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August 17, 2010

Can Big Society fit into Scotland

Like it or not, at some point there is going to have to be a debate in Scotland around the issues raised by the coalition government’s big idea  – Big Society.  Political commentator and writer Gerry Hassan argues that there is a strong case for a particularly Scottish version of Big Society. One that would require a fundamental cultural shift in our politics and in the way we think about power and public life

Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, August 13th 2010

The prevalent reaction of many people I know in Scotland to David Cameron’s idea of ‘the Big Society’ is to pour scorn on to it, and dismiss it as window dressing for the forthcoming cuts.

This has a similarity to the haughty dismissal of ‘the Con Dem Nation’ prevalent in centre-left chattering circles. Whatever you think of the coalition, there is a smugness, self-satisfaction and unattractive sense of certainty in this mindset.

Politics often involves the knee-jerk, tribalism and the instant dismissal of opponents, but there is a huge danger in being too closed minded about everything which comes from the coalition government, and in particular damning the potential of ‘the Big Society’ out of hand.

‘The Big Society’ might not be completely worked out, and might well be part fig leaf for the tough times ahead, but it does have something interesting in it. There is even a degree of intellectual muscle derived from Phillip Blond’s eclectic ‘Red Toryism’ which has created a centre-right niche critiquing the failures of economic and social liberalism. There are weaknesses in ‘Red Toryism’, but it has managed to create something more interesting than left-wingers have for decades.

What the ‘Big Society’ is trying to address is the sense that the state has over-reached and across numerous areas of our lives crowded out other individual and collective ways of organising and expressing oneself. This has aided a feeling of passivity in people, looking for top-down solutions, and atrophying localism. Where it falls down is the practical issue of who funds and supports initiatives, its fixation just on the state as the problem, and blindness to corporate over-bearing power which equally makes people feel powerless.

Is there a progressive version, and in particular a Scottish variant of ‘the Big Society’? Labour seem to have retreated into oppositionalism – on the Alternative Vote, law and order, public spending, and ‘the Big Society’. This reduces what is centre-left to the idea of statism, an altogether impoverished, depowering vision.

Labour has an alternative, pluralist tradition: one of co-operatives, friendly and mutual societies, and the origins of trade unions. Maurice Glasman, self-styled ‘Blue Labour’ has stressed that Labour needs to be neither statist or big corporatist: the two overbearing approaches which New Labour combined in government.

What of Scotland? This is a country which prides itself on its inclusive, compassionate character, and yet the reality is very different. This is a land of institutional capture, gatekeepers and a nomenklatura across public life. Whether in the public, private or voluntary sectors, there are institutions and cultures which block change and are part of the forces of conservatism which shape so much of Scotland.

Civil society isn’t just a warm, cuddly collection of well-meaning people. There is still in Scotland an over-romanticised view of civil society – often from middle class people – which disguises a different reality, of a civil society reliant on the state, and controlled or limited by Labour place people, particularly in the West of Scotland.

Scotland has been a land which for all the progressive rhetoric has been immune to radical ideas for decades. The poll tax disaster is the major exception. Thatcher’s council house sales did dramatically change life for hundreds of thousands of Scots, but that wasn’t specifically Scottish, and was bitterly resisted by Labour councils.

Devolution itself has proven to be the vessel of institutional Scotland, rather than one of shifting power. It has been characterised by the politics of continuity and the self-preservation society.

This is where a Scottish version of ‘the Big Society’ could be powerful and potent. One which is fashioned by our own priorities and ideas, and the need for imaginative thinking and practice, challenging and dispersing the concentrations of power which exist in our public life, and giving people both choice and voice.

It does not matter if you call this left or right. What Scotland needs is a cultural shift – and rather than just the rhetoric of change we have had in recent years – this requires political change and a different way to thinking about power and public life.

Scotland’s ‘Big Society’ could entail bringing together a new sense of responsibility and community, with a vision of freedom, hope, imagination and emancipation. We would need to give it a name which captured its vision and boldness.

This isn’t anti-state or pro-market. It is neither. It would say lets stop thinking in such simplistic binary terms. We need a strong, responsive state. And we need a different kind of state. We need strong, open, dynamic markets. But we don’t need oligopoly or Tescopoly.

We need to be against concentrations of power wherever they come from. This is apposite, given that the forthcoming age of austerity and cuts will bring about new configurations of power and centralisation, mergers and take-overs in both the public and private sectors.

Who will give voice to this new Scotland? Labour could tap into its radical roots of mutualism and the co-operative movement, but there is no sign of any febrile activity anywhere in Scottish Labour.

The leaves a huge opportunity for the other parties – who have less to gain from clinging to the defence of the remnants of Labour’s extended state across Scotland.

The biggest opportunity here is for the Nationalists. Can the SNP gather together the beginning of an idea of a different vision of society in Scotland? The state isn’t their state; the forces of big business aren’t their natural constituency. So far this state of affairs has produced caution and lack of radicalism from the SNP as they have attempted to not make enemies of institutional Scotland.

And yet, the prospect of a politics of genuine self-determination could inform and make real a politics of self-government, linking change in society to constitutional change.

With the coming together of public spending cuts and fiscal autonomy in political debate, there is room for bold national leadership of the kind rarely seen in modern Scotland. Who will first speak and dare to capture a different Scotland, not anti-state or anti-market, but posing a different state and different kind of market, could shape Scotland for years to come.

The Scotland of the last decade has been one of the forces of conservatism presenting themselves as the tribunes of the people, while real, radical voices have been marginalised. The coming storms will open up all sorts of opportunities for radical ideas – which ‘the Big Society’ for all its weakness – touches on. Scottish radicals need to start being daring and dreaming of a different nation.