Big Society, Broken society?

Amid the controversy of charities and cuts, a neglected part of this week's 'Big Society' re-launch is the reappearance of the idea of the 'broken society', writes Matt Cavanagh.

By Matt Cavanagh

Amid the controversy of charities and cuts, a neglected part of this week’s ‘Big Society’ re-launch is the reappearance of the idea of the ‘broken society’, with Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, one of those urging David Cameron to re-emphasise the link between the two ideas:

“[Mr] Cameron needs to reconnect the Big Society with the idea of Broken Britain. Even before the recession struck there was something wrong with Britain.

“Extreme poverty worsened under Labour. Family breakdown accelerated. Problems of addiction and anti-social behaviour multiplied.”

This was of course the same approach the prime minister took before the election. In one of his last and most high profile speeches of the election campaign, on April 27th, he listed eight social problems which he saw as lying at the heart of our “broken society” – the same four as Montgomerie:

• Extreme poverty;

• Family breakdown;

• Illegal drug use; and

• Anti-social behaviour.

Together with four more:

• Violent crime;

• Teenage pregnancy;

• Children growing up in workless households; and

• Social mobility.

Mr Cameron argued that the answer to all these problems was “to move from big government to the Big Society”.

He was right to identify these eight as genuine and serious problems. Labour left office wishing it had been able to do more on all of them. Unfortunately the effect was somewhat spoiled, and Mr Cameron’s good faith drawn into question, by his argument that:

“…the evidence, as well as our instincts, shows that these social problems are getting worse, not better.”

This was almost entirely untrue. His government has confirmed since the election that violent crime was falling, anti-social behaviour was falling, and illegal drug use was falling. The Office for National Statistics have confirmed since the election that teenage pregnancy was falling.

Academics from the LSE’s Centre for Social Exclusion wrote to the Guardian immediately following Mr Cameron’s speech to reject his claims about three more of the problems on his list – extreme poverty, children in workless households, and social mobility – arguing that, again, these problems had been getting slowly better rather than worse.

Now that Mr Cameron and his Conservative ministers have to be consistent with the statistics their officials are obliged to publish, they no longer argue that these problems were getting worse under Labour – even if other Conservatives like Montgomerie still do. Nevertheless, Mr Cameron followed Montgomerie’s advice and resurrected the diagnosis of Broken Britain, alongside the solution of the Big Society, in his speech on Monday:

“As I have said lots of times in the past, there are too many parts of our society that are broken… We do need a social recovery to mend the broken society. To me, that’s what the Big Society is all about.”

In policy terms, time will tell whether “moving from big government to the Big Society” continues to reduce the eight problems Mr Cameron identified, let alone doing so more quickly. Personally I have my doubts.

And in political terms, while going back to presenting the Big Society as the solution to the broken society might make sense as a last desperate bid to get the Tory right on board, it won’t do much for Mr Cameron’s chances of getting the Lib Dems to join the re-launch – certainly not Vince Cable, who a year ago argued:

“What I dislike most about the ‘broken society’ message is that it distorts the facts for political advantage.

“Far worse, it breeds cynicism and despair in our basically decent and healthy society. Britain is not broken. We need leaders to lift us up, not run us down.”

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