The Big Society was the grand plank of the Conservative Party manifesto for the United Kingdom general election of 2010, and it has become part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement. Proposed laws incorporating parts of the program have been introduced in Parliament. But what is the Big Society? Can it work? And if not, then how could it be made workable?
A good place to begin an examination of this concept is Conservative leader David Cameron’s November 2009 Hugo Young Lecture where he expounded upon the idea in considerable detail. Essentially, Cameron believes that through a combination of political decentralisation and subsidiarity, greater transparency and increased accountability, the general public can have greater power vis à vis the services they use, better determine how their tax monies are spent, and shape how their local area is run. The state will focus on giving support to social entrepreneurs – one of the main purposes of the Big Society Bank, which had secured £200m in funding at the time of writing – and community activists, and on somehow prompting ‘a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation’ in the rest of the population. All this is towards the purported aim of eradicating poverty and producing a fairer Britain.
So much for the theory, but can it work in practice? As things stand, this appears uncertain. While few would argue against more devolvement and openness, the relegation of the state to a cheerleader role in accomplishing this end is unpromising. The more active purposes still reserved for state intervention are either remarkably modest in ambition, or alternatively so gargantuan and diffuse that it is hard to see how a government initiative could fulfil them, something that Cameron himself seems to acknowledge in his speech.
However, this is not to say that the Big Society is irremediable – provided, that is, the state applies some imagination and funding in the following areas:
1. Education. Cameron places great emphasis on education as a means of reducing poverty and increasing equality of opportunity and outcome, but in his speech there is barely an allusion to the appalling educational standards that blight very significant chunks of British society. The United Kingdom is a country in which functional illiteracy is a genuine problem and where the percentage of students gaining five grades A*-C at GCSE is around 50%; a similar proportion leave school without a basic science qualification, and around 70% do not attain a grade C or higher in a foreign language. Much more attention should be focused on forestalling this mind-altering waste of talent.
2. Transportation Infrastructure. Investment in transportation infrastructure is a sine qua non for engendering and maintaining a society in which the constituent parts feel connected. While some parts of the UK’s travel infrastructure – particularly its airports – are in many ways exemplars, other parts, particularly the country’s railways, are less good than comparable systems in many emerging markets, let alone developed countries.
3. Taxation. Another non-negotiable in putting flesh on the bones of the Big Society is the reform of tax legislation. In particular, there must be much stricter laws – and very public criminal prosecution of those that break them – pertaining to tax avoidance and evasion by the wealthy, since these all too routine practices are severely subverting many people’s belief that there is such a thing as society at all; furthermore, the UK’s tax base is being pulverised by the failure of some of the wealthiest people in the country to pay their way.
4. Public Space. There is no escaping the fact that there is nothing like great public spaces – well-maintained parks, fountains, playgrounds and pedestrian zones – to help create the feeling of community that Cameron so evidently desires.
5. Family. If families are the building blocks of communities and therefore society, then are moderate tax breaks really the best we can do for them? In Singapore, the government helps create them through running a dating agency, the Social Development Unit. This specific measure may run into some cultural logjams in the UK, but the importance of considering alternative ways of thinking about these issues should not be underestimated.