There was more than a touch of déjà-vu about David Cameron’s re-launch of the Conservatives’ Big Society initiative yesterday. Here was a major policy speech relating almost exclusively to England in which the word ‘England’ was barely mentioned: once, in fact – and I’ll return to that in a moment. By contrast, Cameron spoke of the / our ‘country’ seven times and of ‘Britain’ twice, including in a rhetorical flourish at the end of his speech:
“It’s my hope – and my mission – that when people look back at this five, ten year-period from 2010, they’ll say: ‘In Britain they didn’t just pay down the deficit, they didn’t just balance the books, they didn’t just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society’. Whether it is in building affordable housing, tackling youth unemployment, inviting charities to deliver public services . . . the people in Britain worked out the answer to the big social problems”.
It was almost as if we were back to the good old bad old days of Gordon Brown: setting out the government’s England-only policies while studiously avoiding any reference to the ‘E’ word itself.
The difference between Cameron and Brown lies in the ‘content’ of the policy if not its British rhetorical dressing. Cameron’s statement, as summated in the above quote, is his programme for government in a nutshell: to rebalance the British economy and reduce the deficit (macro-economic policy: a reserved UK policy area) and to empower the “people in Britain” – specifically, the English people in Britain – to work out the solutions to their own social problems (social policy: an area of policy devolved to the respective governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but exercised on behalf of the people of England by the British government).
Hitherto exercised on behalf of the English people by the British government, that is: because the whole point of the Big Society is that, in theory at least, the formulation and implementation of social ‘policy’ as such, and the powers to deal with social problems, are going to be transferred to society itself down to the micro level (or the ‘nano level’, as Cameron called it): socially minded individuals, communities, local areas, and groups with a particular interest in specific aspects of civic society (such as parents running their own schools or communities getting involved in how they are policed).
The Big Society, in short, is what you get when the central British government sees its business exclusively as dealing with the macro dimension (UK macro-economics or the “national interest” – Cameron’s favourite phrase, which crops up in the second paragraph of his speech, when referring to deficit reduction) while disengaging altogether from the job of setting national policies in the social arena, which would in effect involve being a government for England. As a result, you have, on the one hand, the British macro layer of decision making in Whitehall and, on the other, the micro layer of the Big Society with absolutely no intermediate national-English layer of social or economic policy making, governance and democratic accountability.
In other words, ‘in Britain’, Government deals with what is its own ‘proper’ domain (macro-economics and other reserved policy areas) but does not ‘micro-manage’ the delivery of public services (to England), but instead devolves that responsibility to the micro level itself: the people who deliver those services. This is what is being offered to England by way of ‘equivalence’ to devolution for the other nations of the UK: ‘government of the people by the people for the people’ taken to a literal degree – disintermediated from the very democratically elected, national government and its institutions that are supposed to incarnate popular sovereignty, and instead being embodied in people themselves deciding to take direct action to deal with the social problems all around them. This is a ‘cultural revolution’ (or, as Cameron put it, “a huge culture change”) of almost Maoist scope: the people in a sense becoming the government and assuming its responsibilities, or – as the Conservative election manifesto referred to it – ‘joining the government of Britain’.
Except, as I say, what this actually means is becoming the government of England that the British government neither wishes nor is mandated to be. I am prepared to accept that Cameron, and many Conservative and even Lib Dem supporters of the coalition government, genuinely believe that the Big Society principles hold the key to resolving England’s social problems: that the era of ‘Big Government’ (or massive government engagement in social policy and public-service delivery) is over, and that society can find the answer to its problems only from within itself and from its own resources. Indeed, I agree with much of the localism behind the Big Society: that local issues are often best dealt with by the people directly affected by them; and that communities can really be revitalised if they can somehow come together to find a collective response to the social problems in their areas.
