‘The Good Society vs. The Big Society’ last night, a debate in a House of Commons Committee Room organized by Compass. Jesse Norman MP was the token Tory, or ‘sacrificial lamb’, as he put it, alongside Stella Creasy MP, the soon-to-be-Lord Glasman and others.
Several things stood out:
Surprisingly few people saying they just didn’t understand what the Big Society was.
Everyone wanted to claim small independent groups as their own, politically speaking. They were made out to have impeccable left-wing credentials, to be the bedrock of Fabianism or to be the little platoons of the right.
Yet nobody talked about how these groups work. Stella Creasy, who spoke extremely well, stressed the importance of fellowship within groups with reference to the legendary William Morris line about a lack of fellowship being death. She also talked about the importance of groups without barriers. Hmmm. The problem is that a sense of membership often goes hand-in-hand with fellowship. Membership is not a dirty word. Knowing who is in your group and who is not does not make that group inherently elitist.
Then we come to community… I’ll keep this brief, but the community referred to all night long was implicitly local. It was about place. Our communities, as far as this debate was concerned, were our neighbourhoods, our electoral wards, our villages. We really need to broaden our understanding of this word.
Finally, class. What debate about British society is complete without this? Class needled its way into proceedings as follows: for several speakers the Big Society was a bad idea because it involved too many middle-class white people. They felt that as there may not be enough non-middle-class, non-white volunteers pitching in to the Big Society the concept was bankrupt. This belies a strange, sclerotic mind-set. Surely it confuses the participation of all with access to all. The latter is a moral right that nobody would question; the former is entirely different.
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