Cameron: Passion versus duty over “The Big Society”

Speech analysis by David Walsh

Podcast by Katy Docherty and Emily Glass

‘The Big Society’ could be compared to ‘The Big Bang Theory’ in many ways. It may make a loud noise with the promise of creating something, but is the new rhetoric for old fodder merely just smoke and mirrors to save face in a time of economic difficulty?

PM David Cameron is answering questions over his "The Big Society" (Image: BBC)

Prime Minister David Cameron has stressed the need for social as well as economic recovery. In his address to assembled London social entrepreneurs this morning, the Premier outlined just what his vision of “The Big Society” was. ”It is actually social recovery as well as economic recovery, and I think we need social recovery because as I’ve said lots of times in the past, there are too many parts of our society that are broken,” he explained.

Perhaps the speech was wasted on an audience who would be potentially considered core Conservative voters and those less directly affected by Cameron’s latest crusade in social politics. Preaching to the converted, and all that. Critically, Cameron needs to assert his faith in the concept on the lower sorts on the economic rungs; to Mr and Mrs Everyday whose lives will be hardest hit by a compacting economy and spending cuts, not the section of society most financially cushioned from a fall.

Stating that it was his ‘passion’, he went on to describe that reducing the budget deficit was only his ‘duty.’ Such a conflict of interest has been noted by critics of the government who have panned the concept as being “too vague”. Mr Cameron did acknowledge this in the speech this morning, saying that he agreed it was vague in the sense that there was no single initiative being rolled out nationwide but “a stream of things that need to be done.”

What exactly is “The Big Society”? In a nutshell, it is taking emphasis off central government action and empowering local communities to organise their lives more effectively and harmoniously. The bitter irony in this rhetoric is that it will be handing power to the people who are in the firing line of his double-barrel tirade in calling for people ‘act more responsibly’.

”Whether it’s broken families or whether it’s some communities breaking down or whether it’s the level of crime, the level of gang membership, whether it’s problems of people stuck on welfare unable to work, whether it’s the sense that some of our public services don’t work for us, we do need a social recovery to mend the broken society and to me that is what the Big Society is all about,” he said. If it is the handing down of power from the government to the people, would one want to be giving control to broken and lawless communities?

So, is “The Big Society” merely being ground out the the ConDem coalition policy mill to paper over the cracks in public spending? It would seem that in having to reduce the country’s budget deficit and therefore withdrawing key public services, the government believes that the public should also do it’s duty in meeting the government halfway. As he stated, government action can only ever be half of the answer and wanted to make it easier for people to volunteer in society.

What of the voluntary sector we have? Although much funding of charitable and local government-funded schemes will dry up in the current financial drought, Mr Cameron has unveiled a £100m transition fund, christened as the Big Society Bank,  to aid voluntary organisations. Critics say this is not nearly enough to help finance the number of volunteer groups in operation in the UK, many of whom have benefited from government coffers in the past.

And what will “The Big Society” mean for communities in Scotland? Well, in Edinburgh for example, £90m will be axed by the City of Edinburgh council in its budget over the next three years. Glasgow city council will need to find £101m over the next two years. In real terms, this will mean a lull in public service provision and is leaving local councils across Scotland searching for an alternative. Is David Cameron’s “Big Society” the answer?

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