So what is the moral case for the Big Society, then? A reply.

One of my faithful commentators, Jon Rollason, in his comment on my last article, gave an excellent example of just the sort of casual assumption of righteousness by the Left I was talking about.  By casual, I mean no disrespect to the quality of his arguments, but rather to emphasise their easy assumption of virtue.  This is what we must tackle if we want to have any hope of winning the argument and making the Big Society mean anything.

Jon opened with a grand historical theory claiming that the history of this country before 1918 was one where the State was small because society was run solely for the benefit of the landowning one per cent.  Quite apart from the fact that the entire 19th century saw the growth of democratic government, this was little more than an account of the development of a more complex State.  Of course it is right that it was necessary for the State to grow where technology, trade and finance necessitate the need for regulation and more powerful central and local institutions.  The question, there, is whether the degree of that expansion and the loss of those institutions’ independence has benefited or damaged society.

But his assumption that we are only a more caring society because of the State is far more questionable.  The reality is that we are immeasurably richer than in the 19th century.  It would have been quite impossible to provide the sort of welfare, housing, health and social care of the 20th century in a society in which a measure of prosperity was the ability to provide for one’s family in the most basic way; or where a meaningful measure of the middle class was about 5, as opposed to perhaps 40, per cent of the population.  It wasn’t by any means merely the State that provided the motor of social progress; it was also friendly societies, charities, church hospitals, charitable schools (most, after 1882, funded indirectly by the State), regimental associations and almshouses.  If you actually compare the proportion of national wealth put into social welfare in the 19th century to that provided by the State in the 21st (especially after stripping out the gigantic bureaucratic costs of the latter) you are unlikely to find a particularly large difference.  Moreover, the State was able to assume control of these organisations only because of the development of these may institutions over centuries by all manner of people, though not least the wealthy enemies of the big state Jon castigates.

The reason we can now afford greater levels of social care is because of our greater wealth, wealth that has grown not because of the State but through private enterprise.  And, yes, within that period the state has taken control not merely of the financing but of the control of social enterprises and welfare.

The question we must pose – and the argument we must make – is whether or not that control has improved the quality of social care; or whether social enterprises would be best run by the community they are there to serve.  This is not the same as arguing against state funding – although there is no reason why, in time, charitable and insurance contributions may ease the need for state funding in some cases.  Jon’s seeming equation of the Big Society with the resurgence of the feudal landholding interest in running the State crumbles when one looks at the reality of what is being proposed:  Free Schools  and Academies with identical funding but run independently by parents, charities and businesses rather than trade unionists and the educational establishment that have reduced our literacy rates to the lower levels of the OECD; patients (through their GPs) having more control over where they are treated; benefit claimants who have never worked being provided with training and the financial incentive to work;  and individuals, communities, businesses and charities being given the opportunity to run their own social enterprises.

We must convince people that the Big Society is about giving back control over social welfare to the communities benefiting from it; taking away the lazy reliance on the State to do everything in order to involve individuals in their own communities; and, in consequence, improving the quality of the services and welfare we provide.  That is a moral argument and one we can, should and must win.



  1. Michael Ranson said,

    13 June, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    Is this clever satire or willful blindness about the cause of relatively well-distributed wealth and comfort in society?

    I shudder to think what our society would be like where, say, the education of non-white, non-straight, non-Christian, non-conformist people was left to the grace of the church and the charitable. That is why I shudder at the oxymoronic ‘free schools’.

    Free to them what can afford ’em – prohibitively expensive for the rest.

  2. francishoar said,

    14 June, 2011 at 9:41 am

    Mike, it is probably a mistake to talk about ‘willful blindness’ in one sentence and then, a mere four lines later, demonstrate you (wilfully or otherwise) have missed the point about free schools. Free schools cannot be ‘prohibitively expensive’ as they are unable to charge fees.

