Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.



  1. Crumbs – and you got through all that without writing “1980s” once! Personally, I have a long memory, and date a lot of the problems this country now has way back to the 1960s! The ’80s seemed like a state of flux, heavily polarised.

    Comment by Maria — 5 May 2010 @ 8.21 pm | Reply

  2. Also, my long memory seems to recall that many industries were in serious trouble in the 1970s… I’m no Thatcher fan, Britologywatch, but I’m disappointed by those who blame her for the fact they stubbed their toe on the bedhead in 1982. And, speaking as a care worker in England, both now and in the ’80s, I can tell you that many of the changes imposed by New Labour would have caused uproar in the 1980s. I can’t believe it! I even have a “whistle blowing” clause in my contract – if I speak out, I get the sack!

    Comment by Maria — 5 May 2010 @ 8.26 pm | Reply

    • I agree that Labour have been worse than Thatcher in many respects; but Cameron looks set to be even worse, and even more Thatcherite, still.

      Comment by David — 6 May 2010 @ 7.15 am | Reply

  3. I think your analysis of the Big Society is spot on. I’ve seen it described as the transfer of responsibility without power. It also harks back to a much older model of self-sufficient towns and villages which no longer exists.

    Gong back to the 1980s, de-industrialisation was always going to be a painful process but instead of it being regarded as a national problem it was very much cast by the Thatcherites (but not the much denigrated Tory Wets) as the problem of industrial/manufacturing Britain. It allowed elective devolution back onto the agenda. If the centre is indifferent/hostile we might as well make our own arrangements…

    Comment by Hendre — 6 May 2010 @ 9.29 am | Reply

  4. One of the things which has so aided New Labour’s destruction of many the things I have held dear in my work in the social care field is unions like UNISON happily selling staff and service users up the river because they are so in cahoots with the Government. Under New Labour, I have watched representatives of an organisation called “Supporting People” lying to service users, telling them that they will be better provided for if they agree to their community residential schemes becoming de-registered, and then ripping the rug out, slashing support and facilities to a truly horrifying degree; and the service users are denied a say. I have seen day care facilities and services cut to the bone; I have seen service staff being made redundant, “redeployed”, downgraded or even sacked for speaking out. Terms and conditions of employment, in this low pay area, are changed willy-nilly – always to the detriment of the staff. And UNISON says nothing. The sort of cuts that we could never have envisaged in the 1980s (and I’m talking as a frontline care worker of then and now), and which would have had the unions screaming, are now passed with union blessing.

    Apparently because New Labour is doing the cutting.

    Perhaps if we get a Tory government UNISON, grand old hypocrite that it is, might put its teeth back in?

    Comment by Maria — 6 May 2010 @ 10.46 pm | Reply

  5. Hiya,

    Looks like BIG SOCIETY is about to be triggered by virtue of the Tories in power?

    So groups of “little people” will be “competing for Government funding” – this sounds to me like a recipe for a widening of the deficit? Though this new coalition appears to want to attack this deficit straight off? If they do the latter, THE BIG SOCIETY concept seems impossible because it needs funding that aint their right now?

    Of course politically everything is possible where notional funds, money can be sidelined as something else via creative accounting and not be included in the deficit figure.

    10’s of thousands of small community entities vieing for funding? And getting funding? You call thsi privatisation? Sounds to me like the ultimate huge social welfare state by another name ..

    Aidan – thoughts from a distance – not British, Me from Rep of Irl!

    Comment by aidan o driscoll — 12 May 2010 @ 2.49 pm | Reply

    • Aidan, I think the idea is they cut the funding and then get the people at the front line itself to run the shop on the basis that they know how to do it more cost-effectively. Plus, by getting what will essentially become school and hospital (etc.) businesses, competing for the reduced funding, they aim to set up a market dynamic that in theory will allow services to be provided more ‘efficiently’, as the businesses will have to manage their costs ruthlessly and keep them low to compete for further of the said funding. That’s how I see it anyway.

      But I don’t think the full Big Society vision is a go-er, at least if the first policy statement of the coalition is anything to go by – see my latest post today.


