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May 4, 2011

Focus should be on Good (not Big) Society

A recent poll suggests 57% of the population think Big Society is a smokescreen for the cuts.  In an article for Civitas, Patrick Diamond argues that the terms of reference for the debate around Big Society have been too restrictive and that as a result we are missing the point.  The real crisis is not about the economy or public services, but with civil society itself which he suggests has become badly eroded

Market competition is driving David Cameron’s ‘big society’; but it cannot rebuild civil society, says Patrick Diamond

Rebuilding civil society in the wake of the global financial crisis has emerged as one of the most insistent debates in British politics. But allowing it to be framed by the narrow terrain of David Cameron’s “big society” would be a huge mistake. No society can sustain the wellbeing of its citizens by relying on market and state alone. The agenda has to be reclaimed because the issue of how to forge a good society will not go away.

The narrative so far promulgated by the coalition government has failed to convince. For one, the big society appears to connect only tenuously with the electorate: in a recent Mori survey, 57% said the big society was merely an excuse for cutting back public services. This cynicism will be amplified when the scale of cuts in the voluntary sector becomes clear.

It is market-based competition rather than civil society that is in the driving seat: shrinking the size of government, exposing public services to the relentless disciplines of choice and competition, liberating the power of free enterprise. Financial efficiency and value for money – not reinvigorating the ties of community – have become the fundamental drivers of reform in the state. Branded private sector cartels will become the dominant providers in public services, not a flourishing voluntary and community sector.

Neither will the good society be built merely by resurrecting New Labour: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were ruthless exponents of a centralising English state. They espoused the rhetoric of pluralism and reform, devolving power and strengthening the role of voluntary and community sector organisations, but New Labour was astonishingly resistant to the empowerment of actors outside the state machine. The roots of civil society were badly eroded.

The good society concerns the sphere of life that exists beyond the state and beyond the market. It is the civic domain of equity, citizenship and service, which is forged through engagement between citizens. As such, it can be reduced neither to state edict nor the purchasing power of money. And we need a practical agenda to build it.

First, make the welfare state genuinely “affiliative”: reward citizens who help others through “time banks” where individuals receive benefits in kind. An ageing society makes wholly state-funded provision an inadequate response to supporting increasing numbers of elderly people. Second, forge a more balanced and resilient economy by promoting plural and diverse ownership: create the incentives for a new generation of co-operative mutual societies.

Third, increase democratic empowerment, restoring the freedom of local government to set business and property taxes: use participatory budgeting to give people a stake in local priorities. Fourth, encourage local production chains in food distribution and household services, backed by a living wage and a community finance levy invested in credit unions to give every citizen a stake in the financial system.

The purpose of politics must remain the cultivation of civic virtue – the “habits of the heart” that French historian Alexis de Tocqueville argued make life worthwhile.

Full article click here