But if the Big Society is such a positive vision for transforming English society, why can politicians and the media not openly and honestly refer to it as an agenda for England? In virtually none of the media reports and discussions about Cameron’s Big Society launch I came across yesterday was the fact that it relates almost exclusively to England referred to. The honourable exception was the World At One news and current affairs programme on BBC Radio Four, where ‘England’ was mentioned twice, deep into the discussion, in such a way that you could be mistaken for thinking that only the particular aspect of the Big Society blueprint that was being referred to was limited to England rather than the whole thing.
I can’t remember now which aspect of the Big Society was being dealt with at that point. Perhaps it was the one reference to ‘England’ in Cameron’s speech: “we will create a Big Society Bank to help finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups through intermediaries. And I can announce today that it will be established using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England”.
What does the phrase “dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England” actually mean? Is this money in dormant English bank accounts, or is it the portion of the total money lying dormant in bank accounts across the UK that had already been allocated to public expenditure in England – meaning, presumably, that an even higher proportionate share of that fund had also been allocated via the Barnett Formula to the other countries of the UK. Let’s hope it doesn’t mean a combination of the two: English bank accounts from which only a portion has been allocated to England, while an unfair share is set to be distributed to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Be that as it may, the very fact that the Big Society Bank is to be formed from a pot of money set aside for England gives away, almost as an indiscretion, the fact that the Big Society is strictly an English affair. But why can’t this fact be openly acknowledged and even celebrated?
Well, in a way, it would have been rather extraordinary and counter-cultural if Cameron’s speech had talked of creating the Big Society in England, and of English people being empowered to resolve English social problems – even if that’s what is in fact being talked about. This avoidance of explicit references to England when talking about England is indeed something we became all too familiar with in the bad old New Labour days, and is something that has also been discussed at considerable length in previous posts in this blog.
In essence, the word ‘England’ is avoided in all this discourse because ‘England’ is a void within it: there has been a total void or vacuum of social policy for England as such – as a nation – throughout New Labour’s tenure, and the Big Society is what is intended to fill it. But the Big Society in turn is not designed as an English policy as such because it is the very national, English dimension that the Big Society continues to avoid and circumvent. So whereas New Labour indeed micro-managed public-service delivery in England in a top-down manner, while denying any distinction between the British state and the English nation (calling them both ‘Britain’), Cameron’s Conservatives want public services in England (or, as they would put it, ‘Britain’) to micro-manage themselves without regard to any English-national policy dimension. Either way, there’s ‘British government’ on one side and ‘society in Britain [England]’ on the other, and they’re either conflated (New Labour) or divergent (Conservatives). But the one option that’s not envisaged is the intermediate one of an English government taking responsibility for English social policy in partnership with the English people to whom it is accountable.
The fact that the Big Society is essentially a by-product of the British government’s abnegation of its responsibility to co-ordinate social policy and public-service delivery in England – in part because it neither is nor wishes to be a government for England – was made glaringly obvious to me yesterday evening by a comment by Francis Maude, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, on Radio Four’s Tonight programme. What he said was that by definition there was no national plan for rolling out the Big Society. Yes: because, by definition, that would have to be a national-English plan, and the Big Society is what social policy in England becomes when the UK government washes its hands of it.
It remains to be seen whether the people of England will respond to the challenge to develop into a Big Society that the British government has set it. And, of course, this challenge is more than merely moral and social, in that the government’s withdrawal from social provision in England is being carried out as much in pursuit of what it sees as its primary role (macro-economic management and deficit reduction) as it is the consequence of the government’s unwillingness and lack of authority to provide leadership and vision in English social policy.
There are hard times ahead for England. But the English are a tough, resilient and resourceful people. And maybe, in learning to take control over our own social problems and public services, the English will start to demand political self-determination, too, at a national level where government is truly accountable at all levels to the people it is supposed to serve.
If the British government won’t provide direction for English society, maybe the English people will have to truly take over their own government in ways that go far beyond what is envisaged in Cameron’s Big Society.