem vague and undefined.
But it would be absurd to try and specify from the centre every working of an idea that is about individuals engaging directly in their own, unique communities on issues they where they are personally motivated. One of the points of the Big Society is that it is about individual choices and small activities – things you cannot dictate or rule from Westminster. Those critics who say that national spending cuts are harming community engagement or who demand more central funding in order to make the Big Society work, clearly have things upside down. This is not about the centre giving money. It is about local groups pursuing critical matters on their own initiative. It is about that most Conservative of things: taking responsibility to change things that matter to you.
Perhaps it would have been better understood under the name “Small Society” - moving things away from detached government officials and into small community groups, but our party’s own baggage when talking about “society” would have made such a name seem all too disparaging, whatever the intent.
There are practical issues with some of what has been proposed, too. The idea of local public servants taking over and running services where they believe they can deliver a better service, is something the private sector has done for years and has led to improvements for customers in areas from retail, to banking to high-tech engineering.
But for the public sector there are some specific problems, such as the costs of transferring expensive pension liabilities that have yet to be resolved. Cameron has committed some scarce public finance to the Big Society bank, to opening up government contracts so that community groups and social enterprises can bid for them and so it is not unreasonable to hope that some of these practical problems will be resolved in time. It is certainly not a reason to give up on the whole concept, which, after all, is nothing new in itself. It is recognising it, welcoming it and seeking to develop it that is the important advance here.
The Big Society initiative is not going to go away. It is not a short-term ploy to cover for funding cuts by attempting to drum up unpaid enthusiasts to take the place of cancelled public services. It is a fundamental part of British Society, of the way we are governed, of the way we administer our laws and make sure that the facilities we all avail ourselves of are the ones we want and need. It chimes with the Conservatives' desires to see higher levels of political engagement, devolved decision-making, taking responsibility for the world we live in and increased social cohesion.
In short, the Big Society is here, it matters and we should all be in the vanguard of its promotion.