Big Society needs Small Brother

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The more Salaam Blogger hears of the Big Society idea, the more he feels like exclaiming ‘The Emperor has no clothes’.

If you read the small print the Big Society is basically about the minimisation of the Government’s public sector spending.

And who gets hit worst by this? Those sections of the population that are currently most deprived – they are hit by a double whammy. First many are low-paid workers in the public sector – and there are going to be major redundancies; secondly they rely on the support services provided by the public sector -for example specialist outreach workers – who will no longer be there.

It is an idea that has been imported from the United States where much of the welfare and social support is provided by private philanthropists and family foundations.

This was a model that existed in Britain a century ago – that is why names like Joseph Rowntree, George Peabody, Salt, Cadbury and Shaftesbury still mean something today. But then Britain did the sensible thing ñ responsibilities for tackling poverty, providing healthcare, guiding housing policies ñ were in large part transferred to Government. By seeking to absolve itself of these responsibilities, Government policy is retrograde. The US model is not to be emulated or imported. The State cannot be rolled back in an opportunistic and piece-meal manner.

When speaking about Big Society, ministers invoke terms like ‘localisation”, ’empowering local communities’ and slogans like ‘putting power and opportunities in people’s hands’.

When asked for a concrete example, ministers – for example Andrew Stunnel MP speaking at the conference on Faith, Social Action and Big Society on 19 October 2010 organised by the Faith-based Regeneration Network  talked about how a local community can get together to run a local library or local school that is threatened with closure because of the public sector cuts.

This may all be very well in Middle England, or in a locality with volunteers with the right mix of managerial and professional skills. What happens in an area without such typically middle-class input? The future seems to be one of greater social polarisation – where the term ‘gated community’will take on whole new dimensions.

Much too is made by Government of the contribution expected from the faith sector. Of course all faiths share values of social justice and do not need to be told of their role and vocation. The range of educational and social work carried out in mosques was documented in an MCB survey published in the report Empowerment not Control published in 2005. But how many mosques really have the financial and managerial capacity to employ and retain salaried youth workers? Is the Government expecting mosques, temples and gurdwaras to step in and fulfill some of the duties that are statutory and incumbent on local government and its agencies?

This will only exacerbate social polarisation: churches in Middle England with well-skilled lay volunteers and paid workers will do well as may some of the more progressive mosques, but certainly not the majority of your masjid-e-nurs.

Finally the problem with Big Society is that it is seeking to roll back the State while keeping silent about Big Brother. Britain has seen an inexorable strengthening and expansion of government databases on individuals, societal surveillance through CCTV and other means, anti-terrorism legislation that has led to an aggrandisement of power by the police and even an undermining of the judiciary and judicial enquiries (remember Widgery?). You cannot have a Big Society superstructure on a Big Brother foundation. The authoritarian apparatus needs to be dismantled as well.

The Big Society idea is a slogan without conceptual integrity.