Big Society - it’s not Big...or clever

REMEMBER those photos of the then US president, George W Bush, that floated around the virtual world a few years back?

The ones showing Dubya in a variety of weird facial poses, each accompanied by a pic of a chimpanzee pulling the same face.

I was reminded of them this week by a pic of our own political primate-in-chief apparently whooping like a gibbon – taken at the same time as our picture here.

David Cameron may have been forced a while back to sack his own personal photographer, but he obviously worked out with the press corps just where to pose to get himself pictured alongside the title of his “passion”.

Trouble is, he didn’t have the same control over his own facial expression.


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And the bigger trouble is in the title he, or some back-room policy wonk, came up with for that passion.

Just look at the logo – if that’s what it is – behind Dave in the picture. It’s a mess. A riot of conflicting fonts and colours with no coherent pattern or discernible sense.

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Which makes it a most appropriate badge for something even Cameron admits “some people” find a bit vague.

Not just some people, Dave – nobody seems to know what Big Society means. Including the designer(s) – if any – of that nameplate, in which every letter is pulling in a different ill-conceived direction.

It looks like something from one of those books given to pre-school children to frighten them off reading.

Suggesting either (a) the government is childish; or (b) that it thinks the British public should be treated like children.

Which, come to think of it, is rather how the Tory party has always thought the public should be treated.

Whether those children should be sent up chimneys and down mines is a matter of how far you want to push those Victorian values Maggie Thatcher was so fond of.

And there is something curiously Victorian in the whole idea of Big Society, so far as I can make out what that idea is.

The idea of armies of eager volunteers setting out to improve the world, without benefit of pay or expertise.

Lots of middle-class do-gooders, and a tiny handful of wealthy philanthropists, seeking to improve the lot of the milling, ground-down poor.

While the mill-owning, bank-owning fat cats – the true Tories – go on getting richer in their mansions.

There is – let it be said, in case the term sounds derogatory – nothing wrong with being a do-gooder. The alternatives are, after all, do-badder or do-nothinger. Which wouldn’t do at all.

But there is, and always has been, a tendency for society to lean heavily on the few prepared to put themselves out to help others. And my fear is that Big Society is there not just to lean on them, but to crush them.

As defined by bigsociety.co.uk, the Big Society Network is “a small team of citizens, social entrepreneurs, community activists and professionals working to set up the basic structure”.

Lots of do-good intention there, then. But a small team, not a big society.

A team whose essential purpose – however much its individual members may dispute this – is to undermine the services which the state, up to now, has provided.

To replace the nanny state with nanny in-a-state.

“What this is all about,” explained Cameron this week, “is giving people more power and control to improve their lives and their communities.”

More power and control?

By taking services, such as libraries, out of local democracy and hoping a few volunteers pick up the pieces?

By expecting school governors to do for free what trained local authority officers used to be paid for?

By re-branding “volunteering” as “Big Society” while at the same time slashing funding to the voluntary sector?

By, for example, removing support for the Citizens Advice Bureau, just at the time when more citizens than ever are in need of advice?

The best thing to be said for Cameron’s big idea is that it won’t kill as many people, or so de-stabilise the world, as the thing that defined Tony Blair’s premiership.

Invade Iraq or tangle Britain up in a web of woolly thinking? In world terms, one is clearly less damaging than the other.

Though it could spell big trouble in little Britain.

The question is: Is Cameron’s thinking really that woolly – or is the wool meant to be pulled over all our eyes?

Is Big Society a half-decent idea badly worked out, or a cynical cover for the Tories’ ideologically-led programme of savage cuts in public expenditure?

I suspect there isn’t one simple answer to that. If there were, it would tell us whether Cameron himself is well-meaning but muddled, or devious and scheming.

And I suspect there isn’t one simple answer to that, either.

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