The Tiny State or The Big Society?
When someone comes jangling their tins of coppers, supposedly on the precept of collecting for some charity or other, I am always left feeling uncomfortable and questioning. I ponder what sort of society or world we live in, if sick, poor, and vulnerable people need to depend on these various charities. This contrasts as I look a round the streets where all eyes can see flash cars, bright lights advertising ever more expensive gadgets, and expensive holidays. With all the resources, why is there insufficient food, housing, clothing or medicines for everyone? Why do we need charities? How else can we achieve a world where everyone feels his or her life is worth living?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have every admiration for the caring people who give their time to charity, for example the MacMillan nurses, the Alzheimer’s Society which supports carers and sufferers, and ChildLine.
I see it a matter of funding and access to human rights. The Coalition came to power spouting confidence in The Big Society. Has society grown? Has it grown taller? Fatter? What do they mean?
THE BIGGER SOCIETY
The Cabinet Office (1) states that “The Big Society is about helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It’s about putting more power in people’s hands – a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities.
The Office for Civil Society, part of the Cabinet Office, works across government departments to translate the Big Society agenda into practical policies, provides support to voluntary and community organisations and is responsible for delivering a number of key Big Society programmes.
Support for local communities? What is the role of the democratically elected local councils? If power is being devolved from Whitehall to the people, why do we see cuts to local council budgets, closure of public libraries, cuts to budgets for parks and local amenities? Why are services and jobs being cut? Why are people losing jobs to be replaced by volunteers?
Shortly after the election in 2010, the National Citizen Service was announced, an example of the Big Society. 2) It has now been announced that Serco the multinational security and workfare company have acquired the largest share of contacts to expand this scheme, 6 out of a possible 19 lucrative contracts 3).
The NCS Network is biggest winner among the 19 deals, with the Challenge Network also successful. A consortium that includes Serco, the private sector services firm, has won the largest number of regional contracts to deliver the government’s National Citizen Service in 2013 and 2014.
The other successful bidders for the £200m worth of contracts were: the Football League Trust; the Cumbria-based social enterprise Inspira; Lincolnshire & Rutland Education Business Partnership; New College Nottingham; the Devon-based college Petroc; the employment and skills firm Reed in Partnership; and the Challenge Network.
The purpose of government is to serve the people. If there is to be a real transfer of power to the people, then it would be a good start for politicians to be open and honest about their intentions. The irony is that the power has not been given back to the people but that we live in a plutocracy where power remains with the big corporations.
The Big Society idea was nothing more than the government washing its hands of responsibility, tantamount to abandoning citizens to poverty and destitution.. throwing them in workhouses, mirroring the Victorian era, when Cameron and Osborne believe everyone was living a life of comfort and cleanliness, seemingly unaware of the dirty, diseased and destitution of those living in Victorian inner cities.
In my new report for the British Academy Policy Centre, The ‘Big Society’ and concentrated neighbourhood problems, I draw on extensive research to chart the history of community-centred activity in the USA and the UK, showing the big society idea as part of a long tradition of community organisation and social movement. There is little evidence that the big society, as opposed to the big state, will on its own carry us through the difficult challenges we face.
We need government action too
“The state cannot withdraw from its overarching responsibility towards society as a whole, and neither can private interests, at whatever level, adequately fill those roles, particularly in poor communities. The tortuous American reform of health care, the sub-prime mortgage and banking crises, the eurozone crisis and steep energy price rises have shown just how vulnerable weaker members of society are, and how much we rely on co-operative action at government level as well as in communities. “
Isn’t this really just depending on the goodwill of a few individuals? What if they tire of volunteering, run out of funds?
Involving people to be active in their communities, to feel ownership of their towns, parks and villages does seem like a good idea, but individual volunteers cannot replace the responsibility of our governments to ensure protection and care. People came forward to volunteer at the Olympics 5) this summer. It is very different to providing services on a permanent basis. That is an entirely different matter, for example if we were to consider a primary school, it is the difference between helping out at the school Summer Fayre to teaching children with special needs .
While entrusted with taxes, the duty of our government is to ensure well-trained, skilled individuals, provide the best quality services possible. Public money is not intended to give opportunities for speculators, to win a packet on the horses, the stock market, to make personal profit, to buy off favours or to silence the press.
That is what is happening in the UK., and beyond. Our democracy has been handed over to a few individuals – a self-serving plutocracy.
Handing over public services for our care, our safety , our health and education to privatized companies who serve shareholders and not the electorate will lead to poorer or non-existent services. It is a myth that privatized corporations provide better. Their priority is profit. It is that simple. When the profits are made, there is nothing to stop them getting out and leaving the rot behind.
CHARITIES AT HOME AND AWAY:
Some may say that charities will provide care at basic cost, and they are not profit making yet strive to provide the best care possible. I have no doubt that many have the very best intentions, which is both admirable and commendable.
It is well known that donating to charities is tax deductible. Undoubtedly, some use this in order to avoid paying taxes. Therefore, the money going to the charity would be less than that which would be available to the government to provide for the needy. We could justify diverting funds from public services to charities, if the services provided are necessary, and of a high quality, and there is transparency about accounts.