      Comment by David — 13 May 2010 @ 7.33 pm | Reply

  6. Also an article from The Irish Times on BIG SOCIETY that might be of interest to you guys –


    Comment by aidan o driscoll — 12 May 2010 @ 4.20 pm | Reply

  7. “as the businesses will have to manage their costs ruthlessly and keep them low to compete for further of the said funding.”

    In the social care sector in England, they already run things this way. Cut to the bone to win the tender! It has been a major part of the role of the government department/agency “Supporting People” to oversee this.

    It’s all about winning that tender. And to do that your services have gotta be cheap!

    But not necessarily safe or caring.

    The market dynamic is HERE, David. I know, I work in social care in England. I’m watching staff cover being slashed. I’m currently watching twenty-four staff cover for certain vulnerable groups being abolished. I’m hearing all about tenders and have been for some years.

    Why does nobody seem to know about the dark side of the “Supporting People” project?

    Or why does nobody seem to care? Blaming Cameron/Clegg for what is to come is one thing. But why no acknowledgement of, and protest about, what is already happening?

    Comment by Maria — 13 May 2010 @ 10.20 pm | Reply

    • Thanks, Maria. I don’t have any experience of Supporting People, but I know that the introduction of market forces into public services has already been extensive under New Labour. I think it would require a piece of investigative journalism to unmask the realities behind Supporting People that you refer to. Why don’t you try to get The Guardian, the BBC or Channel 4 to look into it. Seriously.

      Comment by David — 14 May 2010 @ 10.46 am | Reply

  8. a penetrating analysis (and the approach is being tried in Scotland too – see the current debate about schooling in East Lothian) — the one concept
    in the whole analysis which is missing for me in the clarity in which it is really necessary is “process of concentration” (in the sense of Marxist economic analysis). Does the process of competition which will be set in train by the proposed de-nationalisation necessarily lead to privatisation (sell-off to private profit-making enterprises) and then concentration of ownership and control of the privatised services, and will it necessarily lead to them increasingly ending up in the hands of private enterprise? If they are de-nationalised, will the measure of “success” necessarily be “profit” or “costs”? Under what conditions would their takeover by co-operative ventures allow other measures of success to prevail — and what regulatory or operating framework would be required to ensure that profit alone would not be used as the relevant measure, because that framework is what any Government concerned about fair distribution and access would be called apon to establish? On the other side, how will Government be able to ensure that an adequate level of provision is available everywhere and for everyone who needs it? I have the feeling that you are assuming that there necessarily will be negative outcomes over the long-term without showing that these are contingent on certain assumptions, such as that the service providers will compete solely on price and without any mutualism — but that surely is a question of the nature of the nature of the society within which this development takes place. In other words, the struggle is a cultural, social and political one to (re-)establish norms of social behaviour which were undermined by Thatcherism, such that they can be drawn upon in the implementation of the opportunities which this de-nationalisation also represents. A cooperatively run school, for example, is in itself not “bad” provided that the context allows it to flower. I too fear that in the current context, privatisation and then concentration will be the outcome (such as mostly has happened with e.g. civic bus companies), but I don’t think that one should short-circuit the analysis to paint a bleak outcome as being the only one possible.

    Comment by Ian Leveson — 14 May 2010 @ 10.35 am | Reply

    • Thanks for that thoughtful response, Ian. I agree with you. I’m inclined towards pessimism, but it isn’t the only possible outcome. Maybe the presence of the Lib Dems on board will push it more in the direction of mutualism and measures of success that include, for instance, better outcomes for poorer children. In any case, I’m not sure how much of the Big Society agenda remains intact in the new coalition (see my piece published yesterday on that topic).

      Comment by David — 14 May 2010 @ 10.43 am | Reply

  9. David, I would really like to get more publicity about Supporting People… I’ve fought some of the cuts where I work and it’s caused me tremendous grief.

    And I have been totally unsuccessful.

    The “whistle blowing” clause in my contract prevents me from doing more.

    I would be grateful if any good people out there who are not threatened with the loss of their income would delve and expose more about the way social care in England is currently being run.

    It’s already a nightmare, and I don’t believe the new Government is going to make things better. Quite the reverse.

    Thank you for acknowledging my comments. It is good to know somebody is listening.

    Comment by Maria — 14 May 2010 @ 11.28 pm | Reply

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