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Society versus the government?

Why we should not rush to embrace Cameron's 'Big Society'

The Big Society rhetoric we are hearing from government has excited many in the church and voluntary sector. The Evangelical Alliance claims it is an “immense opportunity for community service that Christians should not pass up.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, speaking at a Faithworks event last week, gave it “two and a half cheers.” Yet before we all rush to embrace the idea, we need first to be clear what it actually means.

The Prime Minister described his ‘Big Society’ plan on July 19 as “the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street.” Unfortunately, Mr Cameron seems to have difficulty defining what this means, declaring “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.”

Some might note similarities with Tony Blair’s ‘stakeholder society’ idea in 1996, which also excited many people but was never really fleshed out. Indeed, the Financial Times reported that the former Conservative Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis MP, called the ‘Big Society’ “a Blairite dressing”. Highlighting Conservative ideological commitment to a small state, he reportedly said that “The corollary of the big society is the smaller state. If you talk about the small state, people think you are Attila the Hun. If you talk about the big society, people think you’re Mother Teresa.” Church organisations must not make this mistake.

The Conservative-Liberal Government says it supports voluntarism and community empowerment, and will reform public services. David Cameron signalled a transfer of responsibility away from central government to local communities and businesses. This seems to mean people and voluntary organisations doing more and government doing less. Cameron’s examples included new schools, businesses training people for work, charities helping rehabilitate offenders, neighbourhood watch schemes, and youth and after-school clubs. In short, pretty much what happens already in communities throughout the United Kingdom.

Labour is committed to localism and the voluntary sector, despite Conservative-Liberal claims. The Labour government was keen for faith groups to be active in delivering local services. It issued guidance to dispel the myths, believed even by some local council officials, about what faith groups could and could not do. The Labour leadership campaign is focusing on how we can help people enrich community life. Running through Labour is a rich seam of Christian Socialism, based on empowering individuals in community with each other. The Christian Socialist Movement highlights the role church groups can play and it is helping local Labour parties integrate better with their neighbours.

Prompt action taken by Labour during the financial crisis saved the banking system and prevented a depression as business confidence collapsed. The need now to reverse government borrowing over the next few years has coincided with Conservative small state ideology. Labour planned large cuts in government spending. The Conservative-Liberal government wants to go further with cuts of between 25-33 per cent in areas outside health and international development, pointing to the withdrawal of whole services. The poorest in our society rely on public spending and public services the most and they will be the most vulnerable. The ‘Big Society’ could turn out to be a risky ‘big experiment’ to see if volunteers and social enterprises can fill the gap. Those who live near thriving voluntary organisations will do better than those who do not. Furthermore, many voluntary organisations rely on state grants to survive but those grants are at risk.

The Church must be wise. Evangelicals were too quick to embrace the pro-family rhetoric of the Thatcher/Major years. Yet in those years the divorce rate peaked twice; each time after unemployment, a major contributor of family breakdown, rose over three million. The Church at least spoke up for the unemployed. The cuts on the horizon, and the choices this government makes, cannot be made in a moral vacuum and may require a new Church critique.

The ‘Big Society’ versus Big Government debate is a distraction. Flourishing communities are vital and need more encouragement. However, there is always a proactive role for government to ensure that everyone has access to high quality education, health, and other public services, and to govern in the interests of the whole nation.

The Church has much to teach government about how a ‘pro-society’ policy might work. It is present in almost every community in the country. It has great experience in working with other groups for common aims. The Church has modelled, pioneered, and struggled with different ways to serve people since the days of the Book of Acts. Governments come and go but the Church must always be there, serving communities and being a prophetic witness to the love of Christ and the new creation. All political parties need to hear its voice and see it in action.

This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper on 30 July 2010.
Church of England Newspaper, 30 July 2010, 19/08/2010

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