Is it a cloak for revitalised Thatcherism or a genuine transfer of power to the people? Wrong question; the Big Society is the domestic counterpart and complement to the coalition government’s attempt to maintain the UK’s position in global capitalism. In this article, I shall argue that advocates of CI should address the strategy adopted by this government as a dual one, which distinguishes between those parts of the economy that trade in global markets, and those (in which most citizens get their work and income) that do not. The Big Society is a plan to transform the latter, which might be enabled by CI; but this would have to be funded mainly from the activities of the former.
The Big Society was conceived as a response to New Labour’s programme for a top-down transformation of UK economy and society, according to a blueprint derived from the theory of information, incentives, and contracts (Jordan, 2010). Every institution, from the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority to the regional government agencies, the strategic partnerships and the public services, was redesigned on this model (favoured by the World Bank), with detailed prescriptions for policy, inspection, management and practice. It was a rational, abstract, elitist project, in the Fabian tradition, which paid scant attention to the cultures or traditions of communities or even professions. It relied on compliance and checklists, not loyalty, solidarity or commitments; it undermined civil society and the basis in active engagement of democratic politics.
The Conservative response, first expressed in speeches by David Cameron, emphasised the need to revive collective life, associations and communities, and the significance of research on well-being. He insisted that relationships were, along with health and job satisfaction, the most important constituents of individual happiness. His themes included the weakening in family and neighbourhood bonds, and the evils of excessive individualism (Cameron, 2009, 2010).
So the Big Society idea evolved as an attack on those features of the New Labour programme which were most obviously derived from Thatcherism. These included the idea that citizenship was a contract between the state and the individual requiring the latter to be an independent, self-reliant, property-owning, credit-card carrier who turned to the banks, not to neighbours or a wider community, for all his or her needs (DSS, 1998, p. 80).
But the other main theme of the Conservative strategy was ‘Broken Britain’ – the claim that part of the population had become structurally detached from the mainstream, and lacked the opportunities, links and incentives to rejoin it. Here the Conservatives relied mainly on the work of the Centre for Social Justice, whose lengthy reports under that title (CSJ, 2006) documented the social problems concentrated in districts with the highest levels of deprivation. The Broken Britain theme found its way into the party manifesto of May, 2010, alongside the Big Society one (Conservative Party, 2010, pp27, 37).
It surprised many commentators that these ideas played such a large part in that campaign; they did not go down particularly well with voters. But in retrospect, it now seems clear that this was a necessary balance to the inevitable fiscal austerity which was to follow from a victory at the polls. In government, the Conservatives were to need some positive proposals to offset the savage cuts in public spending, and a new version of that part of the economy which had, especially in peripheral, less dynamic regions, come to rely on New Labour’s multiplicity of state agencies and initiatives.
The first priority of the coalition was clearly to reassure the bond markets of its earnest intention to bring down the government deficit, and thus to avoid the fate of Iceland, Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Keeping the bondholder wolf from the door meant guaranteeing the profitability of the City, ensuring that the one ‘world class’ sector in the UK would continue to thrive during the uphill struggle to ‘rebalance’ the economy by boosting manufacturing industry. George Osborne became the finance-friendly face of the government, concerned with the globally-traded part of UK plc; Cameron, Maude, Letwin and others were left to preach the Big Society gospel to those whose real incomes were declining as they faced higher taxes and higher prices.
This was the background to the welfare reform package presented to Parliament in November 2010 by Iain Duncan Smith, so comprehensively analysed by Annie Miller in January’s CI Newsletter. This was a watered-down version of the CSJ’s scheme for partial tax-benefit integration, Dynamic Benefits: Towards Welfare that Works (2009); that set of proposals relied on improved incentives for marriage, saving and employment. The eventual legislation embodied benefits cuts and an increase in conditionality and coercion, against a background of rising unemployment. What price progress towards CI in this kind of Big Society?
The element of the CSJ proposal which was retained in the modified reform was the integration of the tax-benefits system at the lowest level of earnings. Because the diagnosis of Broken Britain put heavy emphasis on the interactions between benefits withdrawal and the impact of income tax at these levels as barriers to labour-market participation, this feature survived. The effect will be to allow a higher disregard of earnings for those doing a few hours of paid work, and an even rate of deductions from pay packets for employment up to 16 hours a week.
This was a step in the direction proposed by Hermione Parker in her 1989 book Instead of the Dole. Even though the reformed system retains the household basis of eligibility assessment, and is strongly reinforced by medical tests on claimants of incapacity benefit and programmes for pushing unemployed people into whatever work or training is available, it is difficult to see how a move in the direction of CI could be started without this shift. Together with the plans for consolidating state retirement benefits into universal, equal citizens’ pensions for all, the implication is that National Insurance principles are being set aside in favour of a new form of income guarantee.
The question is whether the Big Society in turn points towards a change in economic and social relations which is compatible with a gradually less conditional implementation of the scheme – with steps, for instance, via the ‘participation income’ approach anticipated by Atkinson (1995) towards a CI. Will the new network of co-operatives, mutuals and social enterprises envisaged by its architects rely on Serco and other outsourcing company conscripts for its workforce? Will the active citizens who participate in neighbourhood schemes for conservation and social care be volunteers, or claimants on ‘work readiness’ programmes? And will the cure for Broken Britain actually involve the creation of whole districts whose austere economies and communal social forms exist in parallel with more glittering cosmopolitan ones that share in global prosperity?
