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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue