No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’

What is the government's version of a ‘Big Society’ all about? According to a strong statement from a new Christian network called Common Wealth – in which I should straight away declare my interest as a supporter – it’s an ideological con trick aimed at co-opting civil society groups (including churches and charities) into the Conservative/Lib Dem agenda to shrink the responsibilities of government so that the poorest get to pay for an economic mess created by the wealthy.

Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which endorses both Common Wealth and the Coalition of Resistance

What is the government’s version of a ‘Big Society’ all about? According to a strong statement from a new Christian network called Common Wealth – in which I should straight away declare my interest as a supporter – it’s an ideological con trick aimed at co-opting civil society groups (including churches and charities) into the Conservative/Lib Dem agenda to shrink the responsibilities of government so that the poorest get to pay for an economic mess created by the wealthy.

It’s also about perpetuating the illusion that “we’re all in this together”. Coming from a Cabinet of millionaires, that’s pretty ironic. But it seems to be working, to an extent.

In an animated conversation in the waiting room of my local health centre in Edinburgh the other day, I was saddened to discover how readily some of those who find themselves at the sharp-end of the UK government’s public and welfare spending cuts have bought into the idea that “unfortunately there’s just no money to pay for all these jobs and services”.

That’s nonsense, of course. There’s plenty of money to be found and created; axing Trident, increasing the levy on banks, generating resources through investment in green growth and technology, introducing a tax on financial transactions, a living wage, small business and co-operative development, a proper land value tax, microcredit initiatives, Treasury deposit receipts, new savings mechanisms, environmental and local authority bonds, tough action on tax avoidance and evasion.

These and other measures aimed at restructuring the economy away from speculation and towards sustainability based on social justice and a low-carbon future are at the heart of the alternative that people are not hearing about from establishment politicians.

This is why resistance is needed – linking protest to the positive generation and promotion of a radically different approach to economic and social policy. But that is precisely what ‘Big Society’ rhetoric is intended to obstruct. While slashing welfare spending, jobs, local authority budgets and (directly and indirectly) finance for voluntary groups, the government is claiming that it is ‘empowering’ people. What this means is that it hopes that charity will plug the gaps and keep people smiling.

Announced in the Conservative party manifesto for the May 2010 General Election, the ‘Big Society’ agenda overtly proposes to transfer public services to “new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies” – with little concern for evenness of provision, sustainability, access, equality and public accountability, it seems.

One of the key targets in this strategy is the churches and other faith groups. Though there has been significant decline in the historic Christian denominations in recent years, church congregations and organisations still galvanise around two million regular volunteers (one of the largest pools available) and are involved in a huge range of existing social activities, often in cooperation with others.

If they are not careful, they will find themselves hijacked into doing the government’s dirty work; but as St Augustine once said:

“Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”

Of course, church leaders are already expressing concern about the impact of government policies on the most vulnerable in society. The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Baptists and the United Reformed Church are among those who have spoken out – alongside campaigning groups like Church Action on Poverty and Housing Justice.

But a tougher stance and analysis is needed. The initiative from Common Wealth – which aims to bring together clergy, theologians and activists – is a ‘wake up’ call to the churches, urging them to be part of the resistance rather than the cover-up. It states very clearly that the worship of the market, the baptism of economic inequality through ‘Big Society’ blether, the abandonment of social solidarity and the masking of divisive policies lies at the heart of the cuts agenda.

It isn’t merely a failure of good will; it’s a declaration of bad faith.

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