“Oi Dave! I’ve found Big Society – it’s over here!”


Why David Cameron’s idea of “Big Society” never took off…and why we need to look much deeper – all the way down to basic political literacy

It took me a year to get round to joining, but better late than never. I had my baptism of fire at the Duxford Orchestra today. E-major on the viola is never a pleasant experience at the best of times. Interestingly enough, I’ve got my old orchestra conductor from primary school in charge of our string orchestra, so there was one vaguely familiar face from 1989-91.

Duxford’s not the easiest place to get to by public transport. Buses only run once every hour and it’s a 20 minute walk from the nearest railway station crossing a stupendously busy road with traffic whizzing by at up to 60mph. But I went anyway with the mindset that if I didn’t do it now, I never would. What was striking was both the sheer number of people turning up – many of the 300 or so people registered packed into every room available, along with the variety. Children from primary school to sixth form, post-graduate students, adults and the elderly all there learning and making music. It felt like the area’s best kept secret. (They on the other hand were delighted to have an additional viola player – we’re rare!)

A trip through Lansley Country

The bus journey to register last week took me on a tour of a number of villages in Andrew Lansley country just as the bus trip to Cambourn did when I took Puffles to deliver a social media presentation at South Cambridgeshire District Council. The constituency that surrounds Cambridge – South Cambridgeshire – is that of the controversial former Health Secretary.

Looking at the posters and the noticeboards you get a feel of what a settled relatively affluent rural community is like. It has a number of similarities to the one my late aunt and uncle lived in during my childhood – one that until my mid-teens my siblings and I would go and stay at during the summer holidays. It was great for all concerned – the country house they lived in would turn into a hive of activity for the entire village, we’d get a ‘summer holiday’ that we otherwise could not afford – in those days visits abroad were beyond the reach of many of us, my family included, and everyone had a good time. We never realised it at the time but there was some ‘kudos’ about both living in Cambridge and being from a city.  Children living in a village really are dependent on their parents to get them from A to B. You tend not to notice when very young but in my late teens, a number of drinking friends would have to leave early to catch last trains back to their villages.

What’s this got to do with David Cameron and Big Society?

His constituency is similar to that of the areas I have just described – only it’s on the outside of the other place – Oxford. Day-to-day constituency life in rural areas is very different to that of say inner city London – where I lived for a while when I was in the civil service. (One flat share being in an ex-council block that had been heavily refurbished). The ebb and flow of what happens in inner cities is very different to that of rural areas. (No —- Sherlock!) – but from a “Big Society Policy” perspective, this matters – greatly. But Cameron didn’t show he recognised this.

As far as the adults and young children are concerned, settled, relatively vibrant for a rural area, and affluent are words that could be used to describe both areas that Lansley and Cameron’s constituencies are in. That’s not to say they are not without their problems. Eavesdropping on the conversations some of the elderly have on the buses tell you this. (Interestingly, the bus drivers and the elderly seem to be on first name terms in those parts – unlike in my neck of the woods!) Would Cameron’s understanding of Big Society have been different if he had spent time living and working in an inner city area?

What do I think he meant by Big Society?

Because before the election everyone was trying to work it out, just as after it everyone was too. The civil service struggled with the concept because as far as Cameron was concerned, it was everything that previous civil-service-run programmes were not. No ‘top down’ initiatives from ministers with a budget from the Treasury and a series of performance indicators and bureaucratic reports, but rather letting the community get on and do things for themselves was the message.

But what did this look like? What did this feel like? What examples of this did he have? PR man to the core, both campaigning and as Prime Minister he visited a number of projects that were delivering to his mind what Big Society was all about. The problem was that these visits became hostages to fortune as a number were forced to close due to the huge cuts to the grant given to local councils from central government. Some even started listing them. The decentralisation agenda pushed by the Coalition meant that where once central government could have leant on local councils to keep such projects open – or even give them a grant from somewhere, decentralisation meant letting local councils make decisions on cuts.

I find it surprising that Cameron didn’t seem to recognise the importance that local councils play in supporting community activities – especially as he held the shadow local government spokesman post for the Conservatives in 2004. District, town and parish councils had – and have a huge role to play in the general functioning of civic society. It’s depressing that engagement at a local level is so dire given how important these roles are.  The one thing that Eric Pickles (Cameron’s Communities and Local Government Secretary – who is the face of local government cuts) got is the importance of bin collections: This is the one very visible service that local councils provide to everyone.

Scrutiny scrutiny scrutiny

I jump on about this because I’m trained to – the joys of being institutionalised. Actually, Richard Taylor is the expert in scrutinising local government in and around Cambridge. There’s also the issue of people only really missing something when it’s threatened or when it’s gone. The “Why didn’t anyone tell us it was in trouble!?!” sort of thing. One of the issues I have with decentralising things beyond local government is accountability for public money – especially with the “disposal” of publicly-owned assets (such as community halls) to ‘community groups and charities’. How do you ensure accountability for the management of those assets?

