Tory leader David Cameron scored well on rhetoric yesterday – but fell down badly on detail. His vision is of “a society where the leading force for progress is social responsibility, not state control.” That should be music to the ears of free market liberals everywhere.
But, his actual proposals for a “Big Society” include, amongst other things, the creation of a 5,000 strong “neighbourhood army” to identify community leaders and bring people together, the factoring in of community service as part of civil servants’ annual appraisals and – most ludicrously of all – establishing a national “Big Society Day” to celebrate the work of local groups and encourage more people to “get involved.”
It’s all very well for the Conservatives to wax lyrical about the merits of a post-bureaucratic age, but their prescriptions for society’s ills do seem to involve employing a large number of bureaucrats.
To the Conservatives’ credit they seem to accept that direct state action is not always – or even usually – the answer to vast swathes of the country’s problems. But, infuriatingly, they remain wedded to the view that politicians and civil servants can nearly always play a useful, facilitatory role.
The reverse is true.
If you want to encourage me to become more active and involved in my local area, the last thing I want is a bunch of government-appointed do-gooders traipsing around my estate in search of community leaders and inviting me – if I pull my weight sufficiently – to a patronising pat on the head on “Big Society Day.”
Private groups of citizens will spring up spontaneously and take positive action if government gets out of the way. If councils and Whitehall bureaucrats assume ever more responsibility for making our local communities safer, cleaner and smarter, then expect individuals and voluntary groups to do less. State officials – however well intentioned – always tend to crowd out and diminish the initiative and charity of private citizens.
With six weeks to go before polling day, the leader of the Opposition seems to be somewhere towards having made a sound diagnosis – that society and the state are different things – but he can’t resist the usual politician’s prescription of putting forward a raft of expensive, government-fronted initiatives to cure the country’s ills.
The UK’s deficit is running at about £180bn, on top of a trillion pounds of overall debt. We can’t seem to afford to keep our traditional army properly equipped and maintained, let alone splash out on a new army of the neighbourhood variety.
Whatever David Cameron and other politicians say between now and polling day, the next British government is going to have to make swingeing cuts in the public sector. It would be a breath of fresh air for political parties to spell out, explicitly, which wasteful and ill-thought out government projects they are going to scrap – not which new ones they can dream up.