The problem for David Cameron is not that the the Big Society is controversial. Cameron’s bigger problem is that it has become a joke. It’s taken its place in the long list of initiatives in which British politicians have tried to reconnect with their electorate, and have merely ended up as objects of ridicule. Remember the Citizen’s Charter? Or John Major’s Back to Basics campaign, where the appeal to return to traditional values rang out to the accompaniment of Tory Ministers pulling up their trousers and vowing to spend more time with their publicly-forgiving spouses? Or Eric Pickles declaring war on bossy bollards? Or even the epic idiocy that was the Cones Hotline, now only remembered – if at all – for inspiring one of Steve Bell’s most memorable cartoons?
So why are Britain’s politicians so bad at connecting with their electors? Why are these initiatives so risible?
It’s partly because the political class is increasingly remote from the population as a whole. Drawn from an increasingly narrow social, educational and economic elite and made up of people who have never had any occupation other than politics, these are solipsistic initiatives drawn up by people who lack direct experience of the day-to-day life of their electors, and who can only communicate through focus groups and opinion surveys. The messiness, vicissitudes and sheer humour of daily life never penetrate into the consciousness of the career wonk; the daily routines of work, health, school, childhood and commuting are alien to them.
In the case of the Big Society, there is of course the problem that most of the public think it’s about covering up cuts – with plenty of justification. It’s a shallow Con-trick, a wheeze for replacing paid professionals with volunteers, and an expression of anti-State ideology. Moreover, it reeks of the patronising ethos of the public school, in which people who are strong on chapel and team spirit assume the mantle of natural moral leadership. It’s about all pulling together to create an illusion of unity in a society deeply divided by wealth and class, with cuts in the services that provide the decencies of life for millions widening that division every day.
But it also harks back to a particular British stereotype – that of the wealthy do-gooder, often female with plenty of time on her hands, and a passion for organising others. It’s the world of Lynda Snell, Hyacinth Bucket and Margo Leadbetter, people who know what’s good for other people better than they do themselves. Or, from a more left-wing perspective, the assorted Fabians, vegetarians and back-to-nature enthusiasts that Orwell mocks in Coming Up for Air. Such people are stock comic characters, and that this should be so tells us a lot about why people cannot take the Big Society remotely seriously.
But ultimately the thing that distinguishes them is the belief that they have the right to determine who is deserving and who is not. There is of course a huge tradition of voluntarism that has more popular roots – co-operatives, mutual societies, trade unions, non-conformist religion, the Salvation Army. But in all of these cases there is a belief in rights and universalism – the question of who might be “deserving” does not arise, and this ethos underpins the concept of universal benefits and state provision to which Cameron is so hostile. And in all these cases, democratic structures are at the heart of the way they operate.
Cameron seems to think that the Big Society is about new ways in which the political system and electors can connect. But in its way it’s just another demonstration of how the political class doesn’t get it.