Obviously there can be no definitive answers to these questions, and the outcome will depend on the balance of political forces in the coalition. Critics of the whole Big Society concept insist that it can never become a viable model of how a modern industrial state is organised. But CI advocates must also ask ourselves which other feasible scenario of the future might now be expected to deliver the vision of an unconditional subsistence income for every citizen.
For the past 40 years, the case for CI has primarily been framed in terms of a progressive political project, in which the scheme would supply the basis for equality, freedom and security within an overall context of social justice. The best known texts in justification of the principle, such as James Meade’s Agathotopia (1988) and Philippe Van Parijs’ Real Freedom for All (1995) relied on allegory or counterfactual fancy to construct imaginary societies, in which CIs for all allowed relationships of moral rectitude. The assumption behind their analyses was that benevolent political processes would enable a rational (if not consensual) progress towards a more harmonious social order.
Now there seems little likelihood of such a pathway, because global capitalist development has cast the most advanced economies as centres of finance, research and technological innovation which require but few highly-specialised workers, and leave the majority of their populations to supply services for each other and themselves. The question becomes one of how the prosperous, mobile minority who are plugged into the global marketplace can be persuaded to fund the activities of a majority who are not.
Some, like the German theorist Dirk Sloterdijk (2009), think that they can be flattered into a new form of nineteenth century philanthropy; the super-rich might be honoured with various kinds of charitable institution bearing their names. But the leading intellectual behind the whole Big Society project, Phillip Blond (2010), argues for a government-led programme for redistributing property and assets (such as the taxpayers’ stake in the nationalised banks, along with other corporate and state resources) that would allow enterprises and income streams to be generated at the local level.
In this, Blond harks back not only to the Toryism of Cobbett, Carlyle and Disraeli, but also to the Liberal Distributism of Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. In the first decades of the twentieth century, they campaigned against Lloyd George’s embryonic National Insurance scheme; Belloc’s The Servile State (1912) was a polemical attack on the principle of making income security conditional on citizens’ willingness to offer their labour power to commercial and manufacturing employers. In this context, Blond refers approvingly to Samuel Brittan’s (1995) scheme for CI, although he does not develop the point (Blond, 2010, p. 32).
So Blond’s version of the project involves a political balancing act between policies which allow the internationally competitive parts of the economy to thrive, while sustaining local banks, building societies, shops, co-operatives, mutual societies and a wide range of community groups and social enterprises. At the same time, the public services would be devolved to staff co-operatives and service user groups, with accountability to an engaged community of active citizens.
All this implies that the battle lines are being drawn up between those who still adhere to the Third Way project – the state as rational central designer of a public infrastructure which functions like a machine, running on the rational self-interest of individual citizens and the inducements, penalties and nudges of the official order – and those who subscribe to a more organic set of patterns, ‘uneven and lumpy’, as Francis Maude (2011) has described it, responding to local conditions and creating particular niches, homespun and idiosyncratic rather than standardised and streamlined, and running on collective action.
Advocates of CI have perhaps unconsciously associated the idea with the former type of project, more Sweden than Spain or Italy. But globalisation itself, as much as the Big Society programme, challenges the assumptions on which this bias has been founded. There has, after all, been little evidence that social democrats incline towards the CI principle, and the rejection of state-led programmes all over Europe, even during an economic crisis, should give us pause. Now Ed Miliband is rethinking Labour’s strategy in the face of working-class disillusion; Blond’s Red Tory message is being answered by the Blue Labour communitarianism of Maurice (now Lord) Glasman and Marc Stears (BBC Radio 4, 2011). Maybe we should keep an open mind about the Big Society.
Atkinson, A.B. (1995), Public Economics in Action: The Basic Income/Flat Tax Proposal, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
BBC Radio 4 (2011), ‘Blue Labour’, Analysis, 21 March
Belloc, H. (1912), The Servile State, London: T. N. Foulis
Blond, P. (2010), Red Tory: How the Left and the Right Broke Britain and How We Can Fix It, London: Faber and Faber.
Brittan, S. (1995), Capitalism with a Human Face, Aldershot: Edward Elgar.
Cameron, D. (2009), ‘The Good Society’, Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, London, 10 November
Cameron, D. (2010), ‘Labour are now the Reactionaries, We are the Radicals – as this Promise Shows’, The Guardian, 9 April
Conservative Party (2010), Invitation to Join the Government of Britain (Election Manifesto), London: The Conservative Party
Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) (2006), Broken Britain (6 volumes), London: CSJ.
Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) (2009), Dynamic Benefits: Towards Welfare that Works, London: CSJ
DSS (1998), A New Contract for Welfare, Cm3505, London: Stationery Office
Jordan, B. (2010), Why the Third Way Failed: Economics, Morality and the Origins of the ‘Big Society’, Bristol: Policy Press
Maude, F. (2011), Interview on BBC Radio 4, PM, 12 January
Parker, H. (1989), Instead of the Dole: An Inquiry into the Integration of Tax and Benefit System, London: Routledge
Sloterdijk, D. (2009), ‘Die Revolution der gebende Hand’, Frankfurter Allgemeine, 13 June.