Why the “big society” means less freedom for us all

Cameron’s pet project is an insidious attempt to undermine common liberty.

It was no surprise when David Cameron announced in his "big society" speech that the idea is a long-standing passion of his, regardless of the unpleasant duty to cut the deficit. The thing that remains somewhat harder to fathom is his claim that the "big society" is actually about the biggest redistribution of power from the elite in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street. He alluded to this at a meeting with representatives of voluntary and charitable organisations in Downing Street back in May, when he said that "the best ideas come from the ground up, not the top down".

One could be forgiven for thinking Cameron is proposing that grass-roots activists overthrow the government, resulting in an anti-elitist utopia. However, his hierarchical phrasing (despite its placating focus on those on the ground looking up) leaves little doubt as to who is really in charge. It's just the usual case of those in authority patronising subordinates by saying what a marvellous job they're going do, so that they can delegate responsibility to them at as little cost as possible, before going off to do whatever they please in the time the subordinates have freed up.

Cameron says the success of the "big society" will depend on people giving their time, effort and even money to causes around them, and that the government must foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy and social action. Perhaps, in the current political climate, it doesn't matter if people get involved only because of the social pressure that such a culture will surely create. Indeed, it seems many people only really mind being controlled if it is done explicitly.

If they can pretend it isn't happening, all is well. As it is, this means that ultimately many see paying tax according to one's earnings as an absolute drag, while being aggressively harassed in the street by a pushy charity fundraiser for money that one may not have isn't commonly held in the same degree of contempt. The "big society" will surely spur such sentiments.

"Something really exciting"

Social control is certainly not to be celebrated. In my view, people should only ever be forced to submit to anything when it is deemed completely necessary for basic human survival. But what's worse? A better version of the tax system we already have, that is honestly but discreetly imposed on those of us who have the means to pay? This gives us all the right to expect that our basic needs will be met, but leaves us to do what we please beyond that. Or, alternatively, a gradual erosion of that system through interventions that offer fake freedom, and then use more insidious ways to control our lives persistently?

Cameron's voluntarism is precisely the latter. This is clearly reflected in his bluster about neighbourhoods which feel that if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them. This brings frightening visions of communities where dominant, self-appointed busybodies are free to lord it over others and pour scorn on those who fail to fit in. Make no mistake: there is no room for outsiders or loners in a society without a welfare state that allows those in need not to be at the mercy of the mob's prejudices.

There are greater individual freedoms to be gained from socialism in the long run. Higher taxes for those of us who can afford them in return for decent public services and benefits for those of us who need them are a small price to pay for the basic right to food, shelter, health care and dignity for everyone (with no questions, and no ifs or buts).

The greater anonymity of giving through taxes gives both givers and receivers freedom from the reinforcement of power relations, and a better chance of going about our business undisturbed. In the case of the recipient, it also gives dignity and the freedom to live as an individual, without having to rely on other people's goodwill. Pragmatically, charity is sometimes necessary, but Cameron seems determined to create a situation where we are even more beholden to it, concluding:

It's my hope . . . that when people look back at this five-, ten-year-period from 2010, they'll say: "In Britain they didn't just pay down the deficit, they didn't just balance the books, they didn't just get the economy moving again, they did something really exciting in their society."

The mind boggles as to what this exciting thing could be. Get ready to be excited about gradually losing the National Health Service through back-door privatisation and for the welfare state to become a distant memory. Get ready for even more poverty on the streets that you walk through on the way to the full-time job you can't afford to lose because there is no safety net.

Oh, and don't forget to navigate those streets all over again at the end of the working day to reach that volunteer position you are duty-bound to take on top of your normal job. The elite are free to lock themselves in their castles and build their moats around themselves -- but not you, good citizen.

I'm not an economist and I am not going to pretend I have answers to the deficit problem. I accept that many of the proposed solutions will not be to my liking, and that there will be arguments for making cuts. What I resent is the attempt to hoodwink us into thinking that the "big society" has anything whatsoever to do with liberation.

Cameron says you can call it freedom. Nice try -- but, of all the things I could call it, freedom certainly isn't one of them.

Holly Combe has been a writer for the F-Word since 2002 and is also a TV and radio commentator.

Getty
Show Hide image

The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era