17 August 2010

If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your Big Society.

This blog probably shouldn’t really start with a misquote of something that Emma Goldman never said. Instead it would have been better to start with Milan Kundera from the Unbearable Lightness of Being: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”Since the advent of the Coalition Government the media and numerous groups and individuals seem to be engaged in an orgy of forgetting, especially when it comes to the analysis of the putative “Big Society.”

Roll back twenty years when to the advent of John Major’s Conservative Government. We saw the development of an astonishing array of small, grass-roots initiatives set up. There was creative use of abandoned buildings. Land that had been abandoned by industry was used for cultivation, to produce locally grown vegetables for communities. Initiatives to protect local assets such as woodland gained profile. Self managed, self-funded and self-policed recreational activities became more widespread across the UK.

But these initiatives were not heralded as an example of an embryonic “Big Society.” It became known as DIY-culture and unfortunately it did not fit with other aspects of Conservative Ideology.The use of derelict land or empty buildings ran counter to Conservative views of land and property ownership and so they passed laws to make it easier to clear the occupiers off that land and from those buildings. Autonomous cafes, galleries and community spaces were established and briefly thrived, then closed by Police and Bailiffs.

The importance of industry and cars was rated higher at a national level was considered far more important than the views of local residents and communities, so bypasses were authorised by the Government despite local opinion and protests. The Government purchased an independent, unaccountable security force using commercial agencies such as Reliance to deliver this agenda.

The proliferation of the “Free-party” movement, its association with controlled drug use and the non-approved use of land for such parties again ran counter to Conservative values and culminated in the end in the much-loathed Police and Criminal Justice Act being passed in 1994. It was the death knell of this period of DIY-culture in the UK.

So does Cameron’s much-discussed “Big Society” share common cause with DIY culture? The answer to this has to be a resounding “no!” The Big Society is a straight Thatcherite agenda presaged in Thatcher’s much misquoted line saying “there is no such thing as society.” Her wider comment at the time shows the continuity from her views to those of Cameron: “There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.” http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689

And herein lies the problem; the Big Society as proposed is inherently Conservative. It is attempting to create and engender a conservative model of society, seed-funded and driven from the top and delivered from the bottom.

Provided that the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a community fit in to this Conservative ideological world-view, then the Big Society will serve you well. But for those who fall outside it, then there’s no place for you in this Society.Look at some of the examples that have been cited as examples of the “Big Society.” The reduction in sex work in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath is held up as one such example.

What the example as cited neglects to mention is that alongside the passive recording of kerb-crawlers, local activists also allegedly threatened and harassed women involved in sex work – a house was fire-bombed, windows had bricks thrown through them, and women believed to be prostitutes were sent poison pen letters by local activists. So it’s a Big Society that fetes you if you want to set up a self-policing vigilante movement that removes kerb-crawlers and sex work from a community. But take this specific issue a little further. What if a local community, in a fit of pragmatic liberalism, decided that the best way forward was rather than simply trying to wish the problem away. If this grassroots, locally agreed, locally relevant initiative approach were mooted, what would Cameron say then? Would it be embraced within the Big Society as an example of local empowerment. Or would it be stamped out as not really the sort of Big Society we want. There is evidence, such as models of tolerance that were trialled in Edinburgh, that show tolerance models can result in a marked reduction in attacks on sex workers.

David Cameron signalled a desire to review the laws around prostitution in the UK, following the murder of three women in Bradford. But if he decided against full legalisation or tolerance zones, what then for a local community wanted to pursue such a route?

And what of drugs (for this is, if nothing else, a drug-focussed blogging site)? What would the Government do if a local authority, in conjunction with the local police and local community, decided that a supervised drug consumption room was the most sensible response to the issue of public drug use? Would this be something that would be resourced and funded by the Big Society Bank? Would it receive the endorsement of the Government as an example of local solutions for local problems. Or will it be given a firm “red light” from Number 10, as has previously been the case. This is an especially loaded issue as, when he was part of the 2002 Home Affairs Select Committee, Cameron came out in favour of drug consumption rooms. The report unequivocally demanded that “…an evaluated pilot programme of safe injecting houses for [illicit] heroin users is established without delay…”

It would be an interesting test of integrity to see what would happen if a local area trialled such an approach now. Would David Cameron support such a move in practice, as he did in theory in 2002. And would such a thing be tolerated within the Big Society.If it does then the Big Society could genuinely be something inclusive. It could represent a tolerant, informed, flexible and liberal model of community empowerment. But if this isn’t the case, and such approaches are blocked by Central Government then this isn’t such a big society after all. It’s the same conservative view of Society that crushed the DIY Culture almost twenty years ago. It’s learned a new language and it’s changed its clothes, but it still won’t be a revolution that everyone can dance to.

1 comment:

Thumb said...

still shocked at the tories gaining power :( got some cool information on hallucinogenic plants here though. Your blog has made its way into my bookmarks, sir!