John Hayward Posted: 21 February 2011
Keywords: Government & Foreign Affairs,
At times it sounds as though the Prime Minister wants to associate his promised Big Society reforms with the public hunger for freedom that has led in recent days to violence in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Iran: 'The grip of state control will be released and power will be placed in people’s hands. … There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control.'
David Cameron says the Open Public Services White Paper will continue to advance his mission to repair what he describes as the breakdown in our society: 'the family breakdown and community breakdown that has done so much damage to people's lives not to mention the costs that our deep social problems load on to the state.' However, it is still not clear what the government thinks the ‘Big Society’ objective actually involves – particularly whether it is talking about a process or its ends.
If, as the government suggests, we create thousands more charities, social enterprises and armies of volunteers and community organisers but, at the end of the parliament, poverty and inequality are higher than ever before and figures for crime, educational failure and social cohesion are worse, then the Big Society initiative will rightly be judged a failure.
Research published today by the Jubilee Centre reveals how the Big Society is ultimately intended to be the solution to the social problems of what Conservatives were describing before the 2010 general election as ‘Broken Britain’, but this has not been well publicised.
More needs to be said about the ends of Big Society, for it is the ends that really matter – for instance, poverty, inequality, unemployment, social mobility, family breakdown, and educational failure. It is also the ends by which its success will be measured, and by which we can direct its formation.
Researcher Guy Brandon said, ‘The Big Society has been surrounded by confusion and is widely misunderstood by the public, largely because its ultimate purpose has not been explained. In part, the confusion reflects the elusive and emergent nature of the initiative, and a language of process rather than targets. Spending cuts have also led to a focus on fears about public service provision and the possible consequences of "rolling back the state."’
The Big Society in Context: A means to what end? asserts that the proper task of government is to create the conditions under which society might thrive through the direct and most effective action and responsibility of individuals, families and local organisations, rather than forcing change itself.
Reducing government interference should therefore strengthen the ‘welfare society’ – the erosion of which, by unnecessary government intervention, has led to the social injustices described in Breakdown Britain.
Equally, the government should not be allowed to sidestep its responsibilities by passing them to third sector organisations. It is not just people and communities that need to ‘take more responsibility’ and ‘act more responsibly’: the state is also expected to fulfil its responsibilities.
Our report also insists that the Church has a duty to make sure government keeps to its remit of bringing about the necessary conditions for the common good to flourish. This will include being prepared to defend its own autonomy and help promote religious freedoms.
At present red tape prevents people from volunteering and recent restrictions risk deterring those people who are typically found at the heart of local communities: namely, people of faith. In reality it is therefore highly unlikely that any Big Society ambitions can succeed without the help of faith groups.
Motivated by a love of neighbour, Christians will be keen to take any new opportunities that arise to play a greater role in their communities – not just volunteering, but also starting new social enterprises and bringing biblical principles and social transformation agendas to business.