DEMOLITION COALITION: The Tiny State or the Big Society?


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 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 NCS Network, which includes Serco and the youth charities Catch 22, the National Youth Agency, vinspired and UK Youth, won six of the 19 regional contracts available.

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.

Anne Power writes in the Guardian: 4)

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.


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.


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?

Java Films have produced a video, The Benefactor 7) (see clip) and write:

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 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”.

Cameron and the Shrinking State

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

1) The Cabinet Office: The Big Society

2) Johnny Void Blog: The Big Society

3) The Third Sector: Serco wins Contracts

4) Guardian: Big Society: Neighbourhood Problems

5) Guardian Big Society and Olympics.

6.) The Gates Foundation

7) Java Films : Bill Gates, The Benefactor

8. Uruguayan President donates 90% of income to charity

9.) Labour asks for further investigation into Savile scandal

10 . The Guardian: Cameron wants a Shrinking State (Aditya Chakrabortty) 10:

11: The Courageous State: Richard Murphy

The Charity Commission for England and Wales

Charity Commision registering Charitable Incorporated Organisations (CIOs from January 2013)

Charitable Status of Religious Groups: The Secular Society

Richard Murphy: The Courageous State

4 thoughts on “DEMOLITION COALITION: The Tiny State or the Big Society?

  1. You have an interesting article here, but I think that there are some things I’d like to differ with you over.

    On your distinction about tax and charity, I note your reference to Herod. But I think that there is a false analogy creeping in. If we look at biblical history, we see that the original kingdom of Israel effectively ran on a 10% income tax – people tithed their income to pay for the infrastructure (albeit that infrastructure was effectively the temple and its staffing). That taxation was unpopular in the time of Herod had far more to do with the fact that the taxes being imposed were being extracted for the benefit of the Roman Empire: meanwhile tithes were still collected without a murmur.

    Thus I disagree with the notion that tax necessarily has to have a bad name. Most people historically have paid and got on with their lives: the wealthy have historically been the most reluctant to do so, but apart from times when the imposed tax has been unjust (as with Thatcher’s Poll Tax in the late 1980s) the rest of us have until very recent times let it go.

    The warm feeling behind charity is also an interesting line to develop. Charity comes from the Latin caritas, which is in turn a translation of the Greek word agape. The renowned theological commentator William Barclay said this of agape: (It ) has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live. So no warm fuzzy feelings there – those are covered by two other Greek words, storge and philia. No: if we are true to the intention of the word, charity is about seeking the welfare and betterment of another, regardless of how we feel. And if people operated that way, the argument about philanthropists picking and choosing their good causes would largely disappear.

    And there assuredly is still a complementary role for charities to play with government funding. Private charities are often far more agile in their approach to problems: they can get aid onto the ground faster and make it more effective. The usual rule of thumb is that if a disaster occurs, the UK will block-grant money to the Disasters Emergency Committee (which is made up of Red Cross, Oxfam, Christian Aid, etc) for them to spend as necessary. I would far rather see that than see the fiasco over US government aid to Haiti, promised days after the 2010 earthquake, and then held up such that a year on only 30% had been disbursed.

    And I think this is where you are mistaken with Bill Gates. Bill is a man who does have an enormous amount of power. But at bottom he is no Auric Goldfinger, intent upon world domination at all costs. He is a geek: and the life philosophy of geeks is “I’ll do it because I can do it”.
    He has seen the UN diagnose the problem that the world goes hungry and then spend decades bickering about how to deal with it and getting nowhere: he thinks he can do better, and wants to prove a point. Whether his solutions are sustainable in the long term (as with GMOs) is a separate point: the fact is that he does have some sort of moral compass, which goes back some considerable time, and he is attempting to do something to help better the lot of mankind. Far from being abusive, he is practising a form of agape.


