Claire Fox 03 August 2010

The Big Society busybodies

The danger behind Big Society is that it will merely replace top-down bureaucracy with a new tier of top-down busybodies, says Claire Fox

At the time the Big Society (BS) was launched, allegedly to reinvigorate communities, PM David Cameron’s government was responsible for evicting the Democracy Village in Parliament Square.

Meanwhile, there were government calls for Facebook to close down the infamous RIP Raoul Moat ‘You legend’ page which had attracted tens of thousands of supporters. And so it was revealed that not all ‘strong communities, with a collective identity’, especially not spontaneous or protesting ones, were what the coalition had in mind when it urged ‘the man and woman on the street’ to ‘grasp power from elites in Whitehall’.

I am trying to avoid being cynical. I am prepared to take the BS idea at face value, not just dismiss it as a fig leaf for cuts. Let’s believe Mr Cameron when he says that it’s more about addressing the ‘social recession’ than the economic one.

The rhetoric certainly appeals. As the former publisher of Living Marxism magazine, how can I resist talk of ‘people power’, ‘vanguard communities’ and community ‘agitators’? When Mr Cameron professes a ‘profound faith in my fellow human beings and a healthy awareness of the state’s limitations’, one can only cheer.

Don’t get me wrong. Recognising ‘the state’s limitations’ shouldn’t mean endorsing the state outsourcing its responsibility for macro projects such as running education or the NHS. But if it means limiting government and council mission creep in micromanaging the minutiae of people’s lives, then sign me up. Great if it will remove those annoying health and safety regulations or Criminal Records Bureau checks which have acted as obstacles to ordinary people organising anything, from summer fetes to sports days. Unfortunately, while Messrs Cameron and Gove et al are happily rolling back the state from running schools and services, they seem intent on enlarging the state’s self-proclaimed new role ‘as an agitator for social renewal’.

The prime minister tells us that ‘the truth is, we need a government which helps to build a big society’. Really? Politicians seem to imagine we can’t organise street parties, babysitting or even lunch without their assistance.

Surely, the problem has been bureaucratic over-reach rather than a hapless and hopeless citizenry. Yet CLG minister, Andrew Stunell, frets that ‘for many of us, eating together at the table is all too rare’. He worries that ‘we live in our own little boxes, go to work, and pass people on our street… without a glance or “hello”’, never taking ‘the opportunity to stop and talk to our neighbours’. But never fear, Mr Stunell’s favourite Big Lunch scheme is here to save us. Apparently, donning paper hats, sharing ‘home-cooked’ goodies and communal jollity once a year, will save a fractured society.

Meanwhile, BS enthusiast Daniel Dickens, MD of Southwark Circle, explains: ‘There are plenty of people who might see a neighbour struggling with their groceriesa and might want to help, but there’s no real platform to do that. We’re just providing that platform.’

For goodness sake, we don’t need a platform or official paraphernalia to help Mrs Jones with the shopping, thank you.

This approach is not only condescending, it counterproductively risks suffocating real civil interactions under the weight of the Government’s formalised and instrumental agenda. Genuinely-flourishing community spirit is, by its very nature, self-organising, informal, and spontaneous.

Is BS really a localist, grass-roots agenda, determined by activists not apparatchiks? Identifying four local authorities as best-practice community models hardly seems like the centre loosening its reigns. If the plan is to free bottom-up initiatives from over-interfering bureaucrats, how does that fit with parachuting in ‘an expert organiser and dedicated civil servants’ who will be used ‘to ensure people power initiatives get off the ground’?

One dreads to think what an ‘expert organiser’ is. Presumably not an anti-war activist who organises a long-standing encampment opposite the Houses of Parliament.

We are told that officials will identify local residents with ‘a particular aptitude for taking part in Big Society projects’ who will receive ‘training to become community organisers, motivating their neighbours to take part in community schemes’. One can only imagine a new breed of state-sanctioned do-gooders and busybodies given authority to nag anyone who dares miss a tenants meeting or refuses to join Neighbourhood Watch. Worst, those truly dedicated activists who make communities tick, will surely be emasculated and sanitised, once certified as fit to pass the training course.

The coalition may be throwing the quangocracy on the bonfire, but let’s make sure that through BS ministers don’t create a worst monster – unelected community organisers and an opaque para-state machine more interested in organising what the public eat for lunch with than providing the services the public desperately need.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas
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