Monday, 14 February 2011

Cameron's Passionate Mission!

David Cameron has had to come out to defend his Big Society policy following criticism that it is vague and a cover for cuts. He did this in a speech to social entrepreneurs in London today. Rather than being a vague concept he's actually put some money towards the Big Society...£200 million in a Big Society Bank.

Mr Cameron's clarification of what the Big Society is about comes after a very effective demolition of the Big Society by Johann Hari in last Friday's Independent. It is worth reproducing Hari's comments on the Big Society in full:
The Big Society. It is unfair that people keep saying the idea of the Big Society is "incomprehensible" and "unclear." It's actually a clear proposition, articulated plainly by Cameron. It is the belief that as the state cuts back its services, volunteers will step in to provide those services for free. So you can stop paying the local librarians, or the local youth club, or the local museum, and local people will step in and run it themselves, for nothing. The state "crowds out" volunteers, and when it retreats, they come flooding back.

This is perfectly comprehensible. The only problem is that it doesn't match reality. To find out why, just look at the facts. The sociologist Amitai Etzioni conducted a major international study of volunteerism. He found that volunteering is highest where state funding is highest, and lowest where state funding is lowest. So high-tax Massachusetts has the most volunteers in the US, while low-tax Mississippi has the fewest. High-tax Sweden has the most volunteers in Europe, while low-tax Eastern Europe has the lowest. Far from "crowding out" volunteers, a big state attracts them, and a small state drives them away. Why? There are several reasons. A well-funded state can recruit, train and direct volunteers. And in a high-solidarity society, people are less panicked about losing their own jobs and more likely to trust their fellow citizens enough to want to give something back to them.

If Cameron had bothered to look, he would have known all this. If he had wanted to increase volunteerism, he would have increased the budget to promote and recruit volunteers. Instead, he all but shut it down when he came to power. This shows that the Big Society was always a rebranding trick – a way of making the biggest cuts to public spending since the 1920s sound upbeat. I'm not taking away your library, I'm empowering you to run it!

As I've said before, voluntary and third sector organisations cannot operate in a vacuum, they need an infrastructure and support, and that costs money...probably a lot more than £200 million.

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