    • My point is that tax gets a bad name, and most people think of charity as a generous act. The Coalition use that to make cuts to essential services, the poor are the losers, the very rich make profit. It is undemocratic because power shifts only to those who have money, not who is deserving.
      That Bill Gates accumulated such wealth is the issue. It is abhorrent. Why are people permitted to accumulate wealth way beyond their needs? Others are left in dire need. The point is that Gates had the power to choose where he spends that money. That power is disproprortionate. What right does he have to choose any more than any other person? It is only because he has far more money than his own needs. That is unacceptable and uncivilised.

      In a fair society, in a democratic one, every person should have the same voice. Decicions should be made the people, not by powerful men with big wallets.


  2. @James Mac Thank you for such an interesting comment. I am always glad that people feel that they want to help others .. it is human to be empathetic and totally admirable. My concern (quite apart from like Pam, wanting a more equitable distribution of global wealth) is the potentially distorting impact on aid. Pam and yourself have noted Bill Gates’ belief in technological fixes and this would not be so problematic if it was over and above, or alongside, the funding of low tech sustainable solutions and those determined by the indigenous population.

    For brevity, I will use the reference from Wikipedia:

    The foundation invests the assets that it has not yet distributed, with the exclusive goal of maximizing the return on investment. As a result, its investments include companies that have been criticized for worsening poverty in the same developing countries where the Foundation is attempting to relieve poverty.[58] These include companies that pollute heavily and pharmaceutical companies that do not sell into the developing world.[59] In response to press criticism, the foundation announced in 2007 a review of its investments to assess social responsibility.[60] It subsequently cancelled the review and stood by its policy of investing for maximum return, while using voting rights to influence company practices.[61]
    [edit]Diversion of health care resources
    The Foundation has donated millions of dollars to help sufferers of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. However, a Los Angeles Times investigation claimed there were three major problems with the foundation’s allocation of aid. First, “by pouring most contributions into the fight against such high-profile killers as AIDS, Gates guarantees have increased the demand for specially trained, higher-paid clinicians, diverting staff from basic care.”[62] This form of “brain drain”, pulls away trained staff from children and those suffering from other common killers. Second, “the focus on a few diseases has shortchanged basic needs such as nutrition and transportation….”[62] Food is often taken with medications; if an individual is suffering from starvation it may be impossible to stomach the medication meant to help them. The availability of medication to people may be limited or out of reach because those in need may not be able to afford the cost of transportation. Finally, “Gates-funded vaccination programs have instructed caregivers to ignore – even discourage patients from discussing – ailments that the vaccinations cannot prevent.”[62] With such concentrated focus on the vaccinations that are made available, talk of any other ailments may congest patient outpost and vaccination lines. Additionally, hindering people the chance to discuss other ailments is problematic, because a trip to a vaccination line may be the only contact that person will have with healthcare personnel for many months or years.
    In a January/February 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Laurie Garrett claims that many charitable organizations, among whom the Gates Foundation is prominent, harm global health by diverting resources from other important local health care services.[63] For example, by paying relatively high salaries at AIDS clinics, the foundation diverts medical professionals from other parts of developing nations’ health care systems; the health care systems’ ability to provide care diminishes (except in the area the foundation funds) and the charities may do more harm than good. Similar findings were reported in a December 2007 Los Angeles Times investigation.[64]
    [edit]Education Reform
    The public school reform program of the Gates Foundation has come under criticism by education professionals, parents, and researchers for promoting reforms that they see as undermining public education. The reforms include closing neighborhood schools in favor of privately run charter schools; using standardized test scores extensively to evaluate students, teachers, and schools; and merit pay for teachers based on test scores. Critics also believe that the Gates Foundation exerts too much influence over public education policy without being accountable to voters or tax payers.

    As I see it, such important issues should not lie in the hands of individuals but need to be properly audited, overseen and regulated… the funding of aid should principally be under the control of the UN and governments.


  3. Pingback: Big Society or Social Inclusion? « Art Lobby

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