Where art thou, "big society"?

Why Cameron's pet project has disappeared down the back of the political sofa.

Has anyone seen Dave's "big society"? It's an odd loss, because according to many, this was the closest thing Cameron had to a political philosophy. This was his pet project, and despite the mockery (the big society minister Francis Maude "didn't have time to volunteer"), few political sound bites have gained as many reams of news coverage. So why has it disappeared down the back of the political sofa and, importantly, what does it say about Cameron's leadership?

The big society's own guru, the "Red Tory" Phillip Blond, offers a pretty cutting explanation:

He (Cameron) was radical, but he risks retreating into orthodoxy and pragmatism.... A new approach to the state, business and society (call it the big or the good society) still lacks a politician of genius and vision to broker its future.

All the big players in the movement have now left. Blonde was distanced well before the controversy over his tax affairs. Steve Hilton - the "architect" behind the term - grew so frustrated he finally put on his shoes and moved to California and the movement's key adviser Nat Wei was dropped like a stone.

So why the retreat? David Cameron is a natural Shire Tory who believes in village greens and stable communities. The big society was his way of bringing his Oxfordshire values to the more economically liberal Tory MPs in Westminster. Sure it was useful for detoxifying the Conservative brand, but it was also meant to be a unifying vision of action beyond the state. But he didn't pull it off. The liberals remained skeptical, and those who did share his values thought it was pretty disingenuous given the cuts. As Max Wind-Cowie from Demos puts it:

Reaction from Tory backbenchers ranged from raised eyebrows and quiet disdain to outright anger. Some felt they would have had a majority if they hadn't banged on about the Big Society... pre 2009 it was fine to talk about it, but they should have dropped it when they started talking about austerity.... it looked like a cover for slashing away at the state. That made them look like liars and that was difficult.

And there we have our second reason for failure - trying to install the big society in austerity Britain. For the left, the big society was always the Jekyll to the Hyde of state slashing. But even Conservative feathers were ruffled when they realised it wasn't just bureaucrats facing the axe, but swathes of libraries, charities and voluntary organisations.

The third reason for failure was the absence of alternative institutions and ownership models to support big society initiatives in place of the state. It would be a mistake to say there were none - Chris White's Bill on social values opened the door to smaller providers winning government contracts, Neighbourhood Forums were given some backing and Big Society Capital is set to provide some £600m worth of funding, but these initiatives were not nearly deep or radical enough.

"There was a relentless focus on individuals going out and doing great things," says Wind-Cowie." Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond are talking about intermediary institutions and structures rather than the isn't-it great-when-everyone-picks-up-litter approach."

If anything, the government has gone the other way. By cutting out local authority involvement from schools and hospitals, services have become centralised. If something goes wrong, the only place to take the problem is the desk of the secretary of state.

Another big problem for Cameron is his unwillingness to challenge the market. Zero hour contracts and on-your-bike politics don't give people muchspace or stability to pursue the big society vision, and corporate monopolies don't either. As Blond rather astutely puts it:

Cameron subscribes to the rhetoric of a new settlement but he doesn't think through the political economy that requires. You can't subscribe to Thatcherite ideas and then not expect a Thatcherite outcome. If you pursue the same policies as the 1980s, you should expect 1980s outcomes.

The prime minister's final problem was his failure to take the public with him. Research shows that British people love to volunteer and are proud to be active citizens, but this is not a party political thing. When their proud reputation is seen to be used for political advantage, it undermines it. To thrive, the big society needs to be owned and built from people's experiences. It needs leaders and champions; it needs some roots behind the brand. The fact that David Cameron failed to pull this off may well say something about his leadership.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

David Cameron makes a speech on the "big society". Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

A National Trust property. Photo: Getty
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The National Trust is right to bring gay history out of the closet

If you want to explore the history of Britain, you can't ignore its LGBT citizens.

Imagine seeing a monument to executed gay men and thinking literally anything other than, “how sad and poignant”. In September, the National Trust unveiled exactly such a memorial at one of their properties in Dorset. Kingston Lacy was once owned by William John Bankes, a man whose sexuality, in nineteenth century Britain, was a capital offence. The NT’s moving tribute to Lacy and so many others persecuted for being queer was deemed a “PC stunt” by the Daily Mail. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen somehow managed to find the monument “totally inappropriate”, adding that he looks to the Church for moral guidance – not the National Trust.

 But let me backtrack. I’m in the darkened vault of the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are kept. The tour guide has just made a joke about vibrators.

The last time I was here, I was about nine and I was on a day out with my grandma. She made no mention whatsoever of sex toys. I wonder, actually, if this is the closest to this ceremonial bling a joke about vibrators has ever been made. I also wonder if there’s ever been a tour of the Tower of London where the guide – as my one did about fifteen minutes ago – has quite overtly slammed British imperialism. One thing I know for certain though: this is the first ever official LGBTQ tour of the Tower, organised by none other than Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that manages several of the UK’s grandest former homes.