There are a couple of tensions here. One is the principle that local government should be a key institution within the community, and the other that local government is part of the state, so should be separate from the community. How do you resolve that tension?

PFI pricing people out

In years to come I think this will be seen as one of the biggest scandals in government for decades. The idea was to use PFI to spend more money up front than the state could afford, in order to make up for the run-down schools and hospitals of decades gone by, but also to transfer the risk to the private sector. As it turned out, the risk stayed with the state, the private sector got a licence to print money and community groups got priced out of facilities that were previously open to them.

Where do we go from here?

Jon Worth was on the right lines with his criticism of Labour – stating that it has no overarching vision of where it wants to get to. The same could be said for all three of the political parties. None of them appear to have a clear and coherent vision of where they want the country and society to get to, let alone how to get there. If they do, they’ve not communicated it very well. This was the overall problem of big society: Cameron could not communicate what his vision of it was, nor was it clear how such a vision would look in what are very different and diverse communities across the country. It’s one thing going to visit lots of projects and saying “Well done chaps!” but quite another to demonstrate an understanding of what are the common strands ensuring that such projects are successful and taking steps to support them in the longer term. Ripping the financial heart out of local government budgets had the opposite effect. Let’s also be clear that all three main political parties made clear that some sort of spending cuts were going to have to be made.

No – really, where DO we go from here?

This is what I’m trying to find out. Politics fascinates me and it has been a privilege to have seen it so close up during my time in the civil service. Yet as I stated in my blogpost about Obama’s speech, the state of UK politics is heart-breaking. Just have a listen to this lost in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

This is one of the reasons why I regard the spats between mainstream politicians as being little more than that. Given the scale of the problems we face locally to globally, the stuff that gets commented on and covered is all-too-often pathetic. Mountains are made out of molehills to try and show there is clear water between the parties. All too often people tell me that all politicians are the same. They are not, but I can understand how they’ve come to that conclusion. As I mentioned in Engaging with politics, but on whose terms? how can you even begin to start when ‘brand politics’ is so toxic?

Actually, it’s not all bad news

As I’ve said to various people – in particular politicians, effective use of social media allows politicians to be seen as human beings. Believe it or not, most of them are – and in my opinion many of them go into politics for the right reasons. Not for money, power or fame but because they want to do something to make the world and society a better place. I may disagree with them in how they intend to do it, but enough of them at least have their hearts in the right place. Fortunately social media allows politicians to show they have a human side. The politicians that get the best out of social media from my perspective are the ones who actually use it to converse with people. i.e. they listen to the posts that come back and respond having engaged with their brains.

Right! My politicians need an in-depth social media strategy to show their human side. Puffles, can you help?

No and no. All too often politicians – and organisations too – use social media as a channel for press release style or political point-scoring style posts. For example I can believe Stella Creasy in her dislike of Coldplay and love of mid-90s indy/britpop because it’s something that regularly comes up in her tweets, that people tease her about (because she teases young campaigners in her office about it too). Thus the conversation is natural. When a politician posts something along the lines of “Outrageous bigotry from Tory Cllr – Cameron should be ashamed for personally endorsing him & agreeing with every word” or “We are in this situation because of the actions of the last government that she endorses”. Oh please.

Is Fraser Nelson right?

Well he’s onto something in this article that tore into political party conferences – noting that while party numbers are plummeting, those of campaign groups are going in the opposite direction. What this the latter shows is that people are still passionate about stuff. Where it gets complicated is making the step over from single issue campaigning (which is relatively straight forward) to multi-issue campaigning and organising, which is a damn sight harder.

This in part is what the Democracy 2015 people are trying to do – though as I stated earlier, if a new political party is the answer, what is the question? It’s wider than party politics. It’s wider than voter registration & turnout. It’s wider even than political engagement. There are two very basic issues of political literacy and citizenship. To be a citizen implies some sort of rights and responsibilities. Political literacy implies knowing something about the origins of those rights and responsibilities. Those rights and responsibilities were not things that were given to us or our ancestors lightly. They had to fight for them. For too many, it cost them their lives. Freedom isn’t free. If we want to keep hold of those freedoms, then surely one of the first problems we need to deal with is the lack of political literacy.


4 thoughts on ““Oi Dave! I’ve found Big Society – it’s over here!”

  1. 60mph? Cars come far faster than that along the A505, despite the 50mph limit… plus they tailgate horribly at rush hour. Absolute nightmare of a crossing, and I use it twice a day.

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