David Cameron didn’t get much praise for his re-re-re-re-launch of the Big Society today. I don’t know why he thought he might.
The idea behind the Big Society as far as I understand it (which might not be much) is that we should all – by getting involved – find a way to take more responsibility for our communities inside a newly decentralised state. Please correct me below if you understand it differently.
So today, he announced that everyone should give more time to charity (he has been volunteering himself). That sounds nice and perhaps we should.
But there are, I think, two problems with this idea. The first is that most taxpayers aren’t much inclined to give more to satisfy the aims of the state. They live in a country in which they pay very high levels of tax. Everyone pays 32% and a good many people pay 52% in income tax. Add in all the rest and you shouldn’t be surprised to find that you actually pay more like 60-70% of your income over to the government.
That government then promises the world. To educate everyone; to find jobs for everyone; to support everyone they can’t find jobs for; to take care of everyone’s health; and at the same time as looking after everyone in the UK, to offer aid abroad as well.
I suspect that the majority of taxpayers feel that they have paid enough towards all this. That in paying their taxes they have effectively delegated their giving (of both money and time) to the government already. They aren’t up for doing any more, particularly when their efforts don’t appear to be much appreciated by Parliament anyway, and inflation is eating away at what money they have left when the state has had its cut.
The second problem is that a large part of the Big Society I think Cameron is talking about already exists. Not the decentralised NHS bit, obviously. But the “being part of the machinery of the state for free” bit.
A huge number of the people who have the time and money to work for the state for free already do just that. Run your eye down a public appointments list. You’ll find that a good many of them come unpaid.
A good friend sits on the Children’s Panel in Scotland. This is emotionally draining work: she attends hearings week in and week out where she works with other panel members to figure out how to cope with – and help – children who have offended in some way or another, or who are at risk. She is one of 2,500 volunteers doing this north of the border.
Think also of the magistrates, the lay magistrates, the high sheriffs, the members of the PTA, the prison visitors, the huge numbers of very busy people who sit on charity boards, the people running the Cancer Information Centre at Ipswich Hospital, the trustees of our national museums, the members of the likes of the Family Justice Council and so on.
The fact is that the public sector already survives to a major degree on the good will of the public spirited – so much so that according to Demos, we rely on “volunteers to manage what might be as much as 30% of total public spending.”
Those in any doubt about the idea that we already have a Big Society might look at the World Giving Index complied by the Charities Aid Foundation. It measures three types of charitable behaviour, all of which add up to what sounds like they make up a Big Society – giving money, giving time and helping a stranger. Australia and New Zealand come top. But the UK does pretty well. We are 8th on the list of 153 countries. 73% of us give money. And 29% of us give our time. Maybe we don’t need to build a new Big Society. We just need to nurture the one we have.