 Earlier, at Traitors’ Gate, me and a tour group of about twenty people were told about Irish republican Roger Casement, who was executed, here, in 1916. Casement was dedicated to speaking out against the atrocities of imperialism, and was rumoured to be gay. But it wasn’t his alleged homosexuality that landed him in this thousand-year-old fortress-turned-prison, rather his involvement in the Easter Rising. King James I though – I later learn – was almost definitely gay or bi, having a number of “favourite” male courtiers. “Favourite” seeming to be a particularly coy seventeenth century euphemism for “gay lover”.

 The tour lasts about an hour and, although at times it seems to be slightly scraping the barrel for queer content, the pure effort of it is nothing short of heroic. The Crown Jewels section focused in on Queen Victoria, and all the anti-gay legislation introduced during her infamously prudish reign. On this tour, her freakishly tiny crown becomes a symbol of oppression rather than a cutesy royal knick-knack. Which, I can only imagine, would have the “gay agenda”-fearing monarchy groupies of middle England in a Faragean frenzy.

 This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised (male) gay sex in England and Wales. And with the sheer number of events, like the queer Tower tour, at palaces and historic institutions – from Hampton Court to the British Library – you’d think it was the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

Now for some word association.

 “National Trust”.

 Pensioners? Fruitcake? Dust? Anarchic genderqueer hook-up joint?

 Not so much that last one? Well then, it may come as a surprise that it was the fusty old National Trust, working alongside the National Archives, that recreated a historically accurate covert 1930s London gay bar. For a couple of nights in March this year, Soho’s Freud Café was transformed into “London’s most bohemian rendezvous”, the Caravan club. In a spectacularly and appropriately theatrical evening of incense, cocktails and vintage drag queens, the NT totally nailed the “illegal den of queer iniquity” thing. This was preceded by a historic LGBTQ tour of Soho, which, like the Tower tour, didn’t gloss over the brutality of the British establishment. The Soho tour was rightfully heavy on harrowing stories about police raids on queer venues. In fact, it was through police reports collected by the National Archives that the NT was able to recreate The Caravan (which was shut down by the police in 1934).

Further north in London, another LGBTQ event hosted by the National Trust was “Sutton House Queered”. If the idea of a Tudor manor house in Hackney isn’t surreal enough, in February the grade II listed former home to aristocracy was the setting of a queer art exhibition. Think – richly wood panelled great room containing a painting of Henry VIII in full bondage gear. This was also the debut of the first gender-neutral public toilet in an NT property.

And, in a display of borderline hilarious inevitability, the Daily Mail … raised objections. “Preserve us from a National Trust that’s so achingly right-on”, quacked a Mail headline in December last year, after the NT announced its plans for a series of “Prejudice and Pride” events marking the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. This July, the NT came under attack from the Mail, yet again, for outing late aristocrat, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer. Ketton-Cremer left his Norfolk home to the Trust in 1969, and was supposedly outed as gay in a recent film for the “Prejudice and Pride” series. Whether or not the NT’s decision to discuss Ketton-Cremer’s sexuality was ethical, it’s a refreshing sort of controversy: the kind where an old British institution is actually quite blasé about gay sex, and the Mail goes nuts.

 Throughout this year, my inbox has been almost quite alarmingly full of press releases for queer-related events and promotions. From rainbow hummus (yes.) at the Real Greek restaurant, to “Pride at the Palace” at Hampton Court, more than ever, everyone seems to want a slice of the gay action. The Tate Britain’s “Queer British Art” exhibition, which opened in April, showcases a century (1867—1967) of sexually subversive works by LGBTQ artists. Although overwhelmingly male and posh, it’s hard to play down the importance of such a simultaneously harrowing and celebratory retrospective. In one room, A large and imposing portrait of Oscar Wilde stands right next to the actual door to his prison cell in Reading Gaol, where he was imprisoned for the absolute non-crime of “gross indecency”. Even if Britain’s cultural institutions are just playing up to a trend, a very big part of me is into it.

 In July, I went to a panel discussion organised by Opening Doors London, a charity that provides support for older LGBTQ people. A group of queer people who were adults when the Sexual Offences Act was passed spoke about what this anniversary means to them. When I asked panellist Jane Traies, the author of The Lives of Older Lesbians: Sexuality, Identity & the Life Course, what she thought about the likes of the National Trust taking on queer history, she was understandably wary of the possible faddy-ness of it all.

“It’s good, though, that history itself should come out of the closet,” she said.

                                                                                       

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.