Shrill Busy-bodies and David Cameron’s Big Society

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: 26.07.2010

The sink or swim society is upon us, and woe betide the poor, the frail, the old, the sick and the dependent.

Mary Riddle, Daily Telegraph, July 19, 2010

Could it be right? A Tory Prime Minister unveiling visions of a 'Big Society' that would redistribute power and initiative from 'elites' to the broader community or 'the man and woman on the street'? Society had been the elephantine target of Margaret Thatcher's Britain, and that La Pasionaria of the Right made every effort to destroy it. Why then should not only society but largeness feature in Cameron's parish vision of Britain?

For one thing, many conservatives smell an oversized rat making its way through the policy channels. The very idea of 'society' is proving troubling. Terms such as 'people power' and the use of an army of volunteers sound naff at best, sinister at worst. Still, there is little for them to be worried about. The 'people' merely figure as necessary props in standard conservative demagoguery, nothing more. All eyes, it seems, are on the US, with its insistence on philanthropy and volunteering. When in doubt, the Tories, and sometimes those on the left, seek trans-Atlantic inspiration, an American jab in the arm.

That musty, curmudgeonly oracle of conservative thought, the Spectator, was less than impressed by Cameron's visionary spectacles. David Blackburn opined that, 'The authors of the Big Society erroneously assumed that people care about community.' Community, rather than being a call to arms, was very much a 'turn-off for many', with the Big Society sounding 'like a nationalised Parish Church meeting - intrusive, vacuous and dominated by shrill busy-bodies.'

Mary Riddell in the Daily Telegraph (Jul 19), observing how devastating the Tory Rapid Reforms Unit has been in junking the state, was not convinced by this 'Jam and Jerusalem' vision. Cameron's 'big society' vision would be 'run along the lines of a bumper church fete.' What the ambitious prime minister had failed to mention was that the very same voluntary bodies he hopes will join him in this vision 'are being cut to the bone'. As for the 'big society bank', its reserves are bound to be paltry and hardly bankable.

Ed West lamented the entire use of the term (Daily Telegraph, Jul 19). 'It says much about the way socialist thinking has completely penetrated British life that even the idea of a voluntary society in which the state does not arrange everything is now considered unexplainably complicated to the British public.' West also had one key warning: beware the religious groups. For the volunteer army, read a certain religious streak that would be 'incompatible with the moral ethos of the elite'. By all means, hand over the functions of the traditional state to the volunteer, by for heaven's sake, don't convey them to the followers of God.

What are some of the measures Cameron hopes to implement in achieving this 'Big Society' vision? The Big Society Bank is the crown of this newly proposed edifice. Charities and various activist groups will be able to extract funding for infrastructure projects, running about activities as if they were brigades of social conscience. Yet all of this simply seems to be a cover for dragging charity into spaces traditionally occupied by the state, a mere excuse to get services rendered on the cheap. The volunteer army will thereby take over their provision. The public will be even more reluctant to part with their money at any future date, and the much vaunted Big Society will be simply a meaner one.

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