How the Big Society damaged Society

Young Workers

In 2018, the number of murders rose 14%. Robbery went up by 17%, stalking and harassment offences went up 41%, public order offences went up by 24% and overall crimes recorded by police went up by 7% with a total of 5,723,182 offences recorded. Child poverty has been rising since 2011/12. 4.1 million children now live in poverty, a rise of 500,000 in the last five years and most of these children come from working families. Private companies now account for over 94% of social care places provided in the UK.

Now baring all this in mind, I’d like you to cast your mind back to July 2010. David Cameron was launching the coalition government’s new initiative, The Big Society; A government program promising massive social change and investment in local initiatives and volunteering and promising to rebuild the nation from the bottom up; and while doing all this it would allow Cameron’s Libertarian dream of lean government to come true.  So, what happened, why did the Big Society collapse and take us down with it?

The public response to the big society was dire, only between 11% and 9% of respondents to a YouGov survey declared that the “Big Society will probably work”, while an overwhelming majority – between 68% and 73% of respondents – during the same time argued the opposite. People where cynical of Cameron’s Big Society and they where right to be. The initiative had an air of a corporate rebrand, as the Tories tried to bury the Thatcherite slogans of the 1980’s. This wasn’t the conservatives of the ‘loads of money’ era, this was the socially conscious conservative party who cared about society and acknowledged its existence, all the while pursuing austerity policies that have laid deep scars, keenly felt today. The promise of the big society was a grand one, but it ended up being used as a band-aid to plug a cut artery as the conservatives slashed public services without understanding how they really held our society together.

The expectation was, as public services where de-funded, armies of plucky socially concerned Brits would appear, help care for old ladies and get their shopping, teach the long term unemployed how to read and write properly, police the streets and we would do this while waving union jacks singing Jerusalem. This plucky army would replace masses of paid qualified staff that the government deemed of little value to justify paying for their work. This promised to be the conservatives new favoured diet pill, take one Big Society with breakfast and you’ll have a lean government in a mere five years. Take austerity and eliminate your budget deficit as you hand government employees their P45’s.

It didn’t happen, in fact a report published in May 2012 suggested that the £3.3 billion cuts in government funding to the voluntary sector between 2012 and 2015 had greatly reduced the ability of voluntary groups to implement Big Society projects. Despite Cameron’s rhetoric the percentage of the UK population actively engaged in voluntary work has declined consistently since the start of the economic crisis, except in areas that are already wealthy.

David Cameron didn’t use the term in public again after 2013 and the phrase ceased to be used in government statements. The Big Society network collapsed in 2014. The final Big Society audit was published by Civil Exchange in January 2015 and it highlighted that charities had a decreasing role as government contractors – due to policies – favoured the private sector.

The Big Promise of the big society was dead. The conservative belief that people were willing or able to pick up the shortfall in essential public services in their own time for free, was undermined by their own polices of privatising them. Proving that no rebrand could change their beliefs, that all things of value must generate profit and only things that generate profit have any value.  Since then we have seen the return of the old style socially sceptical conservatives who having been burned once for ‘trying’ are happy to ignore the social damage caused by their policies and instead are giving lip service to ending austerity. While the young, the old, the mentally ill and the in-work poor pay the price.

Looking back on the last 9 years of austerity politics – I ask you – were we ever all in this together?