Political Promise

The real problem with The Big Society

In Uncategorized on September 22, 2010 at 12:39 pm
So what is the big society I hear you ask? Jonathan Ford explains all.
X-Factor Alex sex tape hell, Jade: I’m going home to die, Apprentice star: I’m a swinger, Jordan in meltdown, Judge and the rent boy, Kerry: I’ll die young. A representative assortment of front page headlines from The News Of The World, Britain’s most popular Sunday newspaper. Hardly indicative of British society as a whole.

Ever since it was unveiled (rather belatedly, just 2 weeks before the election), David Cameron’s Big Society idée fixe hasn’t really taken off.
I was skimming through The New Statesman the other week (a skim read of the tolerant utopianism of The New Statesman’s about as much as this pathologically rickety right-winger can take). ‘Claptrap’ was its considered analysis of The Big Society. ‘Barmy’ is how you might imagine the characteristically abreast-of-the-briefing-note Ken Clarke describing his own party’s policy.

Others see The Big Society as not only a stupid idea, but also a sinister ploy to buff the turd of cuts. ‘Public services are going to the wall’, so the argument goes. ‘But hang about! Here’s a plan! Let’s all volunteer to do it for nothing and make up for the folly of the financers with our own hard graft! Now who’s with me?! . . . Hello darkness, my old friend!’

But here’s the thing: despite its irresistible attraction to scorn, The Big Society really shouldn’t be that controversial at all. The label might sound quite grand, but the message behind it’s actually pretty modest. And it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with deficit reduction.
All that Steve Hilton’s puppet – that’s our country’s Prime Minister, by the way – is saying is that the principles of social responsibility, community action, and fairness are good things; that it’s right to look out for others, and to strive to be better parents, employers, employees, and citizens. Adam Smith called it ‘fellow feeling’, and said that helping people other than ourselves is the only way that we’ll ever be happy.
So what’s all the fuss about?
The answer’s that The Big Society tells us something that we’d rather not hear: that we’re actually quite selfish and go about our lives doing pretty much exactly what we like, without much thought for anyone else. That The Big Society’s been so widely and vigorously panned only highlights how much our self-obsessed, greedy, hedonistic society’s crying out for Cameron’s communitarianism.
The problem therefore isn’t the concept; it’s the Tory Party.

And where do I start?
I could go on and on and on – as so many of Cameron’s critics lazily do – about his Bullingdon connection. How a bunch of haughty kids with rich parents get blind drunk, do exactly what they want, vandalise exactly what they want, then get daddy to write a cheque for the damage, and keep noblesse oblige for another day. Pity most of that familiar criticism’s motivated by an inverted snobbery that’s as obnoxious as Bullingdon on a big night out. I’m quite prepared to cut Cameron some slack for things that he did while at university over 20 years ago.
So I’ll start with something that’s going on here and now. Case study: Andy Coulson, former Editor of The News Of The World, Director of Conservative Party Communications, the centre point of Cameron’s inner circle.
But how does this square with The Big Society? A guy who edited a rag that markets to man’s state-of-nature instincts; that dresses up soft porn and celeb goss as ‘courageous investigative journalism’, not gutless lowest-common-denominator conformity; that profits and relies on popular ignorance and apathy; that loads our unhealthy obsession with B- and C-celebrity; that revels in rumour about cabinet ministers and their mistresses; that rejoices in misery because misery sells; that coordinates Operation Celebrity Surveillance, stalking and phone tapping the rich and famous. But all this in its tireless pursuit of the public interest, you understand.
Coulson claims that he knew nothing of the practice of phone tapping that was so endemic at The News Of The World under his editorship. This despite former staff at the paper saying that Coulson ‘actively encouraged’ it.
Who to believe? Well, just think about it for a second: you’re a self-righteous, amoral bastard working at The News Of The World, when you walk into your boss’ office with the greatest scoop since Wayne Rooney was caught making The Big Society a reality on his marital bed in last week’s edition. ‘Andy! Andy! Wait ‘til you hear this!’, you exclaim like the blood-sucking, arse-liking reveller that you are, already thinking about the titty bar where you’ll splurge your ensuing Lurid Sex Scandal Bonus. ‘I’ve got this serious, shameful, shocking story about a politician who’s banging his secretary on his Commons bureau! What’s the world coming to!’
At this point, what does your editor say? Does he breathe a sigh of relief, hand over your Lurid Sex Scandal Bonus, and run with your front page splash? Or does he ask you some questions that as your editor he’s obliged to ask to authenticate your story and source? e.g. what’s your evidence?; how did you get it?; who’s your source? Questions that would’ve immediately uncovered the scoop behind all the other scoops: that stories were being obtained via illegal phone tapping.
The only reasonable conclusion? It’s literally unbelievable that Coulson was in the dark.
But let’s suspend rationality for a second and assume that Coulson was instead supremely incompetent at his job and knew absolutely nothing about the phone tapping. Even if that was true, shouldn’t everything else that The News Of The World stands for (see introductory quotes for depressing details) preclude Coulson from working for a government that claims to want to make Britain a better place? Isn’t it precisely what The News Of The World stands for that The Big Society condemns? Doesn’t Cameron undermine the message when that message’s managed by Coulson, Mr Social Irresponsibility par excellence?
And then there’s William Hague. Because the interesting thing about the Hague controversy isn’t the smoke around his sexuality, or even his ill-judged decision to share a hotel room with his 25 year-old boy friend.
The real issue’s that Hague’s guilty of gross nepotism, hiring as a Special Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office some guy with a Desmond from Durham (nowadays, a 2:2 means that you’re either stupid or idle or both), and no experience or expertise in foreign affairs. Christopher Myres got the job that thousands of other people are more qualified for because – and only because – he’s best mates with the boss. Our Foreign Secretary’s disrespect for fairness isn’t exactly an inspiring example of social responsibility in action.

The Big Society? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. It’s just a pity that the people selling it are such hypocrites.
  1. I think what’s interesting about the Big Society is that its stated aims seem to be things like eliminating poverty and homelessness, improving education and so on, whereas its methods seem based on individualism, deregulation and small government; very Thatcherite policies with very Bevanite aims, and not something the Conservative Party’s recently tried to achieve.

    It’s the kind of base-covering that let Cameron straddle the one nation Conservatives and the libertarians to win wide support, and also take the middle class vote that propped Labour up in 2005, but in government (especially with the Lib Dems) it could backfire if Cameron alienates either the left or the right in any way.

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