Cameron is betting it all on the Big Society
Those who hoped they had heard the last of ‘the Big Society’ should look away now. A fightback has begun. Normally, power shifts within No. 10 are visible only to those who read between the lines of prime ministerial speeches. But since Andy Coulson departed, the influence of the Big Society’s biggest champion, Steve Hilton, can be seen in headlines.This week there was even a ‘Big Society’ Cabinet meeting — with the Prime Minister and seven Cabinet ministers in attendance — before the normal meeting. Hilton, Cameron’s closest advisor, is now free to pursue his belief that the Big Society should define his boss.
Hilton’s task is far from easy. Polls show that 72 per cent of the public say that they don’t understand what the Big Society is — and the more Cameron talks about the idea, the higher that figure rises. Even Tory activists complain that they don’t get it. In a review of the election campaign on the Tory conference fringe, not one of the hundred or so activists present said that they had found it useful on the doorstep. Many blamed it for the party’s failure to win the election outright. But Hilton is still determined to rescue both the idea and the phrase.
A large part of the problem, as No. 10 now admits, is that the Big Society has never been properly explained. It is, essentially, about three things. The first and most important principle is that public services don’t have to be provided by the state. They can instead be provided by businesses or voluntary organisations with the state paying these groups by results. A recruitment agency, say, can be hired to move people from welfare to work and paid by its success at finding clients jobs. The second principle is that power and information should be handed down to the lowest level possible. The last and least important part of the idea concerns encouraging volunteering and social action.
But because of Coulson’s unwillingness to explain the Big Society agenda, the few people who reckon that they know what it is about believe it is all about volunteering. This has backfired badly on Cameron. People who are feeling squeezed both in terms of time and money do not wish to hear that the solution to the country’s problems is for them to go out and paint a youth centre.
Coulson, a former News of the World editor, thought the phrase ‘Big Society’ was too woolly, and sought to limit its use, though he knew that Cameron would not aban-
don the ideas behind it. The Prime Minister planned three major speeches last year setting out the themes behind the Big Society. But after Coulson heard the first one, delivered in Liverpool last July, he had the other two dropped. In January this year, a speech by the Prime Minister was meant to set out how the coalition’s reform of public services fitted into the Big Society. But Hilton was on holiday, and the speech ended up containing only two references to the idea.
Now Coulson is gone, the obstacle to selling the Big Society has been removed. The government’s public services white paper, due out on Monday, will make clear how its reforms fit into the Big Society narrative.
No. 10 now plans to integrate the Big Society into the everyday narrative of govern-
Now Coulson is gone, the main obstacle to selling the big society has been removed ment. To date, little has been done to make sure that departmental announcements are fitted into the government’s broader agenda. When Michael Gove talks about letting teachers and voluntary groups set up new schools, he doesn’t do so in the context of the Big Society. This could be about to change.
The same is true of the Home Office. When it published data that allowed people to see where crime happened in their area it wasn’t made clear that this was all part of the Big Society agenda — that is, that information should be handed down to the lowest level possible. But this is all supposed to change with the appointment of a strategy director to Cameron’s Downing Street. Andrew Cooper, a moderniser who worked for the party under Hague before setting up an opinion polling firm, will be responsible for making sure that what the government does is fitted into the grand narrative about
‘The eyes follow you around the room.’
where Cameron wants to take the country. And he won’t act as a counter-balance to Hilton in the way that Coulson did.
One other product of the Coulson-Hilton divide is that Hilton came to be seen as a ‘wet’ or even a crypto-lefty — because he was at loggerheads with the supposedly right-wing Coulson. The narrative made sense to those who knew neither man very well because Coulson was a former tabloid editor who emphasised the use of the Union Flag and law-and-order. Hilton, by contrast, has New Labour friends (Peter Mandelson’s protégé Ben Wegg-Prosser exploited these connections to gain a march on Tory thinking during the long campaign). Hilton’s proposal for a ‘happiness index’ and all his talk of ‘social responsibility’ is taken as further evidence of his being on the Tory left.
Hilton has not helped himself by making little effort to get to know Tory MPs and, at times, letting his famous temper get the better of him.When an idea comes out of Downing Street that Tory backbenchers don’t like, they have two reactions: they either blame the Liberal Democrats or Hilton.
The irony is that Hilton is one of the more right-wing figures in No. 10 — even if he does come from a different, more anti-authority right-wing tradition than most Tories. He is, in the words of one friend, ‘the most get-government-out-of-my-life person you could ever meet’. It is this approach to life that drives Hilton’s growing and significant antipathy to the European Union.
Cameron’s decision to double down on the idea that he and Hilton developed together is one of the most significant of his premiership to date. The easy thing for the Prime Minister to have done would have been to retire the phrase gracefully. But by choosing to so publicly stick with it, Cameron has now identified himself so closely with it that he can never dare drop it.
The Big Society has become so integral to Cameron’s premiership that it will almost certainly form one of the prongs of his reelection campaign, alongside a warning not to let Labour wreck the economy again and a promise of tax cuts. The Big Society will be the cause that endures.