CHARITY or TAX?
There is something quite different about the images those two words evoke.
TAX is money collected to provide funding for services and structures. In democratic societies, people have some influence about how to prioritise how this is spent. The beauty of tax is that it can be structured so that those who are well off pay proportionally more than those who are less well off. People with specific needs can be supported. There are sufficient funds available for all as long as this is done fairly. Other taxes such as VAT proportionally hit the poor. Fiscal policies of the Coalition government have shifted the burden onto the poorest in our society. Ever since the days of Herod, the word
tax has had a negative association. This has arisen because of policies like these. A fair tax system is the best way to ensure that everyone has enough for their needs. Indeed, if tax evasion/avoidance was eliminated there would be sufficient funds available for all.
CHARITY on the other hand has a nice warm, cosy feel to it. It makes us feel as if we are helping others, that we are good Samaritans of the modern world.
Philanthropists get to choose who/what is deserving, just as Coalition international aid programme can be used to mould behaviour of recipient countries for the benefit of corporations’ profits. Let us consider Bill Gates. Having made millions from Microsoft he set up the Gates Foundation 6) famously contributing to worthy causes. Who chooses which charities are worthy?
Bill Gates is the richest man on the planet due to his revolutionary creation: Microsoft. Today he and his wife dedicate their lives to their foundation ’The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’. It is the most powerful foundation in the world investing 3 billion dollars or 95% of the Gates fortune a year into philanthropic causes. Calling themselves “impatient optimists”, the foundation sets out to change the world, aiming to find a cure for malaria and develop a vaccination against HIV within the couple’s lifetime.
However there may be a darker side to this miraculous foundation. Gates was considered a brutal capitalist in the 90s and some suspect that the foundation is simply a means of boosting his image by reinventing himself as a great do-gooder. However this is only a minor complaint…research into the foundation’s investments shows that some of them, notably into the development of GMOs at Monsanto, contradict their philanthropic work and are just a way boosting income.
More powerful than those without his wealth , he has disproportionate power. The distortion of the wishes of the world’s people is clear.
Is this a democracy? However well-meaning this sounds, in reality , this is an example of more power being given to those with money. Yes, some wealth may be being redistributed, but not by fair, or democratic means. In the neoliberal world, it is a plutocracy, those with wealth choose how the world’s wealth is spent.
The recent scandal with Jimmy Savile, BBC’s Saint of Charity, now points a finger of corruption. We must ask who knew of the child abuse and corruption? Is it possible that his involvement with charities could facilitate cuts to state services? The closeness to Thatcher arouses suspicion and certainly warrants investigation. Labour is right to insist on further investigation (8).
We all may salve our consciences by sharing with charities because we feel we cannot change the injustices of this neoliberal world. The President of Uruguay donates 90% of his salary to charities, and lives a fairly frugal lifestyle. 9)
In a recent interview, Mujica told Spain’s El Mundo that he earns a salary of $12,500 a month, but only keeps $1,250 for himself, donating the rest to charity.
The president said that the only big item he owns is his VW car, valued at $1,945 dollars. The farmhouse in which he lives in Montevideo is under his wife’s name, Lucía Topolansky, a Senator, who also donates part of her salary.
“I do fine with that amount; I have to do fine because there are many Uruguayans who live with much less,” the president told El Mund.
This contrasts somewhat with “charitable’ behaviour of Bill Gates and Jimmy Savile. If someone has massive sums of wealth,, and chooses to share a small portion with others, while retaining conditions and control, isn’t that also some kind of abuse?
THE TINY STATE:
The Coalition government seeks to relinquish its duty and responsibility far beyond the expectations of the majority. Far from moving to a Big Society, it is true that we are moving towards a Tiny State. This is because of deception and lies presented in 2010 The NHS cuts, planned well before the general election, plans for privatization have gone ahead under the pretext of increase in parental choice, cuts to welfare pass because of demonization of the poor and vulnerable in our society. The Conservatives planned their Big Society with the idea of more local involvement and devolution from Whitehall, and appeal to the emotions of the people under the cover-word of “charity”.
Aditya Chakrabortty: 10) Cameron wants a Shrinking State: Drawing on IMF figures published last week, this graph, published in CiF in the Guardian compares what will happen to government spending in Britain up to 2017 with the outlook for Germany and the US. And what it shows is that the UK will plunge from public spending on a par with Germany in 2009, to spending less than the US by 2017. Had France, Sweden or Canada been included on this graph, the UK would still come bottom. If George Osborne gets his way, within the next five years, Britain will have a smaller public sector than any other major developed nation.
THE COURAGEOUS STATE Richard Murphy’s Courageous State (11) proposes to rethink the system by which we obtain funding. The Courageous State would release the funds to which the people are morally entitled to – their labour having produced the wealth. These funds, illicitly and immorally stashed away in hidden in tax havens would be sufficient to ensure that there would be homes, employment, health care, quality education and life-long learning. There would be care and dignity for our elderly, and activities and hope for our young. I have a feeling that is what the electorate is waiting for.
References and Further reading