Is time running out for the Big Society?


Having been ill for about five weeks and not had time to get to the doctors (I can feel your sympathy even as I write), I am reduced to short shallow blogging. But illness is also a prompt for a relevant joke:

Doctor to patient: I’m afraid I have some bad news and some very bad news.

Patient: What’s the bad news?

Doctor: You have only 24 hours to live.

Patient: Oh no! What’s the very bad news?

Doctor: I forgot to tell you yesterday.

Given recent events I see myself as the doctor and the friends of the Big Society as the patient.

A week last Saturday, a day after the last meeting of the friends, I wrote this:

“ …but the definitional issue is not the biggest problem. If one way of measuring the Big Society is the amount of third sector activity, especially that which relates broadly to increasing civic capacity, there is no question at all that the next two years will see society get smaller. In the face of the scale and rapidity of the reduction in funding, Councils are finding that scrapping third sector grants is a much cheaper and easier way of make immediate savings that making staff redundant. It is statutory services by professionals that will be preserved while preventative, community based provision withers away.”

So my warning was right but, given that it arrived a few days before the double whammy of Liverpool’s withdrawal from the Big Society pilots and the comments of Dame Elisabeth Hoodless on volunteering, my words were about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

This, in summary, is what the Coalition should have been saying these past few months (actually this is in summary what they should have said if - like me - they had four minutes to write it before catching a train to give a talk on the future of higher education in New Malden [n.b. it’s the talk that is in New Malden, not the future of HE].

" We are trying to create a new model of the state and a new way of thinking about society. It will take several years for that model to fully emerge but when it does it will be more dynamic, more effective and more responsive. But between now and the Big Society emerging, the main thing you will see is the old system changing and that will involve a lot of pain. As anyone in any large organisation will tell you it is impossible to achieve major change – especially when operating in a tough environment - without going through a very difficult time. We will do all we can to soften the blow but, in the end, it is will be up to local people, local councils and other agencies to try to find the best way through this period of transition. "

But, partly because they were continuing with the cross-party fib in the last election that cuts could be made without harming anyone other than ‘faceless bureaucrats’ (boo hiss), the Coalition didn’t say this. And that’s why, though the Big Society is still an idea with much to commend it and still a debate we hope the RSA can shape, as a political narrative it is, at best, in intensive care.

David Cameron will not take all of this lying down and we will soon find out how he hopes to revive the patient. He has more than 24 hours but time I fear is running out.

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