Monday, July 19, 2010

Hands up who wants to join Dave's Big Society.

Apologies for not writing sooner - rather a hectic time at work.

I've spent the past few weeks trying to make out what I think of the Con-Dem coalition, and how far they should be rated on the Thatcher Hatred Scale. Today, David Cameron announced his 'Big Society' idea, calling it the 'greatest devolution of power' to the people ever. This largely seems to involve volunteering to run the soup kitchens the soon-to-increase numbers of jobless and homeless will need.

Is it a devolution of power? Of course it isn't. Centralised governments have absolutely no interest in actually giving real, tangible power to Joe Public. Instead, they are far keener on giving people more work for less money. By calling it 'volunteering', they're hoping to appeal to people's better side.

In fact, this sums up the profoundly cosmetic nature of the policies announced by this government so far. On the face of it, they all seem pretty good - seemingly communitarian, seeking to involve people at grass roots level in a variety of activities. However, they all rely on goodwill and require people to assume responsibility without wielding any real authority. The Conservative party is playing a long, careful game, hiding under the face of social concern, while getting on with what it likes doing best - saving the wealthy and not giving a damn for the weak, the poor, the ignorant, the unschooled.

However, it isn't entirely fair to solely blame the Tories. Fault lies also with the Labour party. The problem with the left wing is its desire to totally control and nanny everything. This was shown way back in '97, where every message and every speech by even the lowliest parliamentary activist was ruthlessly controlled. This need to have overarching power backfires spectacularly once things start to go wrong - the party falls apart in recriminations and in-fighting. The current leadership race is somewhat ridiculous, particularly the sight of the Milliband brothers trying to point out idealogical differences between each other, which mainly come down to which comic each one read as a kid (Beano or Dandy?). And once the Labour machine has broken down, it tends to stay broken for quite a while.

The Tories, by contrast, seek to minimise apparent government involvement while focusing power and control on select social groups. As long as they breathe gentle, acceptable polite words, they will stay in control. If you're middle class and slightly, but not too, worried about your income and the future, the siren call of Big Society, and the chance to (forgive the capitals) Control Your Destiny is rather appealing. In fact, it will be a case of I'm alright Jack. People who set up their own schools and schools that becoime academies will divert money away from other schools. This will exacerbate, not alleviate, the problem of failing schools. In other words, whole areas of towns and cities will become more or less educationally arid zones, where any child unfortunate enough to be born in the wring postcode zone will stand little chance of accessing a decent education. And if someone doesn't get an education, how can he or she be expected to understand their choices, rights, powers and responsibilities?

And so on to the Big Society. The main problem is that David Cameron seems to think that the whole of the UK is comprised of genteel villagers all eager to lend a hand at the village fete, erecting marquees, selling jam, running the tombola and whatnot. Running libraries, education services, housing services and so forth requires expertise, no matter how willing and eager the help. It comes down to power, basically. Now, don't get me wrong - volunteering is a good thing, and has a clear and valuable place. Unfortunately, this volunteering looks like it will be at the expense of people who be being paid for it. And what will happen to those areas where no-one wants to volunteer? What will happen to those areas of towns where people who have not had a good education or access to decent services decline to participate in the Big Society? Are we facing a situation where there are islands of happy participation floating in an ocean of no-go zones where people are left to drift helpless, bereft of direction and assistance?

If David Cameron (or the next Labour leader, or Nick Clegg, if he has the courage to break free from what is slowly proving to be a toxic coalition) is sincere about devolving power, then it should be genuinely so, not some cosmetic, patronising handing-down of a few paltry gobbets of central authority control. That would be a genuinely brave and almost unprecedented action in British politics. The problem is that real, local democracy is a long, tortuous and difficult process, but one that ends up yielding genuinely democratic decisions. Central government doesn't like this, simply because it's on a tight five-year timetable. All goverments have a vested interest in keeping people at least slightly anxious, if not downright afraid, in order to control the electorate and pursue their own agendas with little interruption. British democracy is, in reality, probably better described as an elective dictatorship, in that we willingly abrogate our own democratic voices in the cause of the speedy and convenient expidition of political decisions. So, if we do not engage locally in politics, if we do not raise our voices to question, if we do not involve ourselves with our schools, our communities, our councils, our neighbours, how then can we say that we are particularly democratic or even social?

In the end, if we do not seek to create our own Big Society, we will have some mellow-faced man with a shark's hunger impose his Big Society on us.

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