One of the rules of politics is that leaders acquire definition when they go against the grain. This is what Cameron has sought to do this week. For better or for worse, he will now be defined by the Big Society and whether or not it succeeds.
the spectator | 19 February 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk Charles Moore
The National Health Service has now lived almost long enough to test its claim of full treatment ‘from cradle to grave’. Certainly most of those now dying under its care have paid taxes for it throughout their working lives, in the name of this proposition. Now we hear from the Health Service Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, that it frequently neglects old people, often to the extent of killing them. Why does this surprise anyone? It is in the nature of a service which forbids genuine choice to patients that it will end up suiting the convenience of those who work in it rather than meeting the needs of the sick. Until money truly follows the patient, each old person walking into a hospital will be seen by those working in it as an additional burden, getting in the way of treating others. More than 60 years of state medicine have almost killed off the original Christian ‘Big Society’ motives behind nursing and replaced them with trade union ones. The wider culture increasingly sees ‘assisted’ dying as positively virtuous, and the contempt that this implies for the value of an old person’s life therefore spreads through the nursing profession. The old people now being killed by the NHS are of the generation which most fervently believed in it. Their hopes are being dashed. We shall never have humane health care in this country until we understand that the creation of the NHS — though not the subsidy of health care for the poor — was a moral mistake.
Forty years on this week, and the decimalisation of our coinage still upsets me whenever I think about it. This measure was wrongly conceived from the first. The spur to the change was concern for exports — because some of the Commonwealth was going decimal — a pro-EEC desire to be ‘European’ and a vague sense that a decimal currency was more modern. But a currency, particularly in its small change, should surely be judged by its acceptance among the people. This subject was carefully avoided. The very existence of the Whitehall working party set up in 1961 to consider how to go decimal was concealed from the public.
There was never any widespread popular demand for change, and the argument that people would find a decimal system easier was true in practice only of those who rarely used it, i.e. foreigners. From an educational point of view, our duodecimal system was preferable because it taught children how to count in different bases. People brought up before decimalisation are almost invariably better at mental arithmetic than those born since. When we lost our shillings and pence, as when, more gradually, our weights and measures were subverted, we lost the full meaning of many of our nursery rhymes, jokes and proverbs. We also lost the actual coins, all of them superior in design to what replaced them and all, because they remained in circulation so long (it was common in the 1960s to receive a Victorian penny in change), of historical interest. We gained nothing worth having. Indeed, this is literally true, since the inflation of the Heath/Wilson years made the new coins almost valueless.
At the time of the change (I was 14), I vowed never to utter the new values, but to make an instant conversion every time. Thus my first pint of beer, bought in a pub the following year, cost, I insisted, ‘two and six’ (12.5p). I stuck to this vow until my future wife understandably said that she would have nothing more to do with me unless I changed. But although I made this sacrifice for love, I still think that the story of decimalisation provides a classic proof of the superiority of conservatism over what Michael Oakeshott called ‘rationalism’. There was no problem with the duodecimal system which our culture could not handle creatively, poetically, comically and efficiently. As with so many things touted at the time as modern, the switch now seems grotesquely out of date, all genuine problems of conversion having been solved by the microchip.
Sad news of the death of Peter Pilkington, formerly the Head Master of King’s Canterbury and High Master of St Paul’s. Peter, who, before those promotions, was my Master-inCollege at Eton, was an interesting and attractive combination — a clergyman who was both devout and worldly. He had a strong and subtle faith, but he loved the social position of the Church of England, and he was, like Dr Johnson, ‘no friend to enthusiasm’. It still makes me laugh to think of Peter, in his dogcollar, outraged that some evangelical boys had arranged their own prayer group on the premises: ‘Boys praying in my house! How dare they?’ In the 1990s, Peter grew disillusioned with the state of Anglicanism, and considered becoming a Roman Catholic. At the same time, he was sounded out for the House of Lords. He went to Cardinal Hume and said: ‘If I become a Catholic priest, could I accept a peerage?’ The Cardinal told him he could not, because the Pope forbade priests to be legislators. ‘Oh well,’ said Peter, ‘I think I’ll stay an Anglican.’ He became the Revd Canon Lord Pilkington of Oxenford. This story is made the more enjoyable by the fact that Peter himself was the only source for it. I believe that the truth was different, and that his spiritual struggles were real, but he would not have wanted people to know that.
Peter Pilkington was famous among his pupils for various dictums, some apocryphal, all in character. One, on the vexed question of teenage homosexuality, was ‘I don’t mind a bit of mutual masturbation, but I do draw the line at buggery.’ Sadly, this Anglican via media is now under attack from both sides of the debate, and so the entire communion threatens to split. Peter was also an exponent of the thin-endof-the-wedge argument beloved of housemasters. Once he caught me not wearing cufflinks and exclaimed: ‘You’ll end up a heroin addict.’ At the time, I was annoyed, but the fact is that I do wear cufflinks and I am not a heroin addict, so perhaps he put me on the right path.
the spectator | 19 February 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk