No matter how many times Cameron relaunches it, the real problem with The Big Society remains, says Currer Ball
Ever since he unveiled it, David Cameron’s Big Society idée fixe hasn’t really taken off. That’s something of an understatement. People just don’t seem interested. Our Prime Minister, who can’t stop talking about it and relaunching and relaunching it, has been left shrugging his shoulders and scratching his head. But there’s an obvious explanation as to why The Big Society’s had such little impact.
I was skimming through The New Statesman a while back (a skim read of the tolerant utopianism of The New Statesman’s about as much as this pathologically rickety right-winger can take). ‘Claptrap’ was its considered analysis of The Big Society. The magazine’s Political Editor, Medhi Hassan dubs The Big Society ‘BS’ (with characteristic wit and class). ‘Barmy’ is how you might imagine the typically abreast-of-the-briefing-note Ken Clarke describing his own party’s policy.
Others see The Big Society as not only a stupid idea, but also a sinister ploy to buff the turd of cuts. ‘Public services are going to the wall’, so the argument goes. ‘But hang about! Here’s a plan! Let’s all volunteer to do it for nothing and make up for the folly of the financiers with our own hard graft! Now who’s with me?! . . . Hello darkness, my old friend!’
But here’s the thing: despite its irresistible attraction to scorn, The Big Society really shouldn’t be that controversial at all. The label might sound quite grand, but the message behind it is actually pretty modest. And it has nothing to do with deficit reduction. All that it is saying is that the principles of social responsibility, community action, and fairness are good things; that it is right to look out for others, and to strive to be better parents, employers, employees, and citizens. Adam Smith called it ‘fellow feeling’, and said that helping people other than ourselves is the only way that we’ll ever achieve happiness.
So what’s all the fuss about? The answer’s that The Big Society tells us something that we’d rather not hear: that we’re actually quite selfish and go about our lives doing pretty much exactly what we like, without much thought for anyone else. That The Big Society’s been so widely and vigorously panned only highlights how much our self-obsessed, greedy, hedonistic society’s crying out for Cameron’s communitarianism. The problem therefore isn’t the concept; it’s the Tory Party.
And where do I start? I could go on and on and on – as so many of Cameron’s critics lazily do – about our Prime Minister’s Bullingdon connection. How a bunch of haughty kids with rich parents get blind drunk, do exactly what they want, vandalise exactly what they want, then get daddy to write a cheque for the damage, and keep noblesse oblige for another day. Pity most of that familiar criticism’s motivated by an inverted snobbery that’s as obnoxious as Bullingdon on a big night out. I’m quite prepared to cut Cameron some slack for things that he did while at university over 20 years ago.
So let’s talk about the here and now.
Case study: the Andy Coulson saga. How exactly does this unedifying epic square with The Big Society? A guy who edited a rag that markets to man’s state-of-nature instincts; that dresses up soft porn and celeb goss as ‘courageous investigative journalism’, not gutless lowest-common-denominator conformity; that profits and relies on popular ignorance and apathy; that loads our unhealthy obsession with B- and C-celebrity; that revels in rumour about cabinet ministers and their mistresses; that rejoices in misery because misery sells; that stalks and phone hacks the rich and famous, and murder victims, and murder victims’ families. But all this in its tireless pursuit of the public interest, you understand.
Coulson still claims that he knew nothing of the practice of phone hacking that was endemic at The News Of The World under his editorship. This despite former staff at the paper saying that Coulson ‘actively encouraged’ it.
Who to believe? Well, just think about it for a second: you’re a self-righteous, amoral bastard working at The News Of The World, when you walk into your boss’ office with the greatest scoop since Wayne Rooney was caught making The Big Society a reality atop his marital bed in last week’s edition. ‘Andy! Andy! Wait ‘til you hear this!’, you exclaim like the blood-sucking, arse-liking reveller that you are, already thinking about the titty bar where you’ll splurge your ensuing Lurid Sex Scandal Bonus. ‘I’ve got this serious, shameful, shocking story about a politician who’s banging his secretary on his Commons bureau! What’s the world coming to!’
At this point, what does your editor say? Does he breathe a sigh of relief, hand over your Lurid Sex Scandal Bonus, and run with your front page splash? Or does he ask you some questions that as your editor he’s obliged to ask to authenticate your story and source? e.g. what’s your evidence?; how did you get it?; who’s your source? Questions that would’ve immediately uncovered the scoop behind all the other scoops: that stories were being obtained via unlawful means.
Let’s suspend rationality for a second and assume that Coulson was instead supremely incompetent at his job and knew absolutely nothing about the phone hacking. Even if that was true, shouldn’t everything else that The News Of The World stood for have precluded Coulson from working for a government that claims to want to make Britain a better place? Isn’t it precisely what The News Of The World represented that The Big Society condemns? And doesn’t Cameron undermine his ‘mission’ when he for so long merrily stood by Coulson, Mr Social Irresponsibility par excellence? And note, when Coulson finally did leave Number 10, it was the press not Cameron himself that forced him out.
The Big Society? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for it. It’s just what the doctor ordered for our socially irresponsible times. It’s just a pity that the bloke prescribing the medicine is such a hypocrite.