A Big Society needs republican values

Instead of rejecting the Conservatives' Big Society outright, the left should endorse its values but argue that the state has an important role to play in fostering them.
Ben Rogers
30 September 2010

‘Bureaucracy is something we all love to hate.  It presents simultaneously the contradictory images of bungling inefficiency and threatening power.  Incompetence, red tape and feather-bedding on the one side; manipulation, obstructionism and intrigue on the other. There is almost no evil that has not at some point been debited to its account’. 

Not a recent comment on Big Society policy, but the introduction to David Beetham’s fine little book Bureaucracy, published a quarter of a century ago. 

One of the arguments of Beetham’s book is that contrary to the assumptions of many on both the left and the right, there is nothing inherently undemocratic in bureaucracies. On the contrary, bureaucracies are a necessary feature of any modern democratic regime – other at least then small parish level governments.   They enable the application of laws and policies arrived at through processes of democratic deliberation. They are expert and, with the right governance, relatively efficient.  They can help ensure power is held to account.   Yes, they can be rule bound, inflexible and unresponsive.  So can justice.

It is important, of course, as those on the left consider their reaction to the Big Society narrative that they bear this important point in mind. 

That said, the left would be foolish to dismiss the Big Society as mere government spin to justify spending cuts and the rolling back of the state.  The New Labour state did often come to feel heavy handed.  Labour’s centralising instincts too often won out against its devolutionary ones.  And that came to count against it - among public services professionals who felt their expertise was under-valued, among liberals offended by the intrusions of the surveillance state, and among tax payers of all stripes, including many formerly of a Labour stripe, who thought that the public sector had grown excessively fat and insufficiently responsive.

Indeed rather than dismissing coalition talk of the Big Society, I would argue the left should enthusiastically embrace the values of citizenship, reciprocity and civic collaboration that can be seen as animating it.

But the left of course needs to develop a distinctive take on these values and how they can best be advanced.  And this has to start by challenging what is emerging as a significant theme of a great deal of government policy in this area – the belief that creating a big society is above all about removing barriers and rolling back the dead-hand of the state. Labour’s take on the big society should be that while we all want a big society, there is more to growing one than attacking bureaucracy. You can’t simply deregulate for citizenship. You have to foster it.  

Some of the arguments the left will want to marshall in developing this line of analysis will seem quite familiar – and many liberal democrats would be happy to sign up to them. We all know, or think we know, that egalitarian states are richer in social capital than less egalitarian ones, and that welfare states can ‘crowd in’ civic endeavour, rather than/as well as crowd it out.

In the run up to the last election the Brown government, confronted with Cameron’s big society narrative, began to argue that things go best when ‘public services and civil society work together’.  Even if this was never quite as powerful as Cameron’s brilliant, ‘There is such a thing as a society, it is just not the same as the state’, it was broadly right.  The challenge for the left now is to develop a robust and persuasive account of what it will do to make the Big Society or as it might better call it, the civic society, a reality. 

Take just one example.  It is often said that the modern state has gone too far in attempting to regulate away risk. Witness, the critics say, the excesses of the Vetting and Barring Scheme, with its requirement that virtually anyone who comes into contact with children through a school or a charity, has to be vetted by the state. Or the way in which protocols and reporting burdens discourage social workers and police from exercising judgement and eat into their time.

These are genuine matters of concern. But the government approach to addressing them appears largely limited simply to dismantling top-down regulation. So David Cameron has asked Lord Young to identify unnecessary health and safety regulation. Nick Clegg launched a Your Freedom website inviting people to give their ideas on laws and regulations that should be repealed.  Very little thought, however, is being given to alternative strategies for handling risk – strategies, for instance, focused on building up people’s capacity to manage risk themselves (say through training).

What is true of risk is true for other areas as well. Obliging public services to put as much information as possible on-line will make it easier for civil society groups to hold these too account – but government also has a role in helping foster an environment supportive of civil society groups.

The Coalition is right to insist on the important contribution that neighbourly ties have to make to looking after an aging population, but that suggests a role for government in facilitating these ties – neighbourly relations for instance are affected by the way places are designed and managed.

Endorsing big society values but arguing that the state has an important role to play in fostering them, would be very much in keeping with venerable Labour traditions of mutualism and civic endeavour. But it would also be in keeping with older traditions of republican self-government. For a key characteristic of the republican tradition, exemplified, for instance, in Machiavelli and Harrington is that it does not see citizenship and civic virtue, as the Coalition is inclined to do, as something natural, but something artificial – the all too rare product of a fairly equal distribution of wealth,  a well designed constitution and gifted leadership.

Civic republicans were acutely aware of the fragility of civic virtue and hence the need to cultivate it. Set against this tradition, the coalition’s faith in the benign effects of rolling back bureaucracy can start to look a bit complacent.

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