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.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder