At the next VSSN day event in December 2010 in London we are devoting part of the first session to looking at Big Society with Janet Newman kicking us off, followed by questions from you, then with Pete Alcock and Karl Wilding acting as a panel – all chaired by Margaret Harris. This discussion list may be a chance to go beyond weary sighs and rhetoric from different sides. In this way some of our ideas can feed in to the day even if not everyone can be there: a kind of academic/researcher pre-nuptial. So your thoughts and reflection? Here’s a starter. Incidentally, members can also access this discussion on our VSSN Ning site: paste this URL to explore:
Some of the thinking around Big Society in the UK is derived from some mainland European ideas from Italy and Germany which may have previously been called social solidarity which may have been backed by state institutions and co-operation between sectors. On the one hand ‘Big Society’ has some rather quaint ideas about encouraging everyone to go out and start getting involved in things (from community groups, trade unions, political parties, dance classes etc). Of course many people on this list might be expected to be in favour of this interest in associational life, volunteering, and community organising. But hey – many of us are busy folk and it’s no substitute for a bit of work or an evening of relaxing in front of that big screen. Why do it? Well Philip Blond’s (2010) book (parts of which seem to have been cut and pasted into the Conservative manifesto) sees it as a cure to ‘broken Britain’ – this includes drunken people on the street, a decline of marriage but also a lot of other things which many people in this list would want to see tackled – such as multiple and generational deprivation. The question remains about the cultural background which used to (in those imagined Golden Days) underpin working class life as well as middle class and upper class duty (Margaret Thatcher’s grocer dad took a leading role as a local councillor; rich middle and upper class ‘ladies’ formed some of the still existing vol orgs) as well as some quarters of Conservative community orientated thought and action (still alive in many rural areas).
Question 1: can we really regenerate the social underpinnings and political and cultural conditions which led to that?
Question 2: if we could, is it desirable?
Question 3: There is a decline in the ‘organised’ membership of Trade Unions, political parties, and gaining trustees for many vol orgs can be like a search for el Dorado in the rain, but is the organised associational life really less – or does it just take a different form (think Face Book and the political e-networking for one)?
There is another strand to Blond’s thinking. The above ideas, which could be seen as a ‘social glue’ argument to valorise associational life, may have depended on the enactment of some religious or quasi-religious ideas which may be rather scarce in many parts of the Island (s) here. Another motivation to encouraging this organisational life can be detected in Blond’s work which I will call the economic advantage.
Blonde argues for a return to a ‘virtue’ approach to politics whereby values are unashamedly re-inserted into a debate of how and what we want in our society. He criticises the ‘blind’ force of the market and appeals to an associative model to enterprise. The call is for a ‘civil state’ which values mechanisms which build in bonds and groupings between people such as mutuals, co-operatives, the development of the local economy and small-scale capitalism along a model found in Italy. In this second part of his argument these forms of organising are seen as more wholesome but also more motivating and more productive – whether in contracted out public sector agencies, or in what appear to be self organised work groups within departments of the remaining public sector.
Question 4: To what extent are such forms of working more productive and ‘leaner’ – even if they have other advantages
Question 5: To what extent do we assume the skill set for organising in this way is widely available and self evident?
Question 6: Is such an approach a perversion of the ‘solidarity state’ whereby a ‘mitbestimmung’ , or agreement between sectors, would aspire to arrange resources to deliver social goods in an equitable way. Does such an approach merely encourage competition between providers in a more localised market with fragmented and unequal service provision and thus work against the kind of bond building Blond argues for in part 1 of his argument?
[Members can also access this discussion on our VSSN Ning site: paste this URL to explore:
Philip Blond (2010) ‘Red Tory’, London: Faber and Faber. Available on Amazon for £5.
Blond is sometimes credited with being one of the architects of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ ideas although David as sometimes claimed it as his own. Perhaps Blond seeks to be to Cameron what Giddens was to Blair, the Beyond Left and Right of its time.