Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Big Society v Liberalism

(wild cheering)

In the BLUE corner... from the Home Counties of England... weighing in at... not-very-much... with no knock-outs but one win on points... and with a right hook that's pulling punches... the challenger... BIIIIIG SOCIETEEEEEEE!!!!!

(wilder cheering, thunderous applause)

And in the YELLLOW corner... needing no introduction... from quite-a-long-time-ago... slightly doddery, but still standing... the very disputed heavyweight champion of political philosophies... IIIIIIIT'S LIIIIIIBERALISM!!!!!

(polite clapping)

I'm not sure Nick Clegg did exactly say that "Big Society = Liberalism", as reported, but he has said in the past that "David Cameron’s eloquent description of what he calls the Big Society is what I would call the Liberal Society". So the report is not very far off.

So what to make of this upstart idea "Big Society"?

I would suggest that the question is not whether the Big Society idea captures all of liberalism (pace Cameron the would-be political philosopher, the answer to that is obviously no), but whether the Big Society idea is compatible with the aspects of (what is commonly understood to be) modern liberalism that are relevant to Big Society themes; or, more specifically, how the Big Society compares with the contemporary vision of the Liberal Society.

Mark Pack of Liberal Democrat Voice has compared Cameron’s vision of the Big Society and mainstream Liberal Democrat beliefs in community politics, and found "grounds for agreement, grounds for disagreement".

Pack highlights a common dislike for an overly bureaucratic, centralised, top-down state. Such a state is not only inefficient but disempowering.

There is a consequent shared demand for (1) decentralisation of power, particularly in relation to planning decisions and control of local assets; (2) an unbundling of public services, so that anyone can offer to provide them; and (3) volunteerism and philanthropy.

The areas of disagreement or tensions that Pack notes lie firstly in language, such as whether one is primarily talking about personal responsibility or the freedom of the individual; secondly, in the extent of the decentralisation, whether simply to local government or beyond that to neighbourhoods and communities; but perhaps most pertinently in relation to the fraught question of who should provide public services.

My view is that the key tensions here are less about freedoms, localism and diversity, in relation to which Cameron conservatives and Lib Dems share a huge amount in common; and more about democracy:
  • Not so much "Who takes which planning decisions?" but "How should the decision-makers be held to account?"
  • Not so much "Who controls which assets?" but "How are stakeholders in the assets involved in decisions about those assets?"
  • Not so much "Who should provide which public services?" but "How should providers be held to account?"
  • Not so much "How do we support volunteerism and philanthropy?" but "How is it decided what should be left to volunteerism and philanthropy to provide?"

It is telling that Cameron's speech makes no mention of democracy or of councils, of mutualism or stakeholders; or even of "decisions". The closest he gets to mentioning accountability is in relation to public service providers being "held to account with transparent information to enable people to make informed choices". I would suggest he means consumer choice rather than stakeholder choice or voter choice. He also draws attention to a form of market accountability in that if the business community (taken as a whole) is socially responsible the result will be economic stability, lower taxes and minimal regulation. These two mechanisms may be liberal but there's no sense of direct democratic accountability for actions.

In conclusion, this is not at all a boxing match between ideologies: it seems we are all pragmatists now. It's entirely possible I've misunderstood the Big Society idea. However, my worry is that this agenda of decentralisation, public service unbundling and third sector growth will be pushed without sufficient attention to the kinds of mechanisms that would provide the democratic checks-and-balances that a healthy democratic society needs.

1 comment:

  1. Though Cameron left out mutuals and cooperatives from this speech, it is something he has (and is) pushing at other times.

    That reinforces one of your points, however, which is about the sort of accountability that Cameron wants - for him people voting for their local councils seems to be a fairly small part of it (hence directly elected Mayors and police commissioners along with public involvement and choice through non-voting means).

    That does put Lib Dems on the spot as to quite where we think local councils fit, as we've often defaulted to all power to the councils, but no further.