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It's Big, it's Societal, it's the Big Society!
It's here! The Big Society is here! Well, the announcement is anyway and the Big Society Bank and the four 'vanguard sites' across England, for, lest we forget, the Big Society is England-specific as the policy areas it is connected to are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and to the Welsh Assembly. On that note, it will be interesting to see what happens when someone in England cooks up a proposal to somehow bring a reserved issue into the Big Society Big Top but for now it's "Cry 'Big Society for Harry, England, and Saint George!"
David Cameron has pretty much characterised the Big Society as the legacy of his time in office so he needs it to work. Given it can only work if 'the people' make it work I admire his faith. With 53,000 volunteers WRVS knows a thing or two about supporting people to do things for themselves. So, will it work? Well, I am not an apologist for any political party but let's first put to bed the myth that the Big Society is about a) replacing paid positions with volunteers and b) dismantling the welfare state and leaving us all to fend for ourselves. It's just not. Voluntary action, of whatever kind, is never and will never be engaged effectively if people feel they are being obliged to act as part of some mass-dumping-of-public-services exercise by a government who sees community action or third sector groups as some sort of surrogate private sector, whose fangs are being let loose on Nye Bevan's baby because it's leaders couldn't get International Megacorp Plc to savage it sufficiently. Volunteers, whether engaged formally in organisations like WRVS or informally as community activists, may act out of necessity but that doesn't mean they're a bunch of easily-fooled suckers who are going to form a new phalanx of amateur social workers or community nurses as, meanwhile, the dole lines lengthen. Nor does it mean they're a secret army of laissez-faire right wingers eager to bring services into their own personal private sphere.
The third sector, particularly in local communities, has always grown into the gaps in UK society because no-one else was doing anything about issue X or problem Y. It is also no longer the case that the third sector is made up solely of volunteers. WRVS has over 2000 staff itself. In other words the Big Society is not about throwing people into the unemployment bin. OK, OK, I can see that if you sweep away the local public-sector-provided nursery then you have a gap and it's that kind of thing that some people fear but I have to say that, leaving the example of nurseries as just that, an example, it's not clear to me either a) that this (i.e. a massive cull of essential services) will inevitably happen or b) just why we have ended up thinking the state should provide all the things that it currently does, even though many of them are great and I love 'em. But many isn't all. And besides, if you look at the 'vanguard areas' there's stuff in there about running a local pub and setting up bus services; both usually private sector ventures. In fact I am not aware that any of the mainstream political parties still tout the idea of some sort of anti-third sector, anti-charity, socialist, state-must-provide-all model and they haven't for decades now. What I do know is that it is simply nonsensical to suggest that the talents, abilities, enthusiasm creativity, invention and drive of 'ordinary people' (oh, save us from that term of reference!) should be suppressed because 'the state does that'. What counts is the outcome, not the method. Look at it this way; if the Big Society boozer is crap, no-one's going to drink in it are they? Likewise, the idea, even in the current financial mess we're in, that the state will withdraw public services en masse and leave vast deserts of need is fatuous. Even people who traditionally vote Tory rely on such services to the extent that they'll feel the bite and shout about it. Cameron wants a second term without the Lib Dems, he can't afford to drop votes anywhere.
I think the Big Society will work. I've worked in the third sector for 15 years, several of which I spent as a community development worker with small local groups. I think people are marvellous and will always surprise you. In fact, if I have a criticism of the initiative it's really only that the way it's been presented means you'd be forgiven for thinking we haven't got an extensive, vibrant third sector across England already, because we have, as NCVO will tell you. The Big Society initiative may help that sector make an even greater contribution to England but just as it's not going to replace the public sector, it's not going to replace the third sector, it's just going to give it a hand.
As for the National Citizen's Service, you'll have to give me time to digest the proposal. Remember, I'm up in Edinburgh, reading tonnes of stuff about what the Scottish Parliament is up to so forgive me if I can't chew over the English stuff as fast as you'd like!
