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.

23 Responses to “No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’”

  1. Rosie

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: //bit.ly/by9gVC writes @ekklesia_co_uk's @SimonBarrow

  2. JulianaFarha

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: //bit.ly/by9gVC writes @ekklesia_co_uk's @SimonBarrow

  3. Symon Hill

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: //bit.ly/by9gVC writes @ekklesia_co_uk's @SimonBarrow

  4. Robin Dalton

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ //bit.ly/b7Pu3h

  5. Martin Johnston

    great piece RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: //bit.ly/by9gVC writes @ekklesia_co_uk's @SimonBarrow

  6. Saggydaddy

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: //bit.ly/by9gVC writes @ekklesia_co_uk's @SimonBarrow

  7. Eddy Anderson

    This is brilliant, and actually quite inspiring.

    This idea that ‘the money’s run out’ is really quite nonsensical. We’re a 21st-century capitalist economy, not a stone age commune. There’s no gold standard here: our currency is essentially a symbolic, virtual ‘credit’, and it’s ‘on credit’ that much of our business is done. EVERY country in the west operates on a deficit – and it’s been this way for decades.

    And since when did austerity fuel economic growth? You just have to look back to the Great Depression in America, at Hoover and FDR; one was austere, the other paid farmers to plough crops into the soil. Austerity got them no where. Look at Ireland.

    ARGH! These Thatcherite metaphors we hear of ‘ins and outs’, ‘balancing the books’ . . . can our journalists really not cope with the realities of modern economics?!

  8. LindsayO

    We have a Big Society already, we pay taxes to fund it

  9. ChurchActionPoverty

    RT @simonbarrow: My LFF blog: 'No Faith in Cameron's Big Society' – //www.leftfootforward.org/2010/11/no-faith-in-the-big-society/

  10. Anon E Mouse

    Eddy Anderson – Austerity fuels economic growth when the austerity involves not spending vast sums of taxpayers money on things that the private sector can do.

    When you employ a person in the public sector you take that job from the only wealth creator the country has namely the private sector.

    Currently the public sector in this country has reached 53% of the economy which is just beyond belief. How many Guardian type jobs – you know the jobs that never existed a decade ago yet the country still functioned – could be done by the private sector or better still not done at all.

    Simon Barrow – As a religious website supporter please remind me why the poor working class should pay to educate the richer middle class?

    By caring about the disadvantaged and poor didn’t Jesus say it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to go to the kingdom of heaven?

    Bet you detest the multi millionaire Ed Miliband who’s government brought in these fees eh…

  11. SteveFouch

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ //bit.ly/b7Pu3h #bigsociety

  12. BigSociety Live

    No faith in Cameron's 'Big Society' – Left Foot Forward //bit.ly/aGA6s2 #BigSociety

  13. Ian Davies

    @vriyait thought you may like to read this //bit.ly/blcdls

  14. Frank Spring

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: //bit.ly/by9gVC writes @ekklesia_co_uk's @SimonBarrow

  15. Big Society Bear

    RT @BigSocietyLive: No faith in Cameron's 'Big Society' – Left Foot Forward //bit.ly/aGA6s2 #BigSociety

  16. Chris

    @mouse the tory press officer.

    “Austerity fuels economic growth when the austerity involves not spending vast sums of taxpayers money on things that the private sector can do.”

    Crowding out is not a problem in the economy today.

    “When you employ a person in the public sector you take that job from the only wealth creator the country has namely the private sector.”

    Total and utter rubbish.

    “Currently the public sector in this country has reached 53% of the economy which is just beyond belief.”

    The size of the public sector before the banking crisis was ~43%, barely up on the 40% inherited in 1997. Having had to nationalise half the banking system, then weather the worst recession since 1930 its not surprising the public sector’s size relative to GDP has increased. As the economy recovers, the private sector’s size relative to GDP will increase.

    “How many Guardian type jobs – you know the jobs that never existed a decade ago yet the country still functioned – could be done by the private sector or better still not done at all.”

    You sound more and more like a tory press officer everyday.

    “As a religious website supporter please remind me why the poor working class should pay to educate the richer middle class?”

    Why should the richer middle class pay to educate, feed, clothe, house and treat the medical problems of the poor working class?

    “Bet you detest the multi millionaire Ed Miliband who’s government brought in these fees eh…”

    Yet again your trying to smear Ed, he isn’t a millionaire your own link showed that. And it wasn’t Ed’s government that brought in fees, it was Tony Blairs.

    Mouse, maybe if you spent less time trolling on the internet you wouldn’t be working so hard for such pathetic money.

  17. Spir.Sotiropoulou

    RT @leftfootfwd: No faith in Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ //bit.ly/b7Pu3h

  18. Mr. Sensible

    The Big Society is an attempt at justifying spending cuts.

    And as for Eddy’s comment about the results of austerity, we only have to look at the present to see that he is entirely right. (Ireland).

  19. Internet Magazine

    CoS-NEWS: No faith in Cameron's 'Big Society': The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Methodist Ch… //bit.ly/cN0mRs

  20. Church of Scotland

    CoS-NEWS: No faith in Cameron's 'Big Society': The Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the Methodist Ch… //bit.ly/cN0mRs

  21. Anon E Mouse

    Chris – Public forum. People watching. You telling lies and smearing people. Sound familiar?

    Your figures above on the economy are just a made up pack of lies and Ed Miliband is a rich Primrose Hill millionaire which, considering your obvious love of money and the acquisition of wealth, shouldn’t come as a smear to you. You seem to adore rich self serving publicists like the posh boy, eco toff Joss Garman. Why is that I wonder?

    And let’s quickly resolve your last despicable comment. Why do YOU think it’s acceptable to tell lies about GM food that results in thousands of human beings starving to death. Because that’s what happened. Well?

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