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Big Society fund – an abyss we would do well to avoid

Claiming to understand ‘the Big Society’ and casually suggesting that we can’t afford universal social provision are quite the fashion. It is time for people to wake up and understand how the project to dismantle society really works.

For ages it was quite the fashion to claim not to understand what the big Society meant. Quite why people were so quick to admit their ignorance seemed strange to me, in part because commentators seldom claim not to understand anything and in part because it was so damned obvious what the Big Society was about.

However, if there was much doubt before, the combination of the general policy approach of the Government and the language with which Cameron launched his ‘Big Society fund’ yesterday ought to be clearing out any confusion. This line alone should be enough to stop us in our tracks: “Just as finance from the City has been essential to help businesses grow, take on the world, so finance from the City is going to be essential for resolving our deepest social problems”.

The Big Society is a simple concept. What we currently have (in theory) is a democratic response to ‘our deepest social problems’. People (again, in theory) have an equal voice in selecting a government which can then act towards a consistent plan to tackle social problems, deciding what should be funded and deciding from where the money should come. Universalism – the idea that it’s not just a matter of ‘survival of the fittest’ but that everyone has a right to certain aspects of society and not just remedial charity for the worst cases – is one of the most important concepts of the 20th century. It was by sweeping away the voluntarism and charity of the Victorian era that we created the big changes in our society – everything from mass literacy (and therefore rapid economic development) to a national health services. Universalism states quite clearly that a certain level of existence is a right of the people and not just a gift that the top of a society may – or may not – choose to bestow upon the bottom of society.

New Labour wanted to change that with much more emphasis of targeting and means testing. While this is not as bad as charity it is still the powerful in society giving the poorest an ‘allowance’ to make up for their misery. It becomes a gift given on the basis of desperation and not a right bestowed on the basis of being part of society. Cameron wants even that shred of universalism removed.

The Big Society is like every other mention of ‘choice’ you here in politics. It means pushing ‘choice’ towards those least able to make it, leaving them vulnerable to coercion. The NHS bill in England puts GPs ‘in charge’ of spending the Government knows they are not going to be able to really be in charge of. Funding for complex cancer treatments is not something GPs are really able to administer. So they need to find a ‘partner’ to do the administering. Which, of course, will be large-scale private health corporations. Then the patient gets ‘choice’ – they can be sold things. ‘Do you want the basic operation or the premium package which for £5,000 includes anaesthetic?’.

We know that when choice is introduced immediately it means the most powerful will be able to manipulate the least powerful. That is what the Big Society is about, breaking down the role of the state in preventing inequality and exploitation and instead making it voluntary, so those in society with most power are able to get what they want (and they are voters, often Tory voters) which the weak have to hope someone does it for them. Which they never do.

Personally, I think it was a mistake for Cameron to be quite so explicit in stating that he’s handing over the problem of social failure to giant financial corporations. They will supply £6oom of other people’s money (as far as I can tell from the claim that it will be taken from dormant accounts) over two years. That isn’t enough to cover the bonuses of one or two City traders. But they will get the credit for the handful of high-profile successful projects while Cameron will continue to blame the failures on ‘bad parenting by the poor’.

The concept of the complete merger of state and financial corporations is a very worrying one, given its provenance. But here we are again. There is a simple lesson from England in this – either get your wits about you, understand what this project is really about or you will wake up to a wasteland of poverty and greed. And there is a simple lesson for Scotland – stare into the abyss of de-universalism and what lies below it. A voluntary society is a predatory society. A universal society reflects the value of humanity.

Robin McAlpine