Old cuts, new packaging

James Turley exposes Cameron's 'Big Society' lie

With all the furore over the waves of public sector cuts, you could be forgiven for missing David Cameron’s ‘big idea’ completely.

The Big Society, as he insists on calling it, was rather drowned out on the doorstep in May - not least because it was not remotely clear exactly what Cameron’s proposals were. It seemed rather to be a piece of Blairoid fluff - feel-good spin in an election which saw the masses choose between executioners.

In the wake of the election - and the formation of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition - this buzz phrase was largely shelved, in favour of the similarly vapid ‘new politics’.[1] Now, all of a sudden, the Big Society is back. David Cameron made a prestige trip to Liverpool to launch it as government policy, and the commentariat is once again in a frenzy over the whole thing.

What is on the table? The Big Society’s pitch is simple: too much of social life in Britain is reliant on the largesse of central government and the Whitehall bureaucracy. Instead, community groups should be able to direct the provision of their public services. Cameron’s ‘free schools’ programme - which would see groups of parents allowed to start up a school of their own, arranging contracts with ‘education providers’ and so on - is the classic Big Society policy; but in Liverpool the esteemed PM added post offices, libraries and other services to the list - all are deemed ripe for a little civic activism. Four ‘vanguard’ areas - including, of course, Liverpool - are to be cultivated more directly by the government.

Unlike previously, Cameron now has an answer - if you can call it that - to the toughest question: where is the money going to come from? This does not look like the kind of government which will dole out lots of cash to try out the latest experiments; indeed, the Tories’ central message to voters was precisely that there was no money. Why make so much noise about cutting a deficit and then throw public money at cosy community initiatives?

Cameron, however, claims to have a plan. A Big Society bank is to be created - it will provide funds for various fuzzily defined ‘community projects’, including business start-ups. Its funds are to come from the use of dormant bank accounts - those that have not been touched and whose owners have not been in contact with the bank for 15 years - whose proceeds will be an estimated £80 million.

It is a figure which looks large from an individual standpoint - but is a mere drop in the ocean, compared to the budget for public services as a whole. The NHS alone eats up around £100 billion a year, and so those dormant bank accounts would perhaps suffice to run a provincial health centre - for one year, at least. More likely, it will fund a handful of businesses and prestige projects.

If this scheme is to take off, then - and both Cameron and his Lib Dem puppy dog, Nick Clegg, seem to want it (though Clegg calls it semi-convincingly the ‘liberal society’, of course) - it is going to need two things: substantial participation from the private sector and (ultimately) large sums of public money. It does not take much imagination to work out the most likely sources of private cash - voluntary organisations, and especially churches. That was already clear from Blair’s academy schools, which were snapped up in many cases by odious religious reactionaries, such as the evangelical Christian and former used car salesman, Peter Vardy.

It is clear what the appeal is for the government - it provides an, if not pain-free, at least publicly marketable way to get expensive public service provisions off the government’s books. Though, in reality, privatisation has never saved a government a dime, it provides opportunities for books to be cooked and circles to be squared.

Its appeal to people at large is a different matter. Cameron’s figures do not fail to add up because - as, perhaps, with his barely competent education secretary Michael Gove - he is unintelligent; like most reform swindles, the Big Society has a pull because it is based on wellchosen lies.

People certainly do feel alienated from the top layers of the state bureaucracy and the political system. Public services - however important they are as gains for the working class - really are bureaucratised monstrosities, unresponsive to local initiative and utterly dependent on the machinations of Westminster. Teachers are hamstrung by an education system entirely directed at measuring performance in quantitative terms; the NHS, after three decades of piecemeal privatisation, is incomprehensibly complex and permanently leaks public money. All public sector workers are looking at potential pay cuts, while millions get sucked into white-elephant IT contracts and the like.

The state bureaucracy is ineffective and intrusive - and people know it. Cameron, like Thatcher before him, has astutely seized on this feeling of disdain. While Thatcher’s line of attack was basically individualist, Cameron has in some ways gone further by adding a Blairite communitarian angle. A relatively leftwing Guardian correspondent, of all people, provides a perfect illustration of this appeal - citing the Zapatistas and the situationist concept of détournement, Alex Andrews argues that the Big Society programmes could be used to build some kind of “dual power” at the municipal level for battles against “forces that created that situation and destroyed their communities in the first place - ultimately, the system of capitalism itself”.[2]

Andrews is clearly not one of the far left’s great strategic thinkers. Yet he has unwittingly hit on a key political lesson that many otherwise more serious leftwingers simply fail to pick up - that having your life substantially directed by the state is in itself a turn-off for the general population, and so Tory snake-oil of the Big Society type has a certain utopian attraction. The post-war consensus, which saw successive governments direct a large portfolio of nationalised industries and public services, effectively grafted welfare provision onto a rigged political system that divested people of any real control.

Thatcher, meanwhile, may have declared war on Butskellism and other relics of the defunct post-war long boom - but a consistent undercurrent of her political activity was the undermining of local democracy. It is not hard to see why - in the face of a hostile national government, Labour-controlled municipalities veered left, and the attacks on local government formed a key part of an infamous class offensive. For all her bluster about rolling back the state, Thatcher made it her mission to destroy all centres of political power that she and her allies did not control (ie, all bar Westminster and Whitehall). New Labour continued mostly on the same path (devolution in Scotland and Wales is an anomaly in this process).

 The bottom line is that, in 2010, David Cameron can make in substance the same appeals against the depredations of the nanny state - and it can work all over again, in the sense that it can find an echo among, and sell cuts to, sections of the population (principally the petty bourgeoisie, but also layers of workers) key to Tory success. It will not ‘work’, I need hardly point out, in the sense of delivering the slightest improvement in services. When the £80 million runs out, it will have to be replaced; in the meantime, people will have to be recruited to oversee the whole project. The state will grow larger again. Britain will not be transformed by the Big Society, but rather ravaged by the cuts for which it is the alibi.

The left must fight to expose this fraud, and we should expect it to do so - the ‘usual suspects’, as well as unlikely comrades in arms such as Ed Miliband, who has been on the media warpath over the issue already. Yet that is not enough - Cameron, after all, has given us a utopia of sorts which (he tells us) will persist long after the cuts have scarred over.

When our side rises in defence of public services, however, we rarely get anything like an image of a more liberated society. This is true of Miliband, for whom the technocratic politics of New Labour (and its key progenitor, Thatcher) are not only acceptable, but a natural working environment; and it is also true of the Socialist Workers Party and others, whose grand plan for society (as far as the great unwashed are concerned) seems to be spending less on killing foreign populations and more on the NHS.

This is a line designed to smooth over differences between political trends, rather than to give anyone much to vote for or sign up to as an activist. Marxists have a ‘bigger society’ than David Cameron, which, after all, will benefit not the masses, but a handful of carpetbagger capitalists looking for schools and post offices on the cheap. It is time that we made the case for our alternative rather than simply defending what we have.


  1. See ‘The new bullshit’ Weekly Worker May 20.
  2. www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jul/20/big-society-empower-communities