A Budget blow to the "big society"

Osborne's relaxation of Sunday trading laws continues the hyper-marketisation of life.

There is general consensus that the deregulation of Sunday trading around the Olympics is a dry run for the real thing.

When the figures roll in some time early in the autumn and it is shown that an extra x-million pounds were taken in those precious Sunday evenings, the Chancellor will step forward to tell us that we need to marshal all the forces we can to reinvigorate the economy and that the summer experiment showed this was one way of doing it and that in any case it isn't the government's business to tell people when they can and can't go shopping and... well, the conclusion writes itself.

When scholars come to write the history of our time, they should take note of the fact that the 25 year assault on Sunday trading legislation came exclusively from "Conservative" governments. From Thatcher's 1986 Shops Bill, through the 1994 Sunday Trading Act, to this year's efforts, it is Tories who have repeatedly brought the moneylenders back into the Temple.

Ranked against them has been one of the oddest coalitions of recent political history, including Christians, Trades Unions, small business, and old school Tories, achieving a remarkable success in 1986 but firmly on the back foot since then.

The fact that Conservatives can be found on both sides of this argument is indicative of the division that has dogged the Tory party for many years now, for which Sunday trading is merely a cipher. On the one hand, are the "One Nation" Conservatives, for want of a better term, who believe that cultural constraints, both written and unwritten, are essential to any society worth the name. On the other are the neo-liberals, for whom individual freedom and choice are totemic and to be prioritised irrespective of the wider social cost.

The division runs through today's Tory party as it has every one since the '70s. The difference now is that the present Prime Minister has made a "One Nation" style policy, "the big society", his stated political ambition, which means that, theoretically, it is the neo-liberals who should be on the back foot. Or not, it appears.

The brute fact is that if you genuinely want a "big society", in which people seriously invest in their neighbourhoods, they need time and energy to do so. And the hyper-marketisation of life - in which millions are required to work on Sundays, there is no area of our lives immune to consumerism, and independent, local businesses that bind communities together are further put under pressure by multinationals for whom Sunday trading presents no problem - in which, in short, there is no opportunity to stop and collectively draw breath - drains us of that time and energy.

It would be daft to read in this little spat over (even more) Sunday trading the epitaph for the big society. But it would be foolish to ignore its implications. No epitaph, maybe, but perhaps another letter chiselled on its headstone.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.