Leader: Big question mark

21 July 2010

THERE are occasions when only one political party can develop a particular theory successfully. These are when that theory runs counter to the party’s traditional line. This is not hard to explain: when a theory’s fiercest detractors belong to a party that suddenly adopts it, self-doubt, combined with party loyalty, mutes their criticism. As David Cameron sets out to win people over to the notion of the Big Society, he will sense behind him the Conservative creed that built up around Lady Thatcher’s most famous quotation: “They are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women, and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.” Although this is often quoted out of context, it is clear that Mr Cameron is departing from the appeal to self-interest (enlightened or otherwise) that drove Conservatism in the 1980s and ’90s.

But as the Prime Minister moves into uncharted territory — uncharted, that is, apart from Communitarianism, the stakeholder programme, perhaps even Socialism — he is still enough of a Conservative to know that his Big Society ideal will be made or broken by one thing: money. The volunteers are certainly there: unemployment has seen to that; but the voluntary sector is in dire financial straits. A survey this week reported that charitable giving in the first six months of this year was 9.6 per cent lower than the equivalent period in 2009. In some regions, for example the north-west, the drop was nearly 15 per cent. The Church can attest to the advantages of a voluntary society, but even it acknowledges the need for a professional element, which, in the present climate, finds itself doing more of the work than in the past. Mr Cameron is promising funds, but elements in his Liverpool speech on Tuesday rang warning bells. He spoke of a “Big Society Bank” using dormant account money, currently reckoned to amount to about £60 million, a tiny sum set against the problems that Mr Cameron hopes volunteers and charities will tackle. He spoke about “start-up capital”; but social programmes are not like businesses: they are unlikely to move quickly into profit. And he mentioned “connecting private capital to investment in social projects”. There are many working in charities, the arts, and even the Church, who believe that we have reached the limit of what private capital can be persuaded to fund.

In a nutshell, the Big Society project cannot be expected to counter the effects of the downturn. Those few volunteers who have the skills to replace social workers, police officers, etc., do not have the time. Those who have the time do not have the skills. If the plan is to bring decision-making and implementa­tion back to the people, the people will need adequate and long-term funding.

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