Will Cameron's 'Big Society' stand or fall?
The handling of imminent cuts in public spending will determine whether Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and the coalition’s ‘new politics’ will stand or fall.
On 22 June an emergency budget will be announced, which David Cameron admitted in an interview with the Sunday Times, will cause “pain” to many. With cuts of around 25% likely to be required for those non-ring fenced departments, including local government, the impact will be widely and deeply felt. The precise nature of the cuts to local government were explored in some detail in last weeks edition of the Radio 4 programme, ‘You and Yours’ which found, predictably, that the ‘low hanging fruit’ of arts and leisure services were already being earmarked for cuts.
The bigger debate though, is likely to be around the quality of social care, public transport and other important but expendable services. Whatever the outcome, a big debate there will be. Nothing engages people more than reducing the quality of their services, rising unemployment or accelerating inflation, and despite Eric Pickles assurances that ‘the bins will be emptied’ this will not be enough to calm the inevitable discontent.
The classic critique of budget cutting is that it is rarely done strategically but rather, in the glare of publicity, tends to be knee-jerk and based on politicians guessing what will minimise political fall-out. This forces local and national politicians alike into a defensive and polarised form of ‘yaa-boo’ political debate that has come to characterise old politics, and alienate many of us from civic life. Such sterile debate however is not inevitable, it is a choice. And I argue at this point it is the wrong choice. There is now a clear decision facing the government, a rare chance to bed-down a new politics into the cultural fabric of Britain or a reinforcement of the traditional adversarial political model. The summer of 2010 is likely to be remembered as an exceptional moment when there was a genuine appetite for change in the country. The media is slightly more generous and less critical of the government, and the political class still eddying after the closest fought election in a generation, has not yet coalesced into its usual tribes. Now is our chance to transform politics across the country and give the ‘Big Society’ a real chance, disseminating across Britain the ‘new politics’ that the coalition has come to represent. Unsurprisingly, this will hinge on budget cuts; but not so much what is cut, but how we do the cutting.
Will the cuts be decided in Westminster and imposed across the country? Or will the new coalition government seek to involve those potentially affected by cuts in the decision-making process? Will the government face down the inevitable public disquiet through a robust defence of ‘tough decisions’ or will it channel public interest into constructive debate about the future of their communities?
Cuts in spending will bring people together. A ‘big society’ of sorts will be created whatever happens. A fact not lost on Big Society boss Nat Wei who, in a recent blog asked that the “major decisions that leaders of society make…bear this fragile [big society] ecology in mind”. The question is will that ‘Big Society’ be rallying against government proposals, or working with the government to tackle a shared challenge.
If the government is serious about creating a ‘new politics’ and building a ‘Big Society’ it will create the conditions for it to succeed. This is not pie in the sky idealism; we have in the UK the infrastructure and experience to do this, including a Participatory Budgeting Unit, E-Petition legislation and an army of newly trained local government engagement officers. Now, in the ‘Big Society,’ we also have the strategic vision to bring it all together.
A government’s legacy is determined not by its ability to develop and deliver policy, but how it handles defining events. Iraq will always define Blair, and the financial crisis will probably always define Cameron. How this defines Cameron is still up for grabs, and will depend on how committed he really is to new politics.