I gave this blog its name as a bit of joke – an unsubtle thumb-to-the-nose at a rather vapid piece of Tory branding. But just lately I’ve been pondering what it might mean. What would a Not So Big Society look like? As opposed to Cameron’s Big Society – or for that matter Miliband’s Good Society, which Labour started as a retort but then realised it meant even less than the piece of mouthwash they were responding to.
Permit me to use this post as a bit of musing on the kind of nation we may or may not become over the next few years. Let’s take a gaze at the Not So Big Society…
If we’re talking about an alternative to the Big Society, then it would be helpful if we knew what that meant – which, frankly, nobody seems to anyway. A quick look at the Big Society website reveals lots of fancy whooshing graphics that resemble something that would like quite nice in the Tate Modern, but precious little by way of explanation.
The Cabinet Office is a bit more helpful, mentioning some piddling social enterprises that will barely begin to replace those which are being hacked away. Oh, and they’re reintroducing the British Empire Medal. Woooo.
For political balance I decided to look up the Good Society too. I got a clothing company.
Never mind the feelgood PR rhetoric. Maybe it would be more helpful to have an idea of what life could be like in the next few years. Last week the Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott gave us a snapshot of Britain in 2017. It’s not a pretty picture.
The scar tissue from the recession is still livid: unemployment is only slowly coming down from its peak of 3.25 million, and from the lost decade has emerged a lost generation of young people who have shuffled from dole queue to training scheme, to low-paid jobs and back into unemployment.
Riots on the streets are no longer the shock they were in 2011, but have instead become part of Britain’s summer season along with Wimbledon and Royal Ascot.
For Britain, the period of cold turkey as it weaned itself off debt addiction has been long and painful. The search goes on for a balanced and sustainable economic model; there is some breast-beating about the failure of the UK to invest quickly enough and deeply enough in the new industrial sectors – green technology, in particular – that are being pioneered in Germany, Japan and the United States.
More people now take their holidays at home, because the sharp fall in the value of the pound has made foreign travel so eye-wateringly expensive. The flipside to the weakness of sterling is that Britain’s exports are cheaper, but such is the shrivelled state of the country’s manufacturing base that the balance of trade is still heavily in the red.
In 2017, the two big debates in policy circles are whether Britain is a de-developing country and by how much the state should shrink.
On the plus side, a recent report suggests that all this may not be making us less happy.
Most Britons report being satisfied with life, with concerns over work and precarious finances outweighed by happiness gained from children, relationships and where people live, according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics.
Released days after economists forecast that the recession would be deep, long and leave the public in 2015 worse off than they were in 2002, the government survey paints a picture of the country largely untouched in an emotional sense by the looming crisis.
Well, that’s nice. Maybe my granny was right when she said you can’t buy happiness.
I suppose that brings me to the crux of what I’m musing about when wondering what the Not So Big Society is. I’m wondering how all this will make us think, feel and behave – CBT-phobes, feel free to wince.
Will the coming years cause us to turn on each other and hoard for ourselves? One where the have-nots smash their way into a Dixons and the have-yachts cream in the unjustifiable bonuses, while the rest of (I refuse to call us a “squeezed middle”, we’re not a toothpaste tube) just try to hang on by our fingernails?
Or one where we try to look out for each other, and develop new community bonds. Not because Cameron thinks it’s a good soundbite, but because we need to in order to survive and get by.
Of course, the answer may lie somewhere between the two. Back in August I was chatting to someone from the Transition Network about the challenges ahead, and she said something I thought was very apt.
“It’ll cause some people to go out and loot, and some people to go out on the streets with brooms.”
And maybe that is what the Not So Big Society will look like.