This week’s fallout from the controversial closure of the Kids Corner charity has touched the very heart of the British establishment – from Alan Yentob, the charity’s chair and creative director at the BBC all the way through to cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister himself. Yet to fully understand the reasons behind each, increasingly acrimonious round of allegations it is necessary to take a trip to a much more remote place: Balsall Heath, a largely Asian, inner-city area of Birmingham.
It was here that a fresh-faced David Cameron visited as leader of the opposition in the summer of 2007 in order to flesh out something he was calling the ‘Big Society’. Many commentators found the idea bewildering, but Cameron saw Balsall Heath as the blueprint. The area had apparently transformed itself from one of the biggest red-light zones in Britain to one where vice had been almost entirely eradicated and people could feel safe in their surroundings. Furthermore, this had been achieved not by the state but by a team of volunteer local residents. Having tackled vice the Balsall Heath Forum, as the volunteers became known, turned their attentions to the establishment of new allotments, litter-picking and other regenerative schemes.
Cosy photographs soon emerged of Cameron shopping in Balsall Heath and staying at the home of Abdullah Rehman, a leading player in the Forum. Balsall Heath was presented as an example of what could be achieved if only the state would get out of the way and communities could be empowered. As Cameron reflected in 2007, his experiences in Balsall Heath left him ‘thinking that it is mainstream Britain which needs to integrate more with the British Asian way of life, not the other way around’.
As late as July of this year Cameron described the Forum as ‘a great expression of the Big Society’. By this time, however, this was not a phrase Cameron was using much. The community he once claimed to take inspiration from had become alienated. In an interview with the Guardian, Cameron’s one-time host Rehman criticised the Government’s position on the supposed threat of ‘home grown’ Islamic extremism, in which the Prime Minister would accuse British Muslims of ‘quietly condoning’ anti-Western ideology. Rehman argued that ‘the community feel they are being targeted’ and wondered why Cameron was not ‘saying that the majority of us are doing good, and we are trying our best to fight the tiny, tiny minority. I can offer so much to my British neighbours and friends, but will they feel suspicious of me now?’
What happened to the Big Society? The answer is that it never recovered from Cameron’s ever-unfinished project to modernise the Tories. The concept is the leftover from the unresolved tension between Cameron the moderniser – the platform on which his campaign to be leader of the Conservatives was built and from which the Big Society was born – and Cameron the pragmatist who ran two election campaigns on largely traditional Tory tickets.
In Balsall Heath this tension manifested itself in Cameron’s need to appease the right of his party and be seen to be doing something about Islamic extremism. The time had come to knock the heads of British Muslims together, not go to their houses for dinner. Kids Company once seemed to offer the same ‘can do’ exemplar of the Big Society as the Balsall Heath Forum. In this case, the tensions seem to have emerged in the context of the Government’s stress on the importance of fiscal conservatism. How could Cameron run two successive election campaigns on the importance of balancing the books whilst simultaneously endorsing a charity that were allegedly unable to?
The Big Society was always a rather peculiar concept. It certainly led to some very unusual alliances. The co-founder of the Balsall Heath forum, for example, was a 1960s Marxist who had been sacked from his position as a university lecturer for leading a student sit in. The Forum was initially established on the basis of the Trade Union model – the very model that the Conservative Government now seek to further attack.
I myself went to school in Balsall Heath. The area has certainly seen some improvements over the years, but the issues were never as straightforward as Cameron may once have liked to believe. For those living in the area, like those who will be affected by the closure of Kids Company, what was once called the Big Society now smells a little too much like BS.
Dr Kieran Connell is Lecturer in Contemporary British History at Queen’s University Belfast.