Cameron’s “Big Society” smacks of bureaucracy not empowerment

Tory leader David Cameron scored well on rhetoric yesterday – but fell down badly on detail. His vision is of “a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control.” That should be music to the ears of free market liberals everywhere.

But, his actual proposals for a “Big Society” include, amongst other things, the creation of a 5,000 strong “neighbourhood army” to identify community leaders and bring people together, the factoring in of community service as part of civil servants’ annual appraisals and – most ludicrously of all – establishing a national “Big Society Day” to celebrate the work of local groups and encourage more people to “get involved.”

It’s all very well for the Conservatives to wax lyrical about the merits of a post-bureaucratic age, but their prescriptions for society’s ills do seem to involve employing a large number of bureaucrats.

To the Conservatives’ credit they seem to accept that direct state action is not always – or even usually – the answer to vast swathes of the country’s problems. But, infuriatingly, they remain wedded to the view that politicians and civil servants can nearly always play a useful, facilitatory role.

The reverse is true.

If you want to encourage me to become more active and involved in my local area, the last thing I want is a bunch of government-appointed do-gooders traipsing around my estate in search of community leaders and inviting me – if I pull my weight sufficiently – to a patronising pat on the head on “Big Society Day.”

Private groups of citizens will spring up spontaneously and take positive action if government gets out of the way. If councils and Whitehall bureaucrats assume ever more responsibility for making our local communities safer, cleaner and smarter, then expect individuals and voluntary groups to do less. State officials – however well intentioned – always tend to crowd out and diminish the initiative and charity of private citizens.

With six weeks to go before polling day, the leader of the Opposition seems to be somewhere towards having made a sound diagnosis – that society and the state are different things – but he can’t resist the usual politician’s prescription of putting forward a raft of expensive, government-fronted initiatives to cure the country’s ills.

The UK’s deficit is running at about £180bn, on top of a trillion pounds of overall debt. We can’t seem to afford to keep our traditional army properly equipped and maintained, let alone splash out on a new army of the neighbourhood variety.

Whatever David Cameron and other politicians say between now and polling day, the next British government is going to have to make swingeing cuts in the public sector. It would be a breath of fresh air for political parties to spell out, explicitly, which wasteful and ill-thought out government projects they are going to scrap – not which new ones they can dream up.

7 thoughts on “Cameron’s “Big Society” smacks of bureaucracy not empowerment”

  1. Posted 01/04/2010 at 14:15 | Permalink

    I agree – he talks the talk but then doesn’t walk the walk. Unfortunately, Cameron faces the difficult (impossible) task of being elected leader of a country who’s media and public discourse is entirely dominated by a statist viewpoint – if there’s a problem, government should act; if there’s a new drug, ban it and so on. Government performance is measured by activity and intentions not actual result and there is little consideration of alternatives. So the public gets the politicians it deserves. I’m not sure if he’s a statist or not (or is anything?) or if this is electioneering, by his actions ye shall know him!

  2. Posted 01/04/2010 at 14:26 | Permalink

    If we are concerned with economic ‘recovery’, surely it would be good news to hear about the ’swingeing cuts in the public sector’ which Mark is so confidently predicting. In particular I would like to hear about the thousands of (ex) public servants who are about to be unleashed on the private sector and contribute their energy and brainpower to the productive sector of the economy.

    Actually this is a ‘double plussy’ (if there is such a word): not only will they be helping the economy to grow, but they will at the same time be helping to reduce the size and influence (and, of course, cost) of government. Roll on the consequential tax cuts in due course!

  3. Posted 01/04/2010 at 15:57 | Permalink

    I agree with Prof Myddelton’s views – of course – but I’m afraid that Labour (who need to tax and spend to buy their client state supporters) have managed to convince the electorate, and even the IFS, that cuts would ‘endanger recovery’ as opposed to enhancing it. This view is almost never challenged, so we have all Tories pretending they won’t cut hard instead of challenging the prevailing view and proposing that cuts are not only necessary, but beneficial. We also need to talk about ‘reform’ or – gasp – privatisation instead of cut. The public aren’t (I hope) too stupid to understand this, they are just never told it – except by the IEA.

  4. Posted 01/04/2010 at 20:20 | Permalink

    We were warned. In his 2006 Scarman Lecture, David Cameron said “We need to make sure that local government and the large voluntary groups act less as final recipients of government funding, and
    more as conduits … where there is a level playing field for the voluntary sector to compete with the public and commercial sectors … where the funding streams for social enterprise are simplified and
    longer contracts awarded…”

    In my book “Crap: A guide to politics” I retorted “In other words a bit of re-routing – to any organizations except businesses, i.e. those who (a) pay tax and (b) can carry out profit–loss calculations. This is going to be a humdinger of a fiasco.”

  5. Posted 02/04/2010 at 09:56 | Permalink

    Quite right! Local energy will spring up when given the chance. We do not want the revolting pat on the shoulder from another man from the ministry.

  6. Posted 02/04/2010 at 13:48 | Permalink

    Related to this: Cameron’s plans for a National Citizen Service are particularly scary and authoritarian, with echoes of Obama’s similar plans. See:

  7. Posted 02/04/2010 at 20:01 | Permalink

    […] Política — André Azevedo Alves @ 20:00 Uma excelente análise de Mark Littlewood: Cameron’s “Big Society” smacks of bureaucracy not empowerment. With six weeks to go before polling day, the leader of the Opposition seems to be somewhere […]

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