“Big society” or big bonanza?

Peter Wilby on private enterprise, political phraseology, the media elite, who will save our savings

On the same day as David Cameron made his "big society" speech in Liverpool, the Times reported that an American company, Rent A Friend, is launching here. For an hourly fee, it will arrange for somebody to go to the cinema with you, act as best man at your wedding, or simply converse in a coffee shop. This should remind us that capitalists, far more than public authorities, have robbed us of the capacity to do things for ourselves. We look to manufacturers of instant meals and high street takeaways to provide food we once cooked for ourselves. Once, if we needed exercise, we joined a few (unrented) friends to play football or went for a brisk walk. Now we buy membership of a gym club. To sympathise with the bereaved, we once wrote a letter. Now we buy commercially produced cards with standardised sentiments.

Cameron's speech refers to the "big society" ensuring we "don't always turn to officials, local authorities or central government". He doesn't want to stop us turning to business. On the contrary, Cameron wants to connect "private capital to investment in social projects". That, I suspect, is what the "big society" is really all about. Parents may decide to start a school, but they will soon find it's best to bring in private money and hire private management if it is to get off the ground and survive as a ­going concern. Several private companies, most earning millions from outsourced public projects, are already offering their services. Some openly admit that they aim to create branded chains of schools which they will largely control even if they do not legally own them.

Remember what happened to those classic 19th-century self-help institutions, the building societies. Thanks to Tory legislation in the 1980s, their owners - the customers - were bribed to "demutualise" and sell out to commercial banks. For "big society", read big bonanza for big business.

No thanks

Politicians sometimes use the strangest language. "I wanted to start by saying thank you," begins a vote-seeking letter to me and other Labour Party members from David Miliband. Some of you may be old enough to remember writing thank-you letters, to aunts who sent Christmas presents or friends who had you round for dinner. Did you ever begin "I wanted to start"? Didn't you just get on with it and say "Thank you for the lovely handkerchiefs" or "That was a wonderful boeuf bourguignon"? Wouldn't you at least have written "I want to start", rather than "wanted", which sounds as if you intended to say "thank you", but then thought better of it?

Perhaps Miliband did think better of it. At any rate, he never gets round to thanking me for anything specifically.

Rank outsider

The annual "Media Guardian 100" is out. I have never understood the criteria used to compile this rank order of the industry's movers and shakers. Why, for example, does poor Simon Kelner fall 30 places from 57th in 2009 to 87th now? In the past year, he moved from a management position to editing the Independent for a second time. He has, to my mind, improved it considerably, presenting it as a serious paper that aspires to the upmarket territory largely vacated by most rivals.

Perhaps the compilers of the list believe that, in an age when image matters more than content, management and marketing folk are far more important than mere editors.

I wouldn't disagree. But why, in that case, does Richard Wallace, Daily Mirror editor, rank nine places higher than Sly Bailey, chief executive of the Mirror's owner, Trinity Mirror? And why does Fraser Nelson, editor of a political weekly (the name of which escapes me), come 74th while his boss, Andrew Neil, is nowhere to be seen?

Cash questions

Perhaps there is something here, too, that I don't understand. When it comes to financial matters, that is often so. The government is short of money, yes? It has big debts and it's worried the state will struggle to borrow in future. That's why we have public spending cuts. Right? One source of government borrowing is ordinary UK citizens, like you and me. We buy, through the Post Office, index-linked certificates whereby we lend the government up to £15,000 for three or five years and get an interest rate (tax-free) that keeps up with inflation, with 1 per cent on top.

We savvy UK citizens find these certificates attractive just now, as the banks - capitalist institutions, with shareholders and bonus-hungry dealers - pay measly interest, far below inflation, and keep reducing their rates when we aren't looking. In three months, the certificates have raised £2bn, enough to pay for a few of those axed school buildings. So what does the government do? It stops selling the certificates - for the first time in 90 years - because it wants us to deposit more money with the banks. As Americans say, go figure.

Water works

On the way back from a visit to my home town, Leicester - where the university kindly presented me with an honorary degree for "services to journalism" - my wife and I spent a delightful few hours at Rutland Water. It is not just the largest man-made reservoir in Europe, which ensures that one of the country's driest regions comfortably escapes hosepipe bans, but also an area of rest and healthy recreation - sailing, cycling, birdwatching, etc - within easy reach of several East Midlands cities.

Though it is now run by the privatised Anglian Water, a public authority had the initiative, vision and drive to plan and build Rutland Water in the 1970s. An example of a big society in action, you could say.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party