Power and the Big Society

I find it hard to respond to the daily developments in the story of cuts and public service reforms.  Yesterday, we had the launch of the new Whitehall business plans (available from: http://transparency.number10.gov.uk/).  We have daily developments on welfare reform, cuts to housing benefits and now compulsory volunteering (George Orwell, where are you?).

But I worry about the quick responses that the developments generate.  Opposition politicians oppose them, in large part.  Academics point out the problems that will arise.  All are either defending their own past record or stuck in the rut of ‘defending our welfare state’.  The word that sticks out the most is ‘our’, as though we own and control it.  But the welfare state is not like that.  Indeed, one could argue that it replaced some systems (patchy and inadequate) that were like that – the mutual, friendly and cooperative societies that predated the welfare state.

In the 1980s, the cutbacks prompted the same response – defend what was there.  This response completely overlooked the criticisms that had been emerging from all sides during the 1970s.  Not many saw the state as a force for progress.  On the right, it was inefficient, morally corrupting and a burden on private enterprise.  On the left, it was patriarchal, racist and controlling.  How quickly that became a simple divide during the cuts of the 1980s.

These thoughts are prompted partly by a speech I heard in Manchester at the end of last week.  Lord Bichard talked, like so many others, of empowering people, of handing over control – of the Big Society – in a manner devoid of any ideology, as if it were a matter of pragmatism.  That is not how power works.  For individuals to be autonomous or for communities to be empowered, they must take the control for themselves.  Finding and taking those little spaces and opportunities to shape our life and society despite the state (particularly if it is no longer to be there in the way that it was in the past?) is the next discussion to be had.  And I don’t think it can be driven from Whitehall or even Townhall, never mind the House of Lords.

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