Saturday, 01 May 2010

Is Big Society hiding behind civil society? I understand that tomorrow's Sunday Times will publish a letter signed by 'social entrepreneurs and others from the voluntary and community sector in supporting the role of civil society', by which they mean, the Big Society version of it. After a bit of rumouring during the week, the letter was published yesterday by Social Enterprise (quickly picked up by David Wilcox). It's pretty disappointing. It deals with some objections to which the authors (I don't mean the signatories necessarily; it's not hard to see where the text originated) feel they can respond, which are well within the comfort zone. SE says: The letter states that campaigners have been taken aback by the opposition in the press and elsewhere to the role citizens can play in our country, partly generated by pre-election discussions on such areas as the ‘Big Society’. How could anyone disagree with the need for a healthy civil society? But some less straightforward questions have been raised here and there, which don't get any kind of recognition or response in the letter. We're invited to vote for motherhood and apple pie. Having got it slightly wrong first go (eg unashamedly top-down, too closely associated with a political party, too detached from the political reality of community action) the folk behind BS needed to take a step back. There are (or at least there were, up until now) plenty of people ready to help them with their thinking, out of goodwill or perhaps self-interest. But with this letter they may just be compounding their problems. There's no need to defend civil society guys, it's not under attack: it's the Big Society that people wanted to ask about. Come on out. Publishing this a few days before the election will simply confirm people in their distrust of the close association with the Conservative party. Leaking the letter to test the reaction, gosh there's a new trick, compounds the sense that it's not quite sincere. And it doesn't take a major effort of recollection to reflect on the very serious and painful struggles that many people in the community sector (not civil society volunteers nor social entrepreneurs in their own terms, but local people with dirt under their fingernails) went through under the last tory administration. Previously: Big Society is being watched Let's hear it for neighbourhood groups: Conservative party launch of the Big Society
Local activism and a general election Diane Dyson has an excellent recent post about third places, including this observation: Early British suffragettes did some of their best community organizing in the town laundries, away from the strong pitching arms of visiting farm boys who lobbed rotten produce at them when the women stood on the back of wagons at village markets calling for the vote. An exchange of messages with Diane helped me to this recent post about Hannah Mitchell - about whom, to my shame, I knew nothing. It's at moments like this that I feel most keenly the half-hearted incompleteness of my education; but really, for me in late-20thC england, dealing with that lack was trivial compared to the systematised exclusion which people like Hannah Mitchell confronted and overcame. I invite you to take a few minutes to listen to this reading from her autobiography (scroll down) describing her intervention at a meeting before the general election of 1906. And if your mind happens to be on the fluid nuances of the forthcoming UK general election, this is something to reflect on - not just for the ferocity of the local action against vested interests that was necessary to bring democracy out of the cradle and belatedly learning to walk; but also for the stark political differences and the enviable(?) focus that was possible on causes of social justice. Well, it would be an insult to those campaigners to envy the context of their struggles, but perhaps politics now does suffer from a lack of distinct causes. And there's another point to be made, which I am not qualified to explore, about the comparative contribution of women to local anti-slavery activism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the suffragette movement. Maybe someone will tell me this has been done? It's the localness of their action, its morally-forged courage against far broader political forces, and its need to accumulate patiently in order to have effect, that interests me, and from which I feel we should be learning.

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