As we know, David Cameron’s Big Society project relates almost exclusively to England, not to Britain as a whole, as the policy areas it affects are mostly devolved: education, health, communities and local government, and policing (that one involves Wales, too). I believe in fact that the Big Society represents a frontal assault on any notion of an English-national civic society and public interest. You might think the opposite is true, as the Big Society ostensibly seeks to engage citizens in community work and the delivery of social services. However, it does so at the cost of dismantling any national-English framework for services that have traditionally been regarded as at least mainly the domain of the public sector.
For example, there’s a danger that there’ll be no national or even regional strategy for the development and nature of the ‘national’ (i.e. public) health service as health-service provision in England increasingly takes on the character of a market, with public- and private-sector organisations competing to provide services most ‘cost-effectively’ on behalf of the local bodies responsible for commissioning and funding the services, such as GP practices. Or again, local authorities will be undermined in their role of co-ordinating education policy, administration and funding in their areas as more academies and ‘free’ schools spring up, and as council budgets are cut. And while one might welcome the diversity of approach and potential increase in choice the new schools could bring, it is also true that local-authority management brings economies of scale and a pooling of resources, and facilitates the co-ordination and implementation of local and national education strategies, which are theoretically accountable to voters at large.
The Big Society has the potential to bring many benefits, and there is much to be commended about localism in general. But localism without any national policy framework regarding the level, scope and objectives of public-service provision could result in a terrifying atomisation of English society, with British citizens resident in England having no confidence in the standards of public service they have a right to expect even in areas as fundamental as health care and policing, as all of these vital services will be subordinated to local administration, priorities and resourcing, and to ever greater involvement of ‘private’ providers, whether not-for-profit or profit-making.
While this is scary enough in terms of the practical consequences for ordinary citizens, what it involves is effectively the dismantling of a distinct English civic society and public sector: no English NHS, just locally administered and funded health care; no English education system, just a varied pattern of public, private and mixed funding and provision throughout England; weakened local councils, which could otherwise be accountable to English voters, because their responsibilities have been siphoned off to a Macedonian mish-mash of providers and community groups with no overall co-ordination of strategy or guarantees of service quality. Talk of Balkanisation! This could be a smashing up of England into a million splinters creating a postcode lottery even greater than the über-postcode lottery that occurs at England’s borders with Scotland and Wales!
Ultimately, the Big Society is predicated on an unwillingness and inability to imagine and create a positive, modern and participatory civic society in England: with national policy objectives and a national framework for delivering them, involving the establishment of strong English institutions and structures in areas such as education, health care and planning. The effect at local level will be that ordinary English people will end up having to pay more for services that ought to be publicly provided up to a certain minimum standard that English society as a whole could debate and decide about through an English parliament, such as social care for the elderly, university education, local library services, public transport, etc. The reason why these services ought to be provided and funded to a certain degree by the public sector is because they actually constitute and embody what it is to be a civilised nation where all citizens are provided for and looked after by their fellow citizens, either directly or through taxation-funded public services. We can debate about the extent to which those services should be publicly funded and provided, and the extent to which private money and private citizens should be involved in delivering them. But if there’s no nation-wide debate and consensus about even a minimum level of publicly funded civic society and institutions, we cease to be nation at all.
Indeed, one might say that the Big Society becomes thinkable as a model for English society, because England itself is no longer thought of as a nation, at least by those prosecuting the Big-Society blueprint. Is this absence of any (English)-national dimension to their model for English society a mere oversight: a mere reflection of the lack of an English-national dimension from the thinking of most of the British establishment? Or is it a reflection, also, of something more sinister: an actual contempt for the idea of England as such and the expression of a malignant design to effectively destroy the markers of English nationhood, such as I have defined them – a civilised, national framework for looking after, educating and providing basic services for all English British citizens?
In reality, it’s probably a bit of both: lazy thinking and contempt. But the question I would ask is how can a Big Society – one in which English citizens take more direct responsibility for looking after their own – be fostered when the local avenues through which it is to be enacted effectively remove any national institutional and policy framework that could symbolise the existence of an English common interest; and when the British government itself appears to have no commitment to institutions and ways of doing things that reflect a concern for the common good and for public assets that are for the benefit of all?
In short, how can the English be expected to demonstrate practical concern for one another when the British government is divesting itself of practical concern for England as a whole? And how can every English man and woman be expected to do their duty to one another when the British establishment has no sense of duty towards England?