The “big society” is just a big sham

by Andy Dodd

The prime minister, as we know, is very fond of the “big society”, the notion that the government can be rolled back to allow individuals and communities to do more to help themselves and each other. How often have we been told in the past nine months that everyone, equally, is in this together? How often have we heard the lecture that through co-operation, self-sacrifice and personal responsibility, we’ll pull through this difficult economic period and emerge stronger on the other side?

But are we really all in it together?  The recent by-election in Oldham showed the clear resentment of ordinary people who not so long ago were willing to accept the arguments put forward by the government that tough economic decisions were necessary to avoid disaster. This belief was built upon promises from ministers that everyone would be asked to make their contribution to the hard times ahead.

But ever since the institute of fiscal studies blew a hole in George Osborne’s so-called “progressive” budget, public scepticism has grown. And if you wanted hard evidence that self-sacrifice and personal responsibility are far from the real priorities of the Tories and Lib Dems, the failure to tackle the banking sector should leave you in no doubt. Bankers in the City of London will be celebrating their bonuses at roughly the same time as another big wave of public sector redundancy notices hit doormats in Manchester. Is this what the prime minister and the chancellor mean by togetherness?

Quite often, when they talk about making society strong, what they really mean is more individualism, people taking care of themselves rather than expecting others to do it for them.

When Margaret Thatcher wasn’t writing off society, she eulogised about these “Victorian values” of thrift and self-motivation that built modern Britain. Even though David Cameron appears to embrace social inclusiveness in a warmer style, the vocabulary he uses is very similar. So let’s be clear: Britain has a wonderful history of which we can, mostly, be proud, and it is futile adversely to criticise decisions made by our ancestors using the mores and values of the present. But while the Victorian era did transform our nation into a great modern country, it did so at a social and human cost that would considered utterly inhuman today.

Modern Conservatives, like the Victorians, feel that the great social evil is not poverty, but the need to give relief to poorer sections of the community, and the moral consequences for the individual and society that flow from this. I don’t think we should allow people to opt out of the social contract and exploit the system for their own ends, but, as a socialist, I believe in a humane society where, in the words of Justin Rosario, “the whole must be cohesive in order to provide for its weakest and most vulnerable”.

Conservatives don’t think this way; this is not what they mean by big society. Thus, the poor do not have children, they “breed”.  The unemployed are not redundant, they are “idle”, “scroungers”.  The unguarded comments that slip from some parts of Cameron’s Conservative party onto the front pages of the Daily Mail often resemble the rhetoric of the workhouse, the poor law infirmary and the debtors’ prison.

For most people in Victorian Britain, you clung to the notion that you were all in it together for just as long as your white-knuckle grip held. If you slid off into ill-health, unemployment or misfortune, you were largely at the mercy of your fellow citizens. The first duty of the individual was to look after the individual. For all of its economic inventiveness, Dickensian London must have been a pretty scary place in which to fall into difficulties.

Dickens is well-trodden ground for anyone seeking literary rebuke to modern Conservative politicians. That’s because Dickens saw – and described with brilliant clarity – that Victorian Britain, for all of its social-economic divisions was a truly interdependent, interconnected entity, in which the health and well-being of those at the bottom of the pile had an inexorable effect on the lives of all of those more fortunate above them. In “Bleak House” he asked:

“What connexion can there be, between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world, who, from opposite sides of great gulfs, have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!  Jo sweeps his crossing all day long, unconscious of the link, if any link there be. He sums up his mental condition, when asked a question, by replying that he “don’t know nothink.” He knows that it’s hard to keep the mud off the crossing in dirty weather, and harder still to live by doing it”.

What connexion can there be?  Are we really in it together?

Recently, we witnessed “Mercury in powder”, “Bonus Bob” Diamond himself, descend from Mount Olympus, to justify investment bankers paying themselves ludicrous mega-bonuses for the “risks” that they take, knowing full well that for RBS, Lloyds TSB and HBOS in particular, those risks are fully underwritten by the British taxpayer. Recent analysis by the Bank of England estimates that without that support, the banks would have been forced to pay in excess of $100 billion in interest payments on their lending, easily sufficient to put them out of business, let alone pay bonuses. And yet, from the gold-plated gherkins of the City comes not a shred of remorse, rather an irritated petulance at being asked to share in the sacrifices being made by the rest of us to pay for their mistakes.

While Bonus Bob was claiming that it was time to “lay off the bankers”, there were different lay-offs taking place in Manchester. 2,000 latter day “Jo the crossing sweepers” (and dinner ladies, bin men, care workers, librarians, home helps et al ) will lose their jobs.

If we were applying Victorian values, and cutting out payments to the undeserving, then we’d get to the £1 trillion given to the banks long before we scrutinised the £5 billion of alleged welfare and tax credit fraud. I’m not suggesting that cutting benefit fraud is a bad idea, merely that fraud is a point of view. In Will Hutton’s opinion, the recession is “palpably the result of the collapse of what was, in effect, a gigantic pyramid debt selling scheme”.  Is this not moral fraud? And if not, is flipping a coin on a credit default swap worth a banker’s salary compared to a nurse’s or a primary school teacher’s?

So what connexion can there be between Bob Diamond and Evette Williams, (a  care worker who walked for three miles in the December snow and ice to fulfil a visit in the Forest of Dean)? What connexion can there be between Stephen Hester or Eric Daniels and anyone working in the public sector who’ll be getting the sack in 2011?

Surely it’s obvious.

It is that one group of privileged individuals will be given more taxpayers’ money in the coming weeks than most taxpayers will ever earn in their lifetime. And that the people who make these undeserved bonuses possible will receive redundancy letters because of them.

As for the dire threats and warnings of an exodus of talent, they are bogus. According to a report by Price Waterhouse, reported in the FT,

“analysis of the impact of the 50 per cent tax rate on take-home pay reveals that the gap with other jurisdictions may not be wide enough to justify a move out of London, particularly for junior and middle-ranking bankers”.

In reality, there’s bound to be an acceptable middle ground between demonising British bankers and allowing them to run riot with our money. It’s just that no one in government has the courage to stand on it.

Perhaps David Cameron really believes that people helping each other out, volunteering and doing more to improve their own station in life is the cure for social ills. But those who grew up in underprivileged communities, within difficult family environments, with limited educational opportunity and minimal job prospects know well that you need help and a bit of luck to overcome these challenges. For sure, you can make your own luck, but help costs money, and this government doesn’t believe that wealthier individuals and corporations should pay a fair share.

So what the big society really says to me is not that we’re all in it together, but that, actually, we’re all on our own.

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2 Responses to “The “big society” is just a big sham”

  1. Tacitus says:

    The trouble with Cameron’s Big Society is that he is squeezing the Third Sector. So now we have a situation where he expects voluntary services to deliver the goods – but for no money.

    Take for example job clubs – a Tory invention by any name and now something that will likely disappear. Or, if it doesn’t, then it begs the question about the kind of support the unemployed will receive over the next few years.

    If Cameron really wants to grab Tony Blair’s Communitarianism throne, he is going to have to protect it more and ensure the Third Sector are adequately funded.

    My be is that its all lip service to sack a load of public servants and then tell communities they have to pay for it themselves.

    Caring Conservativism at its finest!

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