The Big Society?

I came across an article by Aditya Chakrabortty on the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free‘ pages today about choice in public services and David Cameron’s idea about the ‘Big Society’. It’s about the idea that there needs to be as much choice as possible in public services. For example, parents will be encouraged to start their own schools and more schools will be given ‘academy’ status, which means, as far as I understand it, that private money will be involved and businesses, universities etc will be encouraged to run them.

This article talks about how, if presented with too much choice, people struggle to make any consistant and coherent decisions. Conducted by Columbia Business School, it echoes something I imagine we’ve all encountered. How do you choose between twenty different types of tomato ketchup, exactly?

It seems to me that to understand this, one has to take a brief glance back through European history in the last three-hundred years or so. The governing idea of the Enlightenment, especially when combined with industrialisation, was progress. Through science and the development of new technology, humanity could solve all its own problems, or so the mantra went. The march of progress was inevitable, and human beings would keep getting more and more civilised. The first world war blew that out of the water, but to some extent the mindset has persisted. Bonhoeffer spoke about ‘man come of age’, and even theology got caught up in the idea that we could dispense with revelation and figure it (in this case, God) all out by use of reason, which still persists in some liberal theological circles.

Arguably, postmodernism is a reaction against this by taking the ideas to the other extreme. Instead of an overarching universal narrative, we now are told that all meta-narratives (big stories) are power claims and that actually, each person’s perspective is equally valid due to the absence of a framework in which to evaluate truth claims. In other words, I can have ‘my truth’, you yours, and no-one can tell either of us which is the better or that they are wrong. As such, we are free to pick and choose those ideas which are helpful to us at a given time. Now, not all of this is bad (though surely claiming there are not meta-narratives is to construct a meta-narrative?) but while the idolatry of ‘progress’ has faded, ‘choice’ has taken its place. One hears ‘choice’ spoke of as inherently a good thing, which makes sense in a consumerist framework, but this is pushed as far as to say that denial or restriction of choice is inherently bad. In other words, choice now has ‘moral value’.

Why am I bothered by this? Well, on the one hand, I fear that relentless pursuit of  a choice-orientated model in public services could have three major consequences:

  • It could re-introduce the ‘internal market’ created by the Major government in the 1990s which was such a disaster;
  • It could create bewildering choice, as the above article suggests;
  • It could create more opportunities for middle-class folks with the resources to do things like start their own schools, but create further societal division as the poorest are left behind. Some communities just couldn’t do these things even if they wanted to, and it could make it even harder for someone from my background (from a council estate, parents on benefits or in low-paid work) to escape. I fear more choice equals less social mobility.

You may want to come back at me on these, especially the latter. There is a balance to be struck between the role of the state or voluntary organisations and the role of the communities themselves. Ann Morisy’s wonderful book ‘Journeying Out’  has a lot to say about this. However, both the modernist mantra of ‘progress’ and the postmodern mantra of ‘choice’ both seem to forget a fundamental fact about human beings – we are limited. Frances Young has this to say:

Human beings look for success, fulfilment, for valuation in terms of the contribution a person makes. But value is not something achieved, or even inherent. It is something given, something accorded to something or someone valued by someone else – the worth and dignity of each person is given by God. In community, we make real that dignity and worth by valuing each other, but the grounds on which any and every person has value is God’s decision to put his name there (to borrow a phrase from Ezekiel).  Above all the incarnation bears witness to the presence of God in the midst of the ‘limit’ to which all human life tends. In God-forsakenness, in the absence of God, is supremely and paradoxically the presence of God, and the terminology of kingship is subverted when the story is told of a king who plays the part of a servant, is marginalised, rejected, stigmatised, judicially murdered. The cross stands over against the false optimism of modernity and the assertions of post-modernity.

The fact is, we need to accept and embrace our limited nature and that unlimited choice is just as much of a myth as relentless progress. Being human involves engaging with limits, boundaries, in a creative way. For example, following a vocation will always involve a degree of sacrifice – if I am ordained and in full-time ministry, I can’t continue my old career; if I want to write an essay in a night I can’t go to the cinema as well.

Mr Cameron is a committed Christian. Maybe if this was taken more seriously in government, we could concentrate on creating excellent public services in a given area rather than a hundred-and-one bewildering options that disenfranchise those most in need of a help-up by the state – the poorest, most vulnerable and those with least choice.

Further to that, the church could learn a lesson too. The parish system of the Church of England is not perfect, but it means that, at least theoretically, there is a church there for any English person if they need it. While people may still shop around, that parish provision is vital, and I think Grace Davie is right in noting that people turn to it in transitional times, at crisis points, for a reason. How does this fit with Mission-Shaped Church and its ‘network’ approach? I don’t know, but it does show that mixed economy needs to be taken seriously. More thoughts on that when I’ve written my essay for the mission module of my theology course…

7 thoughts on “The Big Society?

  1. Interesting – I’m currently aware that I am in a situation which is, in some ways, of my own choosing, and which would have been easier to handle if it had been imposed on me – so, yes, choice isn’t always a good thing …

  2. What if the authorities are failing to regenerate the area you live in? Do we just continue to let them waste money on initiatives that do not work or providing what they decide the community wants? Wouln’t community action bthe better way to move forward? In case you don’t know, we live in one of the poorest areas of the UK. Local government regeneration is not working down here. Billions of EU and UK money has been thrown away and made no difference. There are very few new jobs and especially not in the most deprived areas.

    If the commnuities could be motivated to do things couldn’t that be more successful? The problem is not choice or the social status of the community but motivating people to do something.

    The problem with most commentators is that they live in the middle class bubble and have no idea what people further down the ladder would, or could do, given the opportunity to think for themselves.

  3. Hi Tired&Emotional, thanks for your comment.

    I think there has to be a balance. In ‘Journeying Out’, Ann Morisy talks about how church projects that are basically informal in nature often relate better to the communities they serve, but when funding is needed or outside agencies become involved, it starts to be become more about ticking boxes and about what the government/voluntary organisations need and what and far less about the people who will actually benefit from the projects. She also talks about the danger of a power dynamic emerging, where by the focus becomes on someone helping a community and doing something ‘to’ or ‘for’ them, rather than equipping them to do it themselves. If the ‘Big Society’ can address some of these issues so that projects that communities actually need and what get to happen, then great. My worry is that sometimes professional input and state funds are needed, as not all communities will already have people in them with the expertise and willingness to take on a project, and it seems to me that the government wants the outcome without the investment to make it happen. I hope I’m wrong.

    By the way, I don’t deny that Durham University does constitute a middle-class bubble. However, I come from a council estate in Lancashire that was (still is) extremely deprived with very high levels of unemployment across the generations. I managed to use education to escape, but I’m well aware many of my friends weren’t so lucky (and I was lucky – my home life was tough but nowhere near as bad as some folks had to deal with). If I’m now middle-class it’s because I’ve worked my butt off to get there.

    Sorry if that sounds grumpy, but I get cross when people make assumptions like that. If I could, I’d happily work as a priest in a UPA…

  4. Sanabituranima is quite right. I was indeed referring to the journalists, or “commentators” as they like to call themselves.

    It is eaier for them to judge from the leafy suburbs than to actually visit such places. Things always look rosey from Islington and such places and they know best after all – as someone is paying them to spout such twaddle.

  5. Ah, ok. Sorry I misunderstood.

    On a related note, I read this in yesterday’s Guardian by Polly Toynbee, which gave me food for thought as a newly-rejoined Labour Party member.

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