Some critical questions for David Cameron’s Big Society and “dysfunctional communities”


Big Society

By Hilary Burrage

The Conservatives’ Big Society proposals, derived from their idea of a “Broken Britain”, might more truthfully be called the Boot Straps (community use of) proposals; for that is what they advocate.

The core concept is that ’empowering’ people to get together will do the job:

“Our policies will give new powers and rights to neighbourhood groups: the “little platoons” of civil society – and the institutional building blocks of the Big Society…Our ambition for the UK is clear: we want every adult in the country to be an active member of an active neighbourhood group.”

So “little platoons” of civil activists, engaging every adult in the UK, are about to achieve what massive government investment and effort has so far delivered only partially, if at all.

Let us however put aside our incredulity:

* What impact can five thousand people – unpaid by the state, but still assuming they are all actually active – spread across a country of over sixty million people have, by the end of five years?

* Are you, to ask an age-long question, going to undertake your civic duty with a glad heart, as prescribed?

Even more fundamentally worrying is the model of ‘communities’ which underpins this extraordinary Conservative ambition. Notions of community capacity and resilience have here reached their zenith. All we have to do is set the people free! “Platoons” of activists will do the rest.

The Conservatives’ discovery of ‘double devolution’ is ironic for those who have long held that the micro-community is critical. What we were missing, it seems, is the idea that this level is enough. The state might do a bit at the micro level to help individuals to hone their skills – “training”, as the Tories call it – but that is all it needs to do.

Nonetheless, even the Tories see an obstacle to progress; before their “Big Society” can take hold,”dysfunctional communities” will need to be sorted. If the prospect of being “platooned” to undertake your civic duty is a matter of concern, the idea of a whole community being “dysfunctional” is infinitely more so.

Critical questions for the Tories include:

* Is ‘dysfunction’ a denial of deeply embedded disadvantage?

* Can a whole community really be dysfunctional?

* Is this idea insulting to many decent people who live in these communities?

* Would members of a community blanket-labelled dysfunctional want to join the Tories’ “platoons”?

* How does this fit with the Tory Work Programme proposals about new sanctions for those who refuse to take “responsibility”?

“Big Society” ideas about “Broken Britain” will not empower the most challenged communities, because Conservatives see disadvantaged communities as dysfunctional – they will not continue to invest government funds in them.

In his Big Society announcement, David Cameron referred to Saul Alinsky, the American activist of the 1930s. That was the time of Boot Strap economics. But the answer was Keynesian, not Cameroon.

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