With the delivery of an eye-watering budget and yesterday’s launch of Your Freedom, the new government has begun the task of scaling back the state. It hopes a Big Society will flourish in its absence. The theory is that by cutting the state, we can ‘remove red tape, ‘replace state action with social action’ and in this transition recapture the social solidarity missing in our ‘broken’ society.
The message that our society is broken is in itself a contentious one. With safer streets, decreased child poverty, improved wages for the low paid, greater tolerance of different cultures and lifestyles and more support for public policy based on social justice, in many ways society is less broken now than it was fifteen years ago. But Cameron’s core justification for the Big Society – the rise of selfishness and individualism at the expense of social solidarity – is hard to refute. The evidence shows that wage inequality is rising, people have less time with their families and social exclusion is widespread (for an in-depth analysis of the social evils that propagate social injustice see the excellent Danny Dorling [see below] speaking at the RSA last month). By these measures, perhaps society is broken. But what broke it?
In his last conference speech before becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron identified his culprit: ‘…why is our society broken? Because government got too big…’ This viewpoint is being put into action as the government invites the country to nominate laws for repeal. But the idea that the state is to blame for the problems our society has encountered is flawed. One of the hallmarks of our ‘broken’ society is income inequality. It is by and large the market that encourages inequality in outcome, and it has actually been the role of the state to redistribute wealth and tackle the inequalities of the market. The state introduced and regulates a minimum wage to protect the lowest earners; has increased employment rights for parents to safeguard family life; and introduced free childcare to provide all children will a fair start in life. The state can also be used to promote tolerance. Far-reaching legislation on gay rights has secured greater solidarity for this community and has led a step-change in wider social attitudes to sexuality.
Far from being the architect of a broken society, the state often represents our best chance of encouraging and ensuring things like solidarity, equality, tolerance and family life. So we should be careful and thoughtful when nominating legislation for the axe or replacing government with the Big Society.
It is true that some public services need reform, our economy needs to be rebalanced and our society needs to rediscover its solidarity. But in this endeavour the state should be our starting point, not the last resort. We need to reassert the role of the state not as an institution divorced from the people, but as a representation and expression of the people it serves. The state must ensure minimum standards and rights, protections for the vulnerable and legislate according to our values. The Big Society should follow this and must be guided by the principles of solidarity and equality too; it will only work if it is available to everyone; single parents and shift-workers that are time-poor; those who lack the confidence or skills to participate in public service design. There might be a role for the state in ensuring this happens – perhaps in creating spaces for citizens to participate or incentivising business to give staff extra ‘civic’ leave. The RSA’s Citizen Power work in Peterborough is exploring a range of methods for making mass involvement in civic life happen. .
Society is not the same thing as the state, but the state does provides the building blocks for an inclusive and equal society in which everyone can flourish. The Big Society and Your Freedom should therefore not involve the dismantling of the state, but rather help recreate a public sphere in which all citizens are better able to engage with the state and with each other. Without this approach, we could end up with a very small society that ignores the people we should be striving to enable and protect.