Big society or big state?

One obvious place to look for big society initiatives in the Conservative manifesto was the section on sport. This does not bode well. We seem to have a simple playing to the gallery with “big state” initiatives.

I should first of all set the scene. Nowhere is “big society” more evident than in sport. Every week thousands – maybe millions – of people play sports all organised in local communities and often affiliated to the kind of non-profit-making national organisations for which the UK has always been famous. Tens of thousands of volunteers are involved – easily outnumbering paid staff. Better still, these national organisations are also rule-making bodies: if only the Conservative Party could rediscover the benefits of private rule-making bodies in other spheres such as in financial markets. The structures of organisations such as the FA are quite remarkable. They not only provide private governance and discipline but supervise a sport from six year olds kicking around on the park to Manchester United versus Arsenal. Furthermore, the FA participates in a wide international network of other such organisations. This is replicated in every sport.

There are faults of course, but a better system could not be planned by government. We all have our gripes. I would like the FA to completely eliminate dissent on the football pitch at senior level (which it could easily do) with many advantages lower down the leagues, in junior leagues and perhaps for juvenile behaviour more generally. But I would not dream of suggesting that my MP should take the issue up.

There is some involvement by local and national government and I wish that involvement would cease. If any government finance for sport is provided, in my view it should be purely from the National Lottery (assuming that the government continues to run a lottery). This would be relatively apolitical funding and would at least be provided by voluntary subscription. I would prefer no government funding at all. There is too much local government involvement in providing football infrastructure but I would prefer to deal with this problem by making local government genuinely local and self financing rather than by national government putting a stop to it.

So what we have is a reasonable situation in perhaps the most promising area of “big society” – indeed maybe sport is the most important area where the encroachment of the state has not yet crowded out the big society. You might expect a Conservative government to reinforce the big society here – or at least leave it alone.

Instead, we have manifesto commitments (with little flesh) to faciliate football club cooperatives. Whether this will involve the state expropriating private property as Labour proposes is unclear but it is not a very promising suggestion. After all, football clubs can form cooperatives now if they wish to. There are football clubs of all shapes and sizes up and down the country. Manchester United is debt ridden and commercialised because it wants to compete on the world stage, bringing much pleasure to many in the process – Arsenal is different, Wycombe Wanderers is different and thousands of other football clubs each have their own model serving different ends.

The state is also going to do the following if the Conservatives win:

1. Promote a national Olympic-style school competition, which sounds a bit 1930s Germany to me.

2. Work with the Scottish government to deliver the Commonwealth Games.

3. Ensure (literally “ensure” – not just “support”) the success of the Rugby League and Rugby Union world cups (it is slightly surprising – though reassuring – to know that there are people in the Conservative Party high command who have heard of Rugby League).

4. Strongly support England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup.

These things can be done and should be done by the “big society” as manifested by the structures that promote sport in this country. We do not need big government in sport!

4 thoughts on “Big society or big state?”

  1. Posted 15/04/2010 at 07:22 | Permalink

    Philip, I agree with the general thrust of your argument, but I think that we have to recognise where we are starting from and where we want to be. Changes in behaviour have to be incentivised and after successive generations of big government we cannot expect civil society to regenerate spontaneously. The only means of doing this is now via government action itself, with all the dangers this involves. The only alternative is a passive fatalism.

    The same situation pertained in the early 1980s when Mrs Thatcher realised that the only means of liberating individuals from government was by government action, hence policies like the Right to Buy.

  2. Posted 15/04/2010 at 09:37 | Permalink

    Peter – I think this debate is legitimate regarding some areas of civil society. However, the state did not invent civil society in the first place and I fear the situation that would arise if it becomes a rather senior “partner” in reinvigorating it. So, I don’t agree with you but I see your point. However, sport is an entirely different issue. All sorts of private activity are absolutely thriving here and I am worried about increasing state encroachment where there can be no excuse for it.

  3. Posted 15/04/2010 at 14:22 | Permalink

    Philip, I don’t disagree with your example. What I would refer to is the case of the change to the licensing laws and the argument that this would somehow deal with binge drinking by creating a ‘European cafe culture’. This might happen in time, but the immediate effect was to further legitimate the culture of excessive drinking.

    Responsibility is about the proper appreciation of consequences and acceptance of responsibility as well as an extension of choice, and this is where government has a role.

  4. Posted 16/04/2010 at 16:44 | Permalink

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