I started work in 1980 in an international engineering company as a commercial trainee; the white collar version of the burgeoning YTS schemes. I was one of those big haired, shoulder-padded “young guns” that Thatcher’s Britain spawned. And I loved it. I make no apologies for taking the opportunities available; I, like Frankie and the Wham duo, said “Yes”. I will elaborate a little to introduce some context: I did have a naïve, self-focus that tended my politics toward the right of Genghis Khan but I did draw the line at turning up the cuffs of my suit jacket – every man has his limits.
I am now in my, well let’s say, reflective years. I am social but not socialist. I do not have the ability to change my receding hair into the latest fashions (even if I wished to), I have fewer opportunities and inclination to wear a suit but I am still with Frankie; I still say “Yes”. But what am I saying “yes” to? The Big Society? Not quite yet; my personal jury is still out on this one.
There are, however, several parallels between the two epochs that I wish to draw upon. Thatcher took on a broke and broken society. Unions holding business to ransom. Social unrest within many of the cities. Unemployment rising along with inflation. Low price housing demand exceeding supply. Disaffected voters and our typically British “queue and moan” middle class middle England. Recognise any similarities? I think so with the clear and obvious exception of the Unions although recent actions of Unite may fill the void a little.
We have clearly come along way since then but there are still some facts within our current economy and society that re-affirm the circular, or perpetually fixed, nature of society. There is still a “top” percentage of society that is pretty much immune to the vagaries of economic policy – the landed gentry, civil list bunch whose personal fortunes and “status” protects them from the daily angst of actually working for a living. Not much change there since 1066 and feudal Britannia. There is still a “bottom” percent that any society has the responsibility to support and care for. So, allowing for some licence for the actual percentages, I will set each of the previous at a general 10% each, which places us in the middle. In the 80%. We, the social manifestation of Pareto’s Law, are facing similar challenges now that we did as shiny-faced, bombastic and ebullient “go-getters” (I speak of myself here) some 3 decades ago.
I have retained an unshakeable optimism in the vigour and valour of the entrepreneur. We have always, and I trust continue to, produced, developed and rewarded enterprise. There are, I am sure, as many budding Branson’s now as there were friends of Friedman then. The source material is still available and willing I suggest. This said then, what will encourage these creative and committed souls to rise to the challenge facing our economy today? The Big Society? I am not convinced. Our Government is responsible for preparing the ground; even for sowing the seeds of recovery. I cannot see how the Big Society is supposed to deliver this.
At this stage I will accept one fundamental difference between the two decades; Thatcher’s “enemy” was very much “at the gates”. The Unions, the main protagonists, were very much the opposition. They provided the main funding support for the opposition party even. Every campaign needs an enemy and Thatcher’s was visible, defined and very much mobilised. Cameron’s “enemy” is, however, “within”. In fact, so very much within that they are more the sponsoring ageing relative than the wayward naughty cousin. Cameron’s party is largely funded by the City. The same City that compounded, if not created, the current recession. Despite many promises, independent research committees and growing public resentment, he has been patently unable, and some would say unwilling, to take on the enemy. In fact, he has embraced and continues to covet them. Paying the same people as much or more money to get us out of the predicament that they created seems fundamentally flawed to me. Thatcher took on the Unions in full knowledge of the challenges and personal detriment; Cameron has kept his bed-fellows but insists from his lofty place that “we are all in it together”. Well, he is not; we are.
The Big Society seems to be a major pole up which he is flying his reform flag. But what is it? I have researched many media publications, online and offline, in an attempt to obtain a definition. I have even tried to find a general statement of intent. Nothing. Lots of rhetoric; generalisations and sound bite policy statements but nothing tangible. The vast majority of content available was very much of a similar persuasion; “cuts by any other name”. Passing responsibility for services into the local, public domain means that we are being required to do more (under the guise of controlling our local destiny) and receive less. More tax, less services. More work, less income.
There are already over 40,000 internationally trading NGO’s. There are approximately 170,000 charitable organisations in the UK. We just raised over £74M for Comic Relief. We are a society and culture that gives. We are a society that volunteers. Generally, we are a culture that cares, so do we need a Government initiative to cajole us into more? I suspect not. We may all, individually, be able to do or give a little more but that is an individual decision and not requiring Governmental instruction. So will the Big Society deliver economic growth? Well clearly time will tell but I am left wondering how? I am still left with a considerable bad taste from what little the Government has done to manage the bankers. Surely this is a section of society that could be “encouraged” to support us all just a little bit more? What are these honoured institutions contributing to the Big Society? If we are all in it together then I still seek evidence that they are part of the “we”.
I would like to clarify a couple of points. I am not a total Thatcher fan and I am not a Cameron basher. I am a social entrepreneur and I would love to think that the “vision” of the Big Society being pushed upon us will actually deliver true economic growth and social stability. I do believe that it will, as usual, be down to us to make this happen but we need actual encouragement; tangible and committed Governmental backing. Plans and programs that deliver funding and organisation to the entrepreneur. Will the Big Society deliver this? Time will, as usual, tell but in the mean time we (well most of us) are all in it together. It is still very much kneepads at the ready and begging bowl in hands. Supplicants to the vainglorious bankers. As entrepreneurs we will find a way to survive and prosper. We will deliver economic change despite, if not because of, Governmental policy. I look forward to the coming years with the enthusiasm and invention of the small business owner and will continue to support local services and community programs. I will continue to raise money for the charities and causes of my choice.
The Big Society is my society; it is our society. How “big” we can make it is down to us all. Let’s not just “queue and moan”, let’s get effective. Let us deliver the change we wish to see.