If thou wouldst what true freedom is thou shalt see it lies in... take the Big Society in good faith

Why David Cameron's idea of the "Big Society'" deserves to be taken seriously.
Jonathan Rosenberg
2 July 2010

‘The idea of the Big Society [is] happening right now. Today is the start of a deep and serious reform agenda to take power away from politicians and give it to the people… We know that when you give people and communities more power over their lives, more power to come together and work together to make life better – great things happen.’ (Prime Minister, David Cameron, 18 May 2010)

On the morning of the 18th of May, the prime minister and deputy prime minister held a meeting in the cabinet room of 10 Downing Street. This event – occurring as it did on the morning before Parliament re-assembled following a government-changing election - brought together state and community leaders to discuss the new coalition’s Big Society programme.


Does the timing and prominence of this event suggest that local people should be elevated above their elected representatives, and workers above their bosses? Is the programme part of a coherent philosophy? Has a new consensus emerged on the need to empower people through collective ownership to solve problems more effectively, a consensus that is now at the heart of government policy?

The evidence, however curious, suggests that the answer is yes. The promotion of social action, and handing assets over to workers and communities is now a central plank of public sector reform. This startling development heralds a real opportunity to advance the good old cause of collective ownership.
Over the past three years, respected politicians, thinkers and commentators have suggested that the old left right, private versus public, state versus market dichotomy is not fit for resolving current economic and political challenges. A fresh interpretation of our ills and what we can do about them is at hand.

From the ideological wreckage of the war between capitalism, liberalism and socialism emerges a new age – post-recession, post-managerialist, post left and right - an era that draws on British traditions of community, or, for the more cynical, ‘parish pump’ politics. Deride it as you will: ‘Power to the People!’ is the new mantra. 

Prepare for a potentially painful dose of post-election political correction. The divide is transformed, and it’s not about party anymore. Mass mutualism is the new dogma: so proclaimed Cameron’s philosopher king, Phillip Blond, in, of all places, the Daily Mail. We are all ‘social capitalists’ now: such was the implication of the newly ennobled Big Society adviser Lord Nat Wei’s maiden speech. 

If you don’t subscribe to the new orthodoxy, then, regardless of your justification or outmoded political persuasion, you are – and this is the new political insult – either an unreconstructed statist or an unrestrained economic liberal, inevitably prone to the worst excesses of communism, capitalism, and totalitarianism. Be damned! Or be corrected!

For those who think it’s just a cover for cuts: yes, it is about cuts. Cuts were inevitable and are coming thick and fast. The real question is how to do more for less. Do you really think you know best? Are you against giving power to the people?

Council Leaders delude themselves if they think this is just a ploy to devolve power to them. Yesterday, housing minister Grant Shapps observed: ‘even the local tier of government sometimes struggles to transfer control to local communities’. Simply shifting functions from ‘Whitehall’ to local authorities, or streamlining council services using new bureaucratic techniques and under new management is not enough. That’s just statists re-arranging deck chairs.

What is needed is incentive for workers and communities to be more diligent and productive in delivering individual and social benefits. And that can only be achieved through a massive devolution of assets. 

Collective ownership is the new consensus: communitarianism is the new panacea. ‘John Lewis’ for the private sector; workers’ co-ops for the public sector; and community ownership of land and social assets for rural and urban neighbourhoods.

Tribal responses come naturally, and it’s not easy to be open to what appears at first to be a counter-intuitive recasting of the political debate. So, try this: read the utterings of Cameron and Blond, and the conservative party policy papers, as if they’d poured from whatever party you might sympathise with. See whether you agree with them then: is this not motherhood and apple pie?

Yet, is it credible that government is inspired by what Cameron has called a ‘genuine third way’, albeit less vacuous than its predecessor, which gives the greatest priority ever to community empowerment; and can we take this seriously when it is busy axing huge sums of community development funding?

Many critics, both left and right, have dismissed the new paradigm, along with its resolution of social action and collective ownership as flaky nonsense, writing off its chief proponent, Phillip Blond, as deranged, its political patron, David Cameron, as opportunist, and implying the result would be anarchy. 

Yes, it’s true that the scale of devolution envisaged is not thought through; that the economic driver is explicit; and it remains to be seen what detailed practical measures and deeper support will be put in place, rather than be cut away. 

But this is no excuse not to engage: rather, it’s an opportunity to shape and fill out the policy; reason to press even harder for the power that’s been promised. Cut the grant if you will: but hand over the assets and revenue streams so people can sort out the problems the way you envisage.

Perhaps a fundamental shift really is underway. We can take the view that the great tail of the English working class with its white vans and Rottweilers, the net-curtained busybodies of un-garden-grabbed suburbia, and the County-set with its bloodhounds and ‘Archers’ style dependents, let alone other communities who might define themselves by ethnicity, religion or something else, should be dictated to for their own good, or we can move on and accept that democracy is the bedrock of our society, and that it starts from the ground up. 

Yes, a lot of self-opinionated people get involved in community groups, and some screw up. It could also be said that politicians, journalists and philosophers pontificate on how society should be run. They are not immune from messing up.

Neither the prime minister, nor Blond argue for the elimination of the state’s role in society: Cameron sees the state as enabling devolution; and in his blueprint for the workers’ co-operative state, which, for those in the know, was kicked off by Labour and is adopted by the conservative/libdem coalition, Blond retains core state functions. 

Perhaps the worst that could be said about the coalition government’s collective ownership policy is that it’s a Disraelian ploy, a practical and populist device to seek buy-in from the electorate for cuts, and a clever move to capture the Zeitgeist. 

Social and political advances are not the exclusive preserve of any particular party, and should not be despised by virtue of their origin. Let’s put cynicism to one side, at least in the initial period when there is momentum that will be lost as the establishment inevitably reasserts control. 

And, let’s take Cameron at face value when he insists: ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state’; that the Big Society is about ‘devolving power to the people while using the state to encourage social action and help the poorest’; and that he wants ‘to encourage collective ownership’. The prime minister says he believes in the co-operative principle; and the coalition government has put supporting the creation of mutuals and co-ops at the heart of public sector reform. 

The prime minister’s speeches on the Big Society in the post-bureaucratic age, along with those of his housing minister, call to mind the words of Digger leader, Gerrard Winstanley, during the English Revolution in 1649. Following the abolition of the Monarchy and House of Lords, and the creation of the Commonwealth, the last time there was truly major political reform in this country, he wrote:

Everyone talks of freedom, but there are few that act for freedom, and the actors for freedom are oppressed by the talkers and verbal professors of freedom: if thou wouldst what true freedom is thou shalt see it lies in the community of spirit and community in the earthly treasury.

Yesterday, speaking about his plans to legislate for Local Housing Trusts, housing minister Grant Shapps proclaimed the start of ‘a revolution - where communities get involved in providing homes for themselves … this will be a very English revolution. We will turn things upside down. …Trusts will be expected to invest any financial profits back into the community. And the land will remain in the Trust for local benefit forever - regardless.’

Collective ownership is the new consensus. Enacting it should bring freedom and control for all: for villages who want to house their children, or own their greens, pubs and post offices; for working class communities who want to own their estates and provide their own services; and for suburbs of a liberal or independent disposition who possess the talent and knowledge to manage their own affairs.

Politicians are offering power: let’s be gracious by seeking to take it.

Jonathan Rosenberg founded the country’s single largest mutual housing association, Walterton & Elgin Community Homes, where he is a tenant and vice chair of the resident-controlled board. He currently advises communities on how to take social action to achieve collective ownership. 

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