Too big to fail ?
A quiet rebellion against the ‘Big Society’
By George Parker, Emma Jacobs and Jim Pickard
In austerity Britain, a quiet rebellion is brewing. Not the violent street protests seen in Greece or the mass union demonstrations staged by the French, but something just as troubling for David Cameron.
Nine months into his premiership, £81bn of cuts
are starting to bite. The fierce fiscal experiment – a spending squeeze on a scale not seen in any other big economy – has been cheered on by hawks around the world, from the International Monetary Fund to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But in The Bell, a pub in Mr Cameron’s backyard, genteel rage is bubbling. Its source? The threat to close the Charlbury public library, housed in a double-fronted property built from the yellow Cotswold stone typical of towns and villages in the prime minister’s Witney constituency.
Rosalind Scott, 69, a bespectacled former social worker in a burgundy cardigan, is as potent an opponent of Mr Cameron’s austerity agenda as the students who last year wreaked havoc
in central London in protest at cuts to university funding
“The library is essential to our community,” she says. “The problem with losing a library is that you lose a place where people meet each other.” Last Saturday Mrs Scott organised a protest attended by 200 people. Such events are being organised across the country
as Mr Cameron pushes ahead with Plan A – he says there is no Plan B – to eliminate the underlying deficit
of 4.8 per cent of national income within four years.
The protests in the market town of Charlbury are ominous for Mr Cameron, and not just because they mark the start of what is likely to be widespread protest against cuts in Middle England, the Conservative party’s heartland. They are also a direct challenge to the prime minister’s antidote to the shrinking state, his vaunted big idea: the Big Society
The prime minister has tried for several years to persuade the country to share his passion for a Britain based on Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”. According to his vision, voluntary groups, Obama-style community organisers, social enterprises and charities will step in to replace the retreating state, taking more control of services from libraries to forestry to public lavatories.
Mr Cameron knows, however, that the idea has not captured the public imagination. He tried to make the Big Society the centrepiece of last year’s general election campaign, but it was quietly dropped after polling showed voters were distinctly unimpressed.
Even some of his own Conservative MPs despair of the concept, promoted vigorously in Downing Street by Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron’s policy guru, who pads around his office in stockinged feet and T-shirts, drawing up ideas to turn Britain into a cross between Sweden and California.
“The Big Society just generates a lot of cynicism – the public see it as cover for cuts,” laments one Tory MP. “We are trying to breathe life into it but the patient isn’t reviving.” The scepticism reaches into the heart of government. Civil servants have dubbed the concept “BS”. Phillip Blond, a think-tanker who helped coin the concept, says the Treasury regards it with “amused indifference”.
Mr Cameron’s faith in the Big Society faces its biggest test in coming months as the cuts programme starts to feed through. The confrontation with students at the end of last year over the possible trebling of university fees was only the start; the second wave will come as local councils begin to close down services on which many depend.
Dame Elisabeth Hoodless, an early supporter, warned this week that the “draconian” cuts risked “destroying volunteering”. The head of Community Service Volunteers, the biggest UK charity of its kind, said: “It’s about one hand not appreciating what the other’s doing.”
Mr Maude is among those who fear some Labour councils are making cuts to score political points and insists that well run councils can protect essential services. But even some Conservative councillors
are protesting at the scale and pace of cuts.
Mr Maude also believes that there will be “new waves of public sector mutuals”
, co-operatives and a range of social enterprises coming over the horizon to bolster what he says is Britain’s already flourishing civic society. These initiatives would be funded in part by a new Big Society Bank, endowed with £200m of capital from their commercial counterparts.
Geoff Mulgan, strategy director at Number 10 under the previous Labour government and now head of the Young Foundation think-tank, says social enterprises are taking shape and innovative ideas emerging but adds: “Even on the most optimistic scenarios, there is a vast gap between the scale of new money coming into social ventures and the sheer speed and scale of the spending cuts.”
Faced with claims that the Big Society cannot flourish without effective public sector support (councils will lose 27 per cent of their main grant over four years), Mr Cameron will have one more go at relaunching his idea next week. He needs a “narrative” that proves his government has a caring side and is not just about cuts.
At a series of events, the prime minister will insist the Big Society runs with the grain of British instincts and that self-help and philanthropy are in line with traditional Tory thinking.
Mr Cameron knows it will be a hard sell. Some in his party believe he has missed his chance to explain a concept
that is in danger of becoming an empty slogan, hung around his neck like a millstone by his opponents. Some blame Andy Coulson, his former chief spin doctor, for failing to promote the idea effectively. Mr Coulson, previously a tabloid newspaper editor, had little time for the brainchild of Mr Hilton, his Downing Street rival.
For now Mr Cameron is on the back foot, notably over the plan to dispose of state-owned forests
. A proposal to turn some woodland over to communities alongside a wider privatisation failed to reassure a coalition of bishops, actors, MPs and a swath of Middle Britain opposed to the sell-off.
Published: Financial Times, February 12/13 2011