Government 'reforms' are starting to hit the reality wall

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
8 Jun 2011

The ‘Big Society’ is becoming a fresh political battleground over the summer. In Westminster, certainly. Shrinking the state by galvanising more money and resources from private citizens through volunteering, delegating and contracting is central to the Prime Minister’s approach – both to running the country and to keeping his own party together.

But the strategy is beset with disagreement. For a start, civil servants keep telling ministers privately that claims about saving money through involving the public more in running communities (‘localism’) and national services are either uncosted, untried, untenable … or all three.

A large swathe of the public remains unconvinced, too. Catholic Archbishop Vincent Nichols has accused the concept of having ‘no teeth’, while saying cuts hurt the poorest. Cue a Downing Street reception to charm faith leaders and claim that Jesus invented the Big Society – a gaffe which the otherwise sympathetic Jubilee Centre described as “unfortunate”. Now Archbishop Rowan Williams has weighed in, describing the concept as "painfully stale".

Then there are Tory right-wingers. They suspect the voluntary sector, hanker after a less encumbered tax-reduction agenda, and worry that this namby-pamby ‘caring’ stuff dilutes the pure milk of a wealth-driven society. In response, Mr Cameron has written in the Telegraph that Big Society means “the grip of state control will be released.”

Last but not least are the Liberal Democrats, who are pushing harder within the coalition following their election mauling in May, are seen as a political wedge for problems with the NHS reforms, and are protesting against decentralisation of public services – for the same reason as civil servants are warning about it.

The upshot is that whereas the government’s major public service reform White Paper was due fairly imminently, it may not appear until July 2011 now, with further knock-on consequences both for fresh legislation and the struggles around it.

Five months ago Mr Cameron declared that his White Paper would “signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given model of public services”.

But with money being slashed from civic organisations, the chief route is privatisation and the onus on public bodies is to prove that they would be better. This is something that disguised on-costs, commercial confidentiality and masked loss leader bids makes very difficult indeed. So the axe looms larger.

The right are delighted by this. Embattled Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has renewed the fight for his professionally criticised health changes, in spite of the Prime Minsiter seeking to rein back a little, saying the alternative will be an NHS financial crisis (code for “unavoidable cuts”).

Thatcherism is back, cry the unions. Everyone else is queasy, if not up in arms, not least in those parts of Britain where the pain will be greatest and the resentment highest that these policies have little democratic mandate.

That remains key to the huge switch-around in Scotland. Here the key phrase is not ‘Big Society’ but ‘referendum’. The new SNP administration is busy figuring how to calibrate plans for a public poll on Scottish autonomy, possibly without even using the word ‘independence’.

The outcome is unlikely to be a clean break, but could well be another decisive power shift - whatever the result.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. This article is adapted from his June 2011 regular column for Third Way (http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk/), the magazine of Christian social, cultural and political comment. The column has recently been re-branded from 'Westminster Watch' to 'Party Pieces'.

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