Wednesday, 09 March 2011

Is big society rhetoric becoming counter-productive? I heard today from a practitioner working at area level in a northern town, the strong impression that residents are distrustful of big society rhetoric and negative about any association with it. Not just because they already picking up Mrs Jones’s prescription for her and help out at the school fete and report fly-tipping; but also because they think it’s demanding something for nothing. So in this particular area at least, it would be a mistake to label anything as ‘big society’. Better to keep using familiar terms like ‘citizen action’, if that’s what you mean. In other words, big society rhetoric is counter-productive if you want to get people involved. One of the puzzling mistakes about the presentation of big society has been the way its ethos is associated with ‘charity’ and community groups are confused with charities. This is the Surrey cake-stall-mafia view of the world, probably more naïve than dangerous. But maybe more charities are needed? I’ve been associated with a small charity for a few years which regretfully has just had to take the decision to close down, having failed to cope with some inflexible and punitive attitudes from Companies House. This was about fines for late filing of accounts which had been accepted. If they make a mistake – and they did – the most you’ll get is a disguised apology. If you make a mistake, you are liable to a fine which for a small charity could wipe out a third of your money or more. The lesson is that even when some of us do take the charitable status route, obstacles and obdurate bureaucrats will block the path. Mr Cameron is only likely to get the branded change he wants by constantly claiming that everything pro-social is ‘big society’. It’s just possible a large number of people will see through that. And when the history is written, I expect we’ll see that the problem was not about whether we all want a smaller state and more local accountability and more informal care and support at neighbourhood level, cos most of us do; it was about the apparently unbreakable habit, among the elite, of top-down, patronising, disempowering command-mode attitudes towards ordinary people.

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