    Moreover, there are currently huge numbers of church schools, all of which are subject to the same inspection regime. I do agree, incidentely, that your concern is a fair one, most particularly because of the alarming bile taught in many Muslim schools (especially those using anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-Chritian Saudi syllabuses). Those schools, however, have been allowed not because of the free schools idea but because of completely inadequate inspections by Offsted. Inadequate largely because nobody is willing to say boo to prejudice unless it comes from the traditional target of the left wing educational establishment.

    So, yes, the free schools programme should be accomponied by a thorough reform of Offsted; and, no, free schools will not be permitted to teach Creationism or fail to educate its children in the fundamentals of the national curriculem. However, what a statist like you just doesn’t seem to get is the evidence that is all around you: when schools are run by any body outside the local education authorities whose stranglehold on education has so damaged our schools, they are invariably better schools with better discipline and far better results.

  3. Michael Ranson said,

    14 June, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Forgive me, I was alluding to a non-monetary kind of expense. A level of exclusion not based purely on the ability to pay for the service rendered but a fundamental social exclusion from the orbit of these institutions. We might not agree politically, but I hope you credit me with enough basic understanding of the issues to realise that free schools will not levy fees.

    What no Tory has yet managed to do is address my concern about the sort of areas that will benefit from well-run free schools.

    My natural fear is that the good free schools will be in middle class areas where there are parents with experience of decent education and a desire to educate their children well. Anecdotally that seems to be where they are being set up at present (cf Toby Young etc).

    What about inner city Liverpool (to name a place close to my heart). A huge swathe of urban poverty where almost none of the population has an A-level, not to mention an undergraduate degree. Who out of that population is going to run the Toxteth Free School?

    I say the Tories neither know nor care.

  4. francishoar said,

    14 June, 2011 at 11:20 am

    Mike, of course I credit you with knowing the detail of the free schools proposal, but you might well have been suggesting that, at some point, they will have to be paid for more directly.

    As for social costs, this is exactly the argument the educational establishment make about competition in schooling. It flies in the face of all the evidence of the decline in educational standards since comprehensivisation in the ’70s. The ‘care’ that you derisively accuse the Tories of not having is no more shown than in Michael Gove’s heartfelt disgust for the mire of state education. If Tories didn’t care, they wouldn’t bother worrying about reforming state schools as they would, indeed, be happy to educate their children privately. The fact of the matter, though, is that not only are most Conservative voters unable to afford that anyway – and so very much do care – but the concern of the middle classes to improve educational standards is one of the motors driving improved standards in many schools.

    As for Liverpool, I think the concern of the recent generation of Conservatives for the inner cities could not be greater. Heseltine – the man who re-generated Liverpool and Docklands – has been put in charge of a commission, IDS has spent much time touring cities and learning about the best ways to tackle deprivation and Gove has spoken most passionately about his mission to improve education for the poorest.

    A free school in Toxteth may well be run by a charity or a business, but why be so patronising to Toxtethians by saying that they cannot run it? There are many examples in the US of their free schools programme (one championed by Obama, as it happens) encouraging the most deprived communities to run their own schools – far more successfully than the do gooding, middle class educational Marxists who are happy to silo inner city kids in disgusting, anarchic disasters that Toxteth children have to put up with now.

  5. Michael Ranson said,

    14 June, 2011 at 11:41 am

    It is the cynic in me Frank, and perhaps this is a hallmark of the miserable left versus the optimistic right (very much a trait of US politics in my experience). Looking around Toxteth I simply cannot see that people will pull themselves up and organise a first rate school. I’d love to think that they would, but will bet almost my bottom dollar that they won’t.

    Maybe this is the heart of our difference – I do not think loose collections of individuals will act in concert across the whole of the country for the good of their entire neighbourhood. They will in the Barbican and Fulham and West Lancashire and North Devon, but not everywhere.

  6. Pete Hale said,

    20 June, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Gents, way above my pay scale – I’ll get the drinks in – the usual for you both?

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