Friday, February 11, 2011

GUEST POST The limits of the Big Society

Martin Veart is a Liberal Democrat from Edinburgh North and Leith and creator of the Say No to Trident pages on Lib Dem Act.
There has been a lot of ink spilt on The Big Society and I hesitate to add to the debate. It has been often pointed out that the idea lacks focus. During an interview with PM, Minister for Pensions and Welfare Chris Grayling admitted that The Big Society is messy because central government cannot and should not control local initiates.

Is this true however? I’m going to take a sideways jump and refer to David Cameron’s recent speech on terrorism and extremism in the United Kingdom. On the face of it, the two issues are separate. But both ideas are about inclusion: breaking down the boundaries that multiculturalism inadvertently created. In his speech Cameron quoted his host, Angela Merkel who earlier said that in Germany multiculturalism has failed. It seems to be a common threat, seen to be among the Right of European politics, but personally I don’t see is in terms of Right and Left. It is more about representation.

In many ways and not just in Britain, mainstream politics have become detached from the views of large parts of the public. In Germany it was Reunification and their citizenship laws based upon ancestry which allowed huge numbers of immigrants from the former Eastern Bloc. In Britain, New Labour encouraged a post-modern view; all traditions were judged as narratives of equal value and therefore equally worthy of support. Only they forgot to provide a worthwhile narrative for their own grass-root support. It is little wonder that extremists from all sides have attempted to fill that void.

To give Cameron credit, at least he realises that there is an issue to be addressed. In his speech he talked of “muscular liberalism”. A rather unfortunate phrase and one open to ridicule insofar it sounds like a title of some kind of erotic fantasy publication. There is nothing wrong with asserting the virtues of Liberalism though: standing up for the rights of the individual in the face of would-be oppression; whether that is the State, corporations or cultural traditions.

That is a Good Thing. Where Cameron falls down though is using the powers of the State to curtail freedom of debate and association: some of the very virtues he claims to be defending. In taking this stance we can see that the limits of the Big Society are being based upon the teachings of Karl Popper. Although Popper’s main targets are at his time National Socialism and Soviet Communism, Cameron has updated the meaning to what he identifies as the current threats to representative liberal democracy.

What does this mean in practical terms? There is a worrying implication for The Big Society that applications for funds will have to be subjected to political vetting to ensure that the money goes to the “right” sort of programmes. In his Munich speech, Cameron expressly rules out extremists from engaging with publicly funded bodies such as universities and student bodies. How is this going to be enforced unless there is political oversight? Commissars, even ‘liberal’ ones, have no place in British politics.

The philosophies espoused by extremists have to be matched with vigorous and open counter-arguments and I am quite certain that liberalism is able to meet these challenges. But our words have to be matched by deeds. It is no good for the Prime Minister to attempt to disassociate Britain’s actions and policies abroad with extremism at home because it is these very issues that critics can use to accuse us all of gross hypocrisy. In this respect, people like Chomsky are quite right that liberal democracies have to be judged not on words but by their deeds.

The stated aims of The Big Society, to regenerate society, break down culture-based social divides etc are good. Or at least that is what I think they are because frankly it can mean different things to different people. But I am reminded horribly of New Labour’s “Stakeholder”, designed to make people feel that they have a, well, stake in their local community. Both terms are as vapid as each other. Regardless of labels applied however, I welcome David Cameron’s pledge to argue the case for assertive liberalism.

I am just not sure that he knows what liberalism really means.

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

It is no surprise to read that Cameron probably doesn't understand liberalism. But I turn to extremism and the mention of universities, for I remember that 40 years ago the concern in universities about extremists was not about radical Islam infecting students but about radical Christianity doing the same. So this is a perennial problem: some people who want to dominate others will pervert any creed to do it.
Now to the term representative. An organisation called Passenger Focus claims to represent the users of public transport (was just for rail services, now rail and bus). But they are publicly funded, and the rules under which they were set up mean that I have no way of influencing them (other than by berating them in public and not-so-public forums), so they do not represent me or indeed any citizen or visitor.
Where am I? Simply suggesting that we do indeed need to get very clear the relationships between the public and those in power. I believe that the LDs are trying very hard from a position of understanding, but the Tories haven't quite got it - were not ready for government.