Archbishop of Canterbury blasts Cameron's Big Society as ‘aspirational waffle’
The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury has launched another broadside against the overarching theme of David Cameron’s premiership. In a section of his soon-to-be-released book Faith in the Public Square (which has conveniently been released sooner than expected exclusively to The Observer), Dr Williams dismisses the ‘Big Society’ as ‘aspirational waffle’, explaining:
'...if the big society is anything better than a slogan looking increasingly threadbare as we look at our society reeling under the impact of public spending cuts, then discussion on this subject has got to take on board some of those issues about what it is to be a citizen and where it is that we most deeply and helpfully acquire the resources of civic identity and dignity.'Now, some might think it a bit rich of an archbishop who has defined his entire occupancy of the See of Canterbury by dense and inaccessible verbiage to criticise the Prime Minister for spouting ‘waffle’ – aspirational or otherwise. And you can expect to read such painfully obvious swipes at Dr Williams upon the Blogosphere and in the pages of The Daily Mail. But, the incontrovertible fact is that the Archbishop has a point.
The concept of the ‘Big Society’ was widely trailed before the 2010 General Election: it was bold, visionary, even revolutionary in its principal objectives. The central thesis was a demand for ‘a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power’. This, Mr Cameron said, had to be:
‘From the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy. Through decentralisation, transparency and accountability we must take power away from the political elite and hand it to the man and woman in the street.’It was all about the restoration of civil society: in the Big Society, we glimpsed David Cameron’s core philosophy. It was a wholly necessary political pursuit to fix ‘Broken Britain’, and the policy by which his premiership may be judged to have succeeded or failed. So important was the vision that he appointed a dedicated Big Society adviser in the House of Lords: Lord Wei was based at the Office for Civil Society in the Cabinet Office, advising the Government on all aspects of Big Society thinking.
Sadly, the Prime Minister permitted the vision to be relentlessly buffeted by bureaucrats and hijacked by the ‘cuts’ narrative, or, as Dr Williams puts it, the ‘deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable’. Interminable delays and Whitehall inaction frustrated one of its principal architects – Steve Hilton – to the extent that he went off ‘on sabbatical’. Lord Wei subsequently resigned, citing ‘work-life balance’ as the principal reason.
The fault lies squarely with David Cameron: he never effectively articulated the meaning of the Big Society: he never expounded it for popular consumption. When Tony Blair spoke of ‘Education, education, education’, everyone knew that it was about schools and students and raising standards. Forget that he failed: that is peripheral to the issue raised by Dr Williams. The fact is that the Big Society remains undefined, nebulous and opaque. As the Archbishop says: “The big society, introduced in the run-up to the last election as a major political idea for the coming generation, has suffered from a lack of definition about the means by which such ideals can be realised.”
The idea was a perfect unifying policy for the Coalition; indeed, the formation of a Conservative-LibDem partnership augured well for the vision, because it is fundamentally both liberal and democratic. David Cameron’s plans for free schools are both liberal and democratic; his plans for a ‘pupil premium’ for the most challenging pupils are both liberal and democratic; his desire to redistribute NHS funding to the areas with the lowest life expectancy is both liberal and democratic. His opposition to further taxes on jobs is both liberal and democratic; his desire for lower personal taxation is both liberal and democratic; his opposition to ID cards is both liberal and democratic. And what liberal and democrat could possibly resile from the Conservatives’ proposed reforms to Parliament – that of granting the electorate the right to recall their MP, and petition for a parliamentary debate?
What went wrong?
Some of these policies never came to fruition; some have been U-turned. Cameron permitted his Conservative-led Government to be tarnished with the primacy of economics: Mammon, materialism and the market are perceived to be his primary concerns, such that any and every policy is perceived to be about money rather than the size of the state.
The Prime Minister needs to remind us of his core conviction: that big government is a big part of the big problem, and that it exacerbates the nation’s social problems. He needs to talk about personal and social responsibility, liberated from state control, which fosters fraternity, strengthens families, inculcates respect and permits the application of common sense. He needs to remember that there is little point in churning out ‘free schools’ to improve social mobility if children are nurtured in a state-induced poverty trap which actively discriminates against married couples. He must bring some ‘joined-up’ thinking to his education reforms by actively supporting families and backing commitment. He must tackle drug abuse, alcohol abuse, family breakdown and the worst rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe not by pouring in more billions of pounds, but by liberating people from inhuman state interference, monolithic state surveillance and oppressive state control.
If David Cameron wants a Big Society, he must bring ‘We the people’ into his thinking. And to do that, he must devolve and trust. But if he will not do that within his own party, he is not likely to achieve it in the country. The Big Society is about personal and collective responsibility – the Church has been doing it for centuries. And that irrefutable fact calls for humility on the part of the Prime Minister: instead of criticising and lecturing church leaders, he might just sit at their feet and learn about the church’s centuries of experience in educating children, feeding the poor, housing the homeless and ensuring justice for the oppressed.
The Big Society is a true Conservative vision: it respects the individual, embraces diversity and empowers community. It shows faith, deep faith, in mankind as the vehicle of compassion, of neighbourliness, of love. It demands the bottom-up participation of the traditional institutions – family, church, charities, community and country. So any attack on the family, any negation of religious freedom and any denigration of our instinctive patriotism is an offence against the Big Society: you cannot force families or coerce charities or the church into doing what’s right when you pursue policies and issue diktats which are wrong.
There is a balance to be struck between liberalism and conservatism. And that ought to be at the heart of every policy. If David Cameron really believes that strong families lead to strong societies, he must put his policies where his heart is. If he believes that the church is indispensible to social cohesion, he must harness its strengths and build on its conservative values and roll back the immoral cultural revolution.
The ‘Big Society’ is to David Cameron what ‘Education, education, education’ was to Tony Blair, and the Prime Minister must make sure it does not go the same way. The Big Society is not only in need of urgent definition, but targets must be set in order that progress may be measured and data verified qualitatively and quantitatively. If there can be no empirical verification, we cannot know if David Cameron has succeeded in delivering. And if we cannot know if he has succeeded in implementing his vision, we cannot know what manner of prime minister he was: a great reforming one or just another sophist and salesman.
So, it’s two cheers for the Archbishop of Canterbury from this blog. It would have been three, but instead of using his Office to assist the Prime Minister in defining what he means by the Big Society, or advising on how its ideals might be realised, Dr Williams is heading off to Magdalene College, Cambridge, to inculcate the next generation with his own aspirational waffle.