As I was on the train yesterday morning, I tweeted, ‘On my way to Guildford to talk about what’s wrong with #bigsociety.’ I got a reply straight back from Mike Butcher – Editor of TechCrunch Europe, co-founder of TechHub, board member of the Coalition for a Digital Economy, and someone who has been at the heart of the London tech scene for as long as I can remember. ‘Do you ever talk about what might be right with it?’ he asked.
Although the conference organisers greeted me as ‘our anti-Big Society speaker’, I hope the answer is yes, because the aim of my talk was to get to the kernel of truth in David Cameron’s big idea. As Andrew Taggart argued recently on this site, it is too easy to critique the world; the challenge is to renarrate it. So my speech was an attempt to tell the story of the Big Society as a moment in British political history.
I’m posting the audio of the speech here. It’s also available to download from the Internet Archive – and a summary is posted below.
Summary of the argument
I began by arguing that most of the criticism of the Big Society has been poorly directed.
1. Comparisons to the Third Way are only superficially relevant. Tony Blair’s big idea was essentially a soundbite, lifted from an academic hired gun who would go on to distinguish himself by heaping praise on Muammar Gadaffi. There was no Third Way Bank, no Third Way Network and no Lord ‘Third’ Wei. Whatever we think of it, the Big Society is a substantial part of this government’s approach to running the country.
2. The argument that the Big Society is simply a fig-leaf for a Thatcherite desire to roll back the state also misses the mark. There may well be an ideological lust for cuts – just watch the Tory backbenches cheer and wave their order papers as George Osborne announces decisions which mean hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs. But to focus only on this is to miss the larger crisis which would face whoever governed Britain in 2011.
3. The deeper truth of the Big Society – I suggest – is that it marks the first step in a process in which British politics has to acknowledge the joint failure of the state and the market. Neither side of the public-private partnership can deliver the goods. The social fabric and economic security of life for the majority of people in countries like Britain has been eroding for a long while and this process is accelerating.
4. If this is true, then whether we can have a society worth living in for the 21st century will depend on the rise of new forms of social production, outside of the domains of both state and market. In other words, people meeting their own and each other’s needs under circumstances not primarily driven by money or coercion.
5. When government and those around it seek to understand what this might look like, it is not surprising that ‘volunteering’ finds itself under the spotlight. However, any model of the Big Society based on an enlargement of the voluntary sector as we know it is inadequate and will put an impossible strain on that sector.
6. What is needed is a great renegotiation. A renegotiation of work, of how we organise our lives, how we spend our time, how we meet our needs, how we use money and how we find meaning.
7. This sounds like a utopian proposition. However, what I am describing is not a revolutionary hope or a plan for social reform, but a historical process which is being forced upon us. It will happen, but in a messy, half-understood way, in which we muddle through and make the best of things. It is happening already.
8. The Big Society is best understood as part of that mess.
9. Viewed in this context, there are three big problems with the Big Society…
10. A flourishing of social production outside of the market and the state is not compatible with the economic policy of this government. You cannot both shift production of goods and services to non-monetised (or less-monetised) environments and expect a return to economic growth as we have known it. The activities to which the Big Society label is attached may well produce real value for people, but that value will be less visible in GDP than the effect of conventional economic activity, whether driven by the public or the private sector. An economic policy in tune with the truth of the Big Society would not be making quick-fix ‘cuts for growth’, but slow and careful ‘cuts for contraction’ – a careful, managed withdrawal of the state from certain areas of our lives, balanced by a support for the growth of community capacity and mutual production.
11. A flourishing of social production outside of the market and the state requires a far greater attention to how people feel. Money and state power are both highly effective means of getting people to do things without having to care very much about whether they have any intrinsic investment in the activity. This is not a recipe for a great place to live or work, however. We know that people are capable of amazing things when they are driven by intrinsic motivations, but for this to be sustained they need environments which feel fair and meaningful in ways which have become uncommon in societies shaped by the forces of the state and the market. Among other things, this means that a genuine Big Society could only flourish in a Britain where the widening inequalities of the past thirty years are tackled – and where the richest individuals and most profitable corporations no longer feel free to opt out of the tax system.
12. It is impossible for government to fully acknowledge the historical implications of the Big Society, because this would intensify the crisis. The financial markets would not look kindly on any serious politician who said the kind of things which I am saying about our economic future – and it is impossible to explain the Big Society meaningfully without saying such things. Politicians continue pretending that everything is OK until the moment when it is impossible to go on pretending. That is not their fault, it is their job.
13. In which case, it is the job of the rest of us to engage in the kind of honest conversation which is not available to those who hold power – to think through what the kinds of messy transition I have been describing might mean in practice, and to do what we can to put into practice things that will continue to work in such futures.
14. In this way, we may just create a society which is indeed big enough to catch the state and the market as they fall.
Thank you to Voluntary Action South West Surrey for inviting me to speak at their conference and giving me the opportunity to talk about this with an audience working in situations where policy ideas hit ground-level reality.