The ‘Big Society’ is to David Cameron what ‘Education, education, education’ was to Tony Blair
As Tony Blair ascended the political mountain, he proclaimed his core philosophy to be ‘Education. Education. Education’. David Cameron must be careful that his ‘Big Society’ does not prove to be as vacuous and disingenuous. After more than a decade of Blairite education reform and billions of pounds, we were assured time and again that things were getting better and results were improving. But objectively, we saw the calibre of the nation’s education quantitatively diminished: according to the OECD's comprehensive world education ranking report for 2010, by the end of the New Labour era the UK had fallen to 11th place in Science; sunk to 20th place in Reading; and plummeted to 22nd place in Maths.
Ergo Tony Blair failed.
In the Big Society, we glimpse David Cameron’s core philosophy. A few weeks ago His Grace observed that the Prime Minister was habitually negating a third of his Foundation-for-Government course, his Oxford PPE degree. We were getting lots of Politics, a manifest primacy of Economics, but zero Philosophy. What’s the point of a tripartite degree if you’re going to ditch cohesive element; the glue that binds; the rhythm which beats at the heart; the piece which makes sense of the whole?
By turning again to his ‘Big Society’ vision – which he should never have permitted to be hijacked by the ‘cuts’ narrative – the Prime Minister is undertaking a wholly necessary political pursuit, for it is the policy by which his premiership succeeds or fails. It is the mantra that people most remember from the time he became Party leader: his constant refrain was ‘Broken Britain’ and how he intended to fix it. Much more than the economy, the ‘Big Society’ entered the public consciousness as David Cameron’s political priority.
But he never expounded it. People had a sense of understanding of the meaning of ‘Education, education, education’. But the ‘Big Society’ remains undefined, nebulous and opaque. Certainly, the Conservative Party didn’t win the General Election, but the ‘Big Society’ idea was a perfect unifying policy for the Coalition; indeed, the formation of a Conservative-LibDem partnership augured well for the vision, because it is both liberal and democratic. David Cameron’s plans for free schools are both liberal and democratic; his plans for a ‘pupil premium’ for the most challenging pupils are both liberal and democratic; his desire to redistribute NHS funding to the areas with the lowest life expectancy is both liberal and democratic. His opposition to further taxes on jobs is both liberal and democratic; his desire for lower personal taxation is both liberal and democratic; his opposition to ID cards is both liberal and democratic. And what liberal and democrat could possibly resile from the Conservatives’ proposed reforms to Parliament – that of granting the electorate the right to recall their MP, and petition for a parliamentary debate?
What went wrong?
He allowed this Conservative-led Government to be tarnished (again) with the primacy of economics. Mammon, materialism and the market are perceived to be his primary concerns, such that any and every policy (even the proposal for forestry privatisation) is perceived to be about money, not about the size of the state.
You couldn’t actually be much more ‘Big Society’ than to implement the break-up of the self-regulating monolithic Forestry Commission, and place woodland into local ownership making it accountable to democratic bodies. But the policy appears now to have been placed in a swift reverse gear. Why?
A massive failure of communication.
The Prime Minister needs to remind us of his core conviction: that big government is a big part of the big problem, and that it exacerbates the nation’s social problems. He needs to talk about personal and social responsibility, liberated from state control, which fosters fraternity, strengthens families, inculcates respect and permits the application of common sense. He needs to remember that there is little point in making ‘free schools’ to improve social mobility if children are nurtured in a state-induced poverty trap which actively discriminates against married couples. He must bring some ‘joined-up’ thinking to his education reforms by actively supporting families and backing commitment. He must tackle drug abuse, alcohol abuse, family breakdown and the worst rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe not by pouring in more billions of pounds, but by liberating people from inhuman state interference, monolithic state surveillance and oppressive state control.
If David Cameron wants a ‘Big Society’, he must bring ‘We the people’ into his thinking. And to do that, he must devolve and trust. But if he will not do that within his own party, he is not likely to achieve it in the country. The ‘Big Society’ is about personal and collective responsibility – the Church has been doing it for centuries. And that irrefutable fact calls for humility on the part of the Prime Minister: instead of criticising and lecturing church leaders, he might just sit at their feet and learn about the church’s centuries of experience in educating children, feeding the poor, housing the homeless and ensuring justice for the oppressed.
The ‘Big Society’ is a true Conservative vision: it respects the individual, embraces diversity and empowers community. It shows faith, deep faith, in mankind as the vehicle of compassion, of neighbourliness, of love. It demands the bottom-up participation of the traditional institutions – family, church, charities, community and country. So any attack on the family, any negation of religious freedom and any denigration of our instinctive patriotism is an offence against the ‘Big Society’: you cannot force families or coerce charities or the church into doing what’s right when you pursue policies and issue diktats which are wrong.
There is a balance to be struck between liberalism and conservatism. And that ought to be at the heart of every policy. If David Cameron really believes that strong families lead to strong societies, he must put his policies where his heart is. If he believes that the church is indispensible to social cohesion, he must harness its strengths and build on its conservative values and roll back the immoral cultural revolution.
The ‘Big Society’ is to David Cameron what ‘Education. Education. Education’ was to Tony Blair, and the Prime Minister must make sure it does not go the same way. The concept is not only in need of urgent definition, but targets must be set in order that progress may be measured and data verified qualitatively and quantitatively. If there can be no empirical verification, we cannot know if David Cameron has succeeded in delivering. And if we cannot know if he has succeeded in implementing his vision, we cannot know what manner of prime minister he was: a great reforming one or just another sophist and salesman.