One last thing... I'd love to know that 'you' exists, which blogger wouldn't? So if 'you' are really out there why not post a comment? Disagree with me, call me a closet Tory, an idiot, a numbskull or tell me my analysis is spot on and I write prose that Dickens would envy but, either way, send something! After all, in the words of The Feeling, "I love it when you call but you never call at all!"
Tea with the Queen
My last post was certainly over-optimistic about how likely it was the Queen would be able to give me a wave at the Royal Garden Party, which I've just attended (13 July). I'm not very good at estimating numbers in crowds but there must have been a couple of thousand people there.
The Royal Archers acted as human cordon but spaced far enough apart so that folk could see as the Queen made her way from the back door of the Palace of Holyroodhouse, through the lavish gardens and to the Royal Tea Tent, which has a replica crown on top of it, seriously! (It's rather kitsch actually). On the way various people were presented to her and, for obvious reasons, that included quite a few soldiers as the rest of us looked on.
What would normally be a short walk thereby took an hour. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, the sandwiches, cakes, lemonade and tea were great and the surroundings were, naturally, impressive. I never, in a month of Sundays, imagined I'd attend such an event but life's full of surprises. Anyway, these last two posts have been made in the spirit of a summer interlude.
Now I have a submission to the Scottish Labour party's policy consultation to write. Perhaps that'll be the subject of next time's blog. Or maybe the UK Government will have released further details about 'Ageing Well' by then. Ah, policy detail, doncha just love it?
Posted by Andrew Jackson at 08:34
Wednesday, 14 July 2010.
Meeting Her Majesty
In a wee departure from the usual policy-heavy stuff, this week I thought I'd let you know that I'm going to meet the Queen on Tuesday 13 July. She's WRVS' patron in case you didn't know or hadn't guessed Well, I say 'meet', I've been invited to the Royal Garden Party at the Queen's Edinburgh residence Holyrood Palace, along with hundreds of others. I'd like to think she'll say hello but who knows? I'll blog about it but in the meantime here's my other Queen story:
My car once broke down near Holyrood Palace. The gearbox seized and it was completely undrivable. Luckily for me, the Queen was about to arrive so the area was crawling with police officers, who, when they discovered my car was 'kaput', physically pushed it up a side street for me! Security risk you see but it got me out of a jam. And as I was walking home who should pass by in her Rolls Royce but Her Majesty! I wonder whether I'll get as close this time. Maybe I could tell her that story. What do you think?
Posted by Andrew Jackson at 10:19
Friday, 09 July 2010.
Death by a thousand cuts!
WHOOAAA! Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Tresury, has told Cabinet colleagues to get ready to find 40% budget savings from their departments. This is in order that the Government can spread the overall 25% cuts unevenly across the whole portfolio of its activities and protect some departments like health.
There's a big picture question about what this means for Britain but sticking to my "wee windae" remit and with no disrespect to public sector colleagues (I was one once): for organisations in the third sector, like WRVS, we will have to wait and see what this means for third sector services and practices. Simply put there's a fork in the road here and its a choice of either a) embrace the third sector way of doing things (and I include the full range of community groups, social enterprises etc in that) and turn the crisis into a massive opportunity for an expansion of the third sector justified by its demonstrable people-centred ethos, added value and efficiency b) retrench, retrench, retrench: take public services back in-house, preserve state provision as the core preferred method and show external providers the door. There are pros and cons to either approach, of course, but with some arguing that we're now looking at a paradigm shift in the way we support vulnerable people (older and otherwise) in the UK, I suggest this is going to push us further towards a sea change rather than simply meaning an extended period of tinkering with the mixed model of 'a bit of this and a bit of that' which characterises the current landscape.
Want a bell weather? Watch what local government is saying: LGA, COSLA, WLGA
Posted by Andrew Jackson at 10:10
Monday, 05 July 2010.