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.