The Big Society? It’s not The Great Society

When President Lyndon Johnson proposed his Great Society, he had a vision and a coherent plan. Contrast this to David Cameron’s “Big Society” which has been largely incoherent and possesses no real vision. It seems to me – as well as many others – that it is nothing more than a cover for the slashing and burning of the public sector.

The Conservatives haven’t been big on the idea of society or anything inherently social for some time. Thatcher once infamously asserted that there was

no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations.

I thought that I would include more of the quote than is actually remembered. I have done this to illustrate the Hayekian thread that ultimately runs through this speech and the policies of the Thatcher government.  The individual in the Hayekian sense is one that has been emptied of all humanity and then re-filled with greed and alienation. Your role in this world – if you aren’t rich and wield governmental or judiciary power – is to consume and be happy. This is an update of the old maxim “know your place”.

Cameron’s Big Society takes this idea forward by imposing something he calls “localism”. But what this localism amounts to is a further atomization of society.

So here is a reminder of the big priorities of the Big Society

  1. Give communities more powers (localism etc)
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Publish government data (open/transparent government)

The key points of Johnson’s Great Society were:

  1. Civil rights
  2. War on Poverty
  3. Education
  4. Health (Medicare/Medicaid)
  5. Arts and cultural institutions (National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, public broadcasting, etc.)
  6. Transportation
  7. Consumer protection
  8. Environment

There is no grand vision in Cameron’s Big Society brand. There is no mention of poverty, arts and culture (currently being slashed) or education. On the latter, university funding is being cut and free schools – far from being the saviour of the English educational system seem likely to create further division. Admittedly much of the Great Society was rolled back in Reagan’s Gold Rush of the 1980’s. In this country the welfare state was similarly shrunk though, ironically, a quasi-welfare state continues to exist for private enterprise.

The National Health Service, seen by many free-market Tories as a beast that has been fattened for slaughter, is to face the effects of the Tories social experiment. The GP fund-holding scheme will be resurrected, dusted down and given a new name: patient choice. Those who propose these ‘reforms’ are well aware that they do not use public services of any kind, so it doesn’t matter to them if a few libraries in their constituency are closed or the NHS is privatized because they don’t use the NHS either.

There is no aim to improve anything except the channels that deliver wealth to the already wealthy. Public transport will become more expensive as this government reduces the amount of subsidy that it gives to the Train Operating Companies.

When Blair appropriated FDR’s phrase “New Deal”, he divested it of meaning. Instead the New Deal was used to massage unemployment statistics. If someone was on the New Deal, they weren’t claiming Jobseekers Allowance and were thus excluded from the figures. The New Deal was as superficial as the man who dreamt up the ‘idea’.

The Tories may think that by coupling the word “big” with society this will convince people into thinking that what the government is doing is for the benefit of all. This line of thinking is delusional but then thinking isn’t what these people do best.

UPDATE @ 1632

Edited out sentence that made no sense.

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Filed under Big Society, Conservative Party, Government & politics

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