David Cameron’s “big society” idea has taken a bit of a knock recently. For the most part this is because local government spending cuts appear to be affecting the very infrastructure that most people’s concept of “big society” requires. I’ll come back to this later as there is a valid argument that says if you are closing down already successful volunteer organisations like the citizen’s advice bureau, it’s a bit rich to expect local communities to start volunteering for other projects. Lead by example guys!
But actually I think “The Big Society” as Cameron wants it has a much deeper-rooted problem. Here in Britain, we just don’t get it!
Cameron is looking to the U.S model of public service provision where local communities provide a lot of the social welfare support, and where civically minded groups and individuals will tidy up public spaces or adopt a stretch of highway to clean. But this is a model baked in a completely different political environment. The U.S is a country of low taxation, small government, local legislature and local democracy. Historically U.S citizens have not expected the government to pay for the sorts of things we take for granted in Britain. However in Britain we are taxed relatively highly at both a national and local level, we pay our council tax and expect the park to be clean, a library available and support for the sick, old and homeless to be on tap. That is the way our country has worked for decades and we don’t see why it should be any different.
I’m not making a political case for a smaller welfare state here, just pointing out that even under Conservative governments we are a “big government” sort of country and it will likely take a long time and radical reform to change that. Even should we wish to.
As a result the U.S has developed a strong infrastructure that makes it possible for local communities to mobilise. Inevitably in such a religious country the churches and chapels are the primary hubs for local charity and civic projects, (which may be one of the few positive purposes they serve) but that is unlikely to be replicated here and it probably would not be a welcome development in any case. However if we are to agree that greater civic participation is a good thing, (and I can’t think of a reason why it wouldn’t be) the first thing we need is secular spaces where like-minded people can meet and organise. It doesn’t matter if that is a local library or the village hall or even the pub (actually especially the pub!). We also need local politicians to seed projects that need our input with some leadership and resources. The “big society” will have to start small, and we will have to be led by the nose for a while. So closing the libraries, and the advice bureaus is not a good move until we all get the “big” idea for ourselves.
"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"