David Cameron wrote, in the Observer yesterday, about his vision for the Big Society.
Before I write this, I feel I need to come clean about my political leanings. I’ve never voted Tory, have voted Labour most of the time, and have voted Lib Dem and Green on other occasions. I’m certainly not, and never have been, a strong supporter of any party, or a member of any. But, as I wrote in the Guardian last Wednesday, growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s means that I am pretty suspicious of the Tories, no matter how much they try to tell me that I should give them a chance.
But I do find a fair bit of what they’re saying interesting. How could I not? As someone who works with social entrepreneurs, I’m bound to be interested in a party that sees social entrepreneurs playing a big part in improving society and delivering services. I’m also a fairly big critic of the State, and do think that we waste a lot of money and human potential through centralised, bureaucratic decision making.
The strapline for my business is Make it your business to change the world. I bet it’s one that Steve Hilton would be proud of – bringing in the idea of business changing society – but also with a play on words which suggests that you shouldn’t wait round for other people to change things. Make it your business. Do it yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world.
So why am I sceptical? Fundamentally, I don’t trust where the Tories are coming from. I can’t help but think that deep down, there’s a deserving poor/undeserving poor narrative behind much of their thinking on society. People need to pull their socks up – and the State needs to facilitate that pulling up of socks. For too long it’s pulled people’s socks up for them – and whole generations have forgotten how to do it themselves.
I wouldn’t wholly disagree with that. But I worry where that goes next. How long do you wait for people to re-learn how to pull up their socks? And how much do you take into consideration other factors which may impact on the ability to learn the skill – and which caused the loss of the skill in the first place? Whilst, yes, ultimately I believe we each have to take responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, there are far too many people who find themselves in situations which mean it’s very hard to progress. Wider social injustices – over generations – mean that change will take time. Sorry if this makes me a bleeding-heart liberal, but society is unfair. Many Tories don’t understand that, because, to put it simply, they’ve never directly experienced that unfairness – and it has never held them back.
Of course it will take time to change society. I imagine David Cameron would agree that, if he gets his chance, he won’t change society in one term. Yet I think their Big Society argument is too simplistic, and doesn’t really take into account what real life is like – and what may happen if Big Society replaces Big State.
They’re very excited about what we can learn from the online world. I love all the Web 2.0 stuff – the generosity of communities which maintain wikipedia, develop open source software and actively support eachother and share information through Twitter. But real life, in real neighbourhoods, is a million miles away from the online world. Part of the attraction of online networking is that you can scour the world for people who share similar interests to you. People define themselves into tight communities, where yes, there is some diversity and healthy debate, but where there is a lot of common ground and shared purpose. Quick progress is made because we find people like us to make progress with.
The places where most of us live aren’t like that. And face-to-face progress on issues that face my neighbourhood can be a lot more difficult than online collaboration to fix a website. Why? Because people are people. Put people in a room and they’ll argue. They’ll each bring their agendas. They’ll block progress on this issue because they felt they weren’t listened to on the last issue. They’ll enjoy being listened to – but won’t make too much of an effort to listen to others. Is that a bleak view of humanity? Perhaps it is. But have you ever been to an Allotment Committee meeting? Or a Tenants and Residents Association AGM? Wonderful, real, human, community action. But as labyrinthine as, and potentially less accountable than your worst local Council meeting.
I don’t hear the Tories telling us this story. All I hear is that there’ll suddenly be a great upsurge in community activity, with a great sense of shared purpose to build a new Britain. I don’t hear about the upheaval a retreat of the State could cause – and the difficulties that would come from an uneven patchwork of community action. Do they really believe that the people who are worst off are the ones that will benefit most from the opportunity to do it themselves? And are we ready for the friction that will come as communities which will take time to organise see how early-adopters are surging ahead, with the support of the State?
I think in broad terms the Tories are right on a number of issues. I do think the relationship between the State and the people has to change. I do think that more of us have to start taking responsibility for improving society, rather than retreating into our cosy homes and consuming our way out of having to worry too much about the slow disintegration of the community around us. I just think they’re being simplistic – and that their approach would lead to further social division as those who have power, income and contacts do well – setting up schools and improving services for people like us, whilst people who do need a helping hand are told that you just have to do it yourselves.