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Why The 'Big Society' Is A Big Con

31/01/2011 11:16 | Updated 22 May 2015

One of the defining ideas to emerge from what some commentators are cheekily calling the ConDem coalition is the 'Big Society'.

If only the swollen public sector would step aside, the argument goes, in will sweep a wave of charities, private companies and philanthropic individuals eager to provide all the services for which the government will no longer pay.

As one Tory MP would have us believe, the government's approach will "release staggering amounts of social energy" that apparently "lies shackled beneath the surface of British society".

It's a nifty counterpoint to one of the central tenets of Conservatism – a belief in the small state – and one that the prime minister David Cameron desperately hopes will help sweeten the bitter pill of public sector cuts.

But how many of us are fooled?

Nobody would argue that encouraging citizens to get involved in their communities is a bad idea, or that charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises don't sometimes provide better services than the public sector.

But the government's strategy, if you can call it that, simply doesn't add up.

The coalition would have us believe that voluntary organisations can and should be supported to provide alternatives to state-funded services.

But the voluntary sector relies on the state for nearly half its funding – and that funding is being cut. Many of the very organisations lauded by the government for their innovation are already having to close, and more will follow.

The coalition would also have us believe that there are millionaire philanthropists and would-be volunteers lurking around every corner just desperate to help run everything from schools and hospitals to public access to Britain's historic forests.

Just where is their evidence for this?

I don't know about you but I am perfectly happy for other people with the expertise to do so to run my local education, health and social services. There may be 20 millionaires in the cabinet, but most of us don't have the time, the inclination or the money to work for free.

As for these elusive rich philanthropists, many of them can't even be persuaded to pay their taxes, let alone get involved in strengthening civil society.

And yet the government continues to wheel out the Big Society justification.

Need to cut costs but not be tarnished with the unpopular consequences? Get local authorities and GPs to do the job for you and say you are putting power "in the hands of the people".

Want to tackle the cycle of poor parenting amongst disadvantaged young families without spending any more public money? Get the banks involved to "monetise the savings" of early intervention v a lifetime on benefits or in prison.

Eager to save money on maintaining public access to historic forests while bringing in some much needed extra cash? Put up 15 per cent of Forestry Commission land for sale to help "local people have a say".

Local newspapers are already bursting with stories about the closure of local libraries, nurseries and domestic violence shelters, cuts in ante-natal and homelessness services, reductions in support for carers and the elderly, and more will follow.

I may be wrong: I hope I am wrong. But to me all this talk of the "Big Society" just feels like one big con

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