David Cameron has today staked much of his personal credibility by relaunching his sometimes derided, often misunderstood vision for decentralising the state with his 'Big Society' policy initiative.
In his attempts to drum up publicity and enthusiasm for the announcement he rallied his pre-emptive defence against claims that the policy was a 'mask' for budget cuts being overseen as part of deficit reduction plans.
Almost on cue opposition voices did just that.
But this polarised debate obscures both the reality and the real potential of the initiative.
Firstly it's worth highlighting the way Labour's discourse stubbornly attempts to link Cameron to his Conservative predecessors in an unbroken singular ideological chain which infers causality behind the proposals rather than effect.
Although we might say it's convenient for him in some respects for his own base to identify with thatcherism, it is a foolish politician who fails to recognise society is always moving forward, and never quite accurate to describe any Prime Minister as a fool.
So it is unfair on several levels, but it also misreads the warmth and attachment Cameron has to his pet project, calling it his 'burning mission'. He is obviously genuine and heart-felt in thinking it can make a positive difference in allowing greater localism and 'subsidiarity' (a unfortunate term from the lexicon of eurocracy, unlikely ever to ever be uttered from his own mouth), even if he may be misguided. He calculates people do want to exercise some power to influence the direction of the services we use, and for all the money government spends on consultations it's an obvious conclusion that there is at least some official recognition of the benefits of good customer service there too.
So it should be a goer then, right?
Well, no, not quite.
The problem is that it fits all too neatly into the gap created by cuts as required by his own deficit reduction plan, and in many cases is being seen as a way to sack committed civic-minded workers then count on them to continue their jobs without pay after being made redundant.
But these typically low-paid altruistic types with their own crippling financial commitments weren't in it for the money in the first place, so they don't have the means to continue with what was more of a vocational choice. They need to work. In the end it's a double-whammy of stopping their income and disregarding their personal investment - if it was only one or other it wouldn't inspire quite the same bitterness.
So the opposition has a tailor-made critique - namely that he wants to slash the public sector by screwing over the people at the coal-face.
But this isn't quite the full story.
Under successive governments a whole unproductive professional industry of charity and volunteer organisations have mushroomed to take up the slack in the system caused by an eternity of state-sponsored social inequality and exclusion.
More recently an explosion of consumer-oriented credit and retail services filled the economic vacuum in the never-ending 24-hr consumer society of New Labour's then-future. Monumental retail parks and shopping centres sprouted while independent retailers were squeezed out between the proliferating branded chain stores and the bottom-end of the scale where neglected shopping streets were taken over by Age Concern and Sue Ryder thrift shops.
Big Issue sellers and chuggers still loiter in the gap between the point where private security firms prevent them from enteringthe former and BID funding refuses to pay for community street patrols beyond the latter. These are middle-class beggars pushed out onto commission, caught in the snakes and ladders game of saving for the new norm of debt-laden student years and the all-too common extreme of a homeless and dependant aftermath - they subsist by guilt-tripping hard-pressed office monkey's like me and you to commit to a minor direct debit with the promise of saving the the world and everything in it... they were your moral boot-polishers in the porch outside the modern-day shrines to Gok Wan and Elton John-type shopping excess.
For all the salve they provide to our post-industrial conscience they're also no more than a sticking plaster to the ills of an uncompetitive and unproductive economy: the craze for not-for-profit organisations as ethical and responsible businesses has proven unsustainable.
Meanwhile everything from waste collection to rent collection was competitively tendered by local authorities, and those which weren't ('essential' services including fire and ambulances, NHS PCTs, LEAs etc) became increasingly separated from the public by continuous restructuring.
Councils which initially encouraged social enterprises quickly became addicted to their electoral and executive popularity, while national government enthused over the ability of the quango state to deflect potential political damage. Freed from the day-to-day political pressures of direct oversight these organisations could invest and they could innovate, but all to often this involved cutting corners and putting commercial spin on the truth by manipulating top-down targets at the expense of the masses.
Many new layers of management jobs were created running departments where standard cost savings would divert into their salaries rather than as rewards for investors risk or reductions in the publicly-funded contracts - which also had the knock-on effect of inflating competitive rates for equivalent council and civil service grades. In addition to this a lack of accountability developed, as the specialised and enclosed nature of their work often meant single providers had an effective monopoly in localised anti-market conditions - once the management or service contract was signed there was an in-built disincentive to change providers (for instance insisting on 20+ year contracts).
Now, following the tanking of the economy, amidst widespread resistance where all sides are facing cuts and each are defending their corner Cameron clearly doesn't have sufficient will or deep-seated support to attack the real problem bureaucrats in card-shuffling positions and instead he's forced to accept he's powerless to prevent them from passing on the cuts to those less able to absorb them, but who are still most in need of them.
Consequently his idea of a 'big society' begins to look less like a glorious 'vision' or a vicious 'mask' and more like a desperate 'stop-gap' - and that's an analysis equally unpalatable for both the PM and the leader of the opposition.
Under Blair's New Labour growth in these areas of the economy made for a nicer, more ethical society, now Cameron's old-nation tory party is hoping to translate this into a more civil, bigger society. Sadly, because left and right can't reconcile their ideological feuding to marry their opposing perspectives it's only by fits and starts that each inch us forward to a better society, when real strides can and need to be made.
Bagehot on The Big Society
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