Small Prospects for Big Society


Just under a year on from the general election, I went to talk to Matt Leach, the Associate Director of the Red Tory think tank, ResPublica, which since its birth in November 2009 has rapidly become one of the key movers and shakers in the Westminster bubble. Not least among the reasons for its meteoric rise is that one of the earliest and most zealous converts to its Red Tory brand happened to be PM David Cameron.

The “Big Society” is absolutely central to the Red Tory brand, and I began by asking Leach how he thinks it’s going. You can tell that Leach spends a lot of time around politicians because he doesn’t accept the premise of the question. “The Big Society is an analysis of the problems we face today more than a set of solutions,” he says. He then launches into the by now familiar story of how the combination of an overbearing state and powerful global markets have had a negative impact on our society in the last generation by turning people into passive consumers. What we need is a renewed sense of civic responsibility and to break down the barriers that prevent people from acquiring property and wealth.

Progress is being made, he says, but first of all it’s important to remember how far we’ve already come in a very short space of time. He expresses a hint of pride in the fact that the “Big Society” has caught on as much as it has, rather gleefully pointing out that it has been “democratized” in a way that New Labour’s big idea, the “Third Way”, never was.

Maurice Glasman, the man behind Blue Labour, the left’s answer to Red Toryism, says his problem with the Conservative “Big Society” is that while it has embedded in it a pretty strong critique of the state, it fails to offer a genuine critique of the market. Leach, rather unsurprisingly perhaps, sees this as a little unfair, although he does acknowledge that perhaps the Red Tory critique of the markets has so far been less obvious in the public conversation about the Big Society than their critique of the state. So far, this conversation seems mostly to have centred around redefining the social contract between individuals, communities and the state, he admits. And I can’t help but notice that his eyes light up a little later on when he explains that the Big Society gives us (us being Conservatives, presumably) a new language for challenging the state: “Is government being “local” enough? Is it doing enough to create space for people to participate in the “civic state”?”

He is insistent that the Red Tories do also have a radical vision for challenging the free market though. He points to the fact that Red Toryism is intellectually indebted to the distributism of G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, who, almost a century ago, envisioned a Third Way between capitalism and collectivism that involved a much wider distribution of productive property. He also talks about the need for an attack on oligopoly and monopoly and “recapitalising the poor”, which definitely sounds pretty radical, but how are these ideas being translated into practice?

“Mutualisation” seems to be the key idea in terms of how to make distributism work. To achieve what the Red Tories call “the ownership state”, mutual ownership and management of public services by those who deliver and those who receive the services needs to be encouraged. This removes the Whitehall bureaucrat from the picture more or less completely, which is something that everyone seems to agree is a good thing, and it allows public service provision to be efficient and responsive to local needs.

“Economic localism” is also important, according to Leach. In fact, he says, one of the most important aspects of the whole Red Tory agenda is the emphasis it puts on “locality”. He wants to see the economy and society radically restructured in such a way to ensure that both are more deeply embedded in local communities.

When I ask whether this emphasis on locality is really feasible after decades of globalisation, he very quickly points out that the kind of economic localism he wants to see again was alive and well not so long ago in Britain. As recently as the 1980s there were still large numbers of local and municipal banks and building societies in the UK, and Essex county council is apparently leading the way in reviving them (with the help of a giant multi-national partner, Santander). Asda too gets into his good books for introducing pilot schemes in a couple of regions of the country where they will bring more local food into local stores and turn the store manager into a “community leader”, whatever that means. I can’t help but think this sounds like a rather superficial exercise. We needn’t be worried though says Leach, because businesses are increasingly having to define their “ethos base”, and as long as their “ethos base” is local it doesn’t matter what the economic reality is.

This is really where the Red Tories and Blue Labour part company: the Red Tories don’t believe that conflict between labour and capital is inevitable, whereas for Blue Labour, ultimately the owners are still big bad capitalists bent on exploiting and oppressing the good, honest workers. Granted, I don’t think they put it in quite those terms, but that is what the debate boils down to. That’s why the Red Tories are able to convince themselves that Asda and Santander are worthy allies in their battle to re-localise the economy, whereas for Blue Labour, they remain, and will likely remain, the enemy.

The Red Tory vision of a world of trade guilds and local businesses grounded in strong local communities is without doubt an appealing one, but there’s also something hopelessly utopian about it. I can’t help but feel sceptical when politicians invoke the ideas of previous generations of intellectuals whose ideas have been all but forgotten. If Belloc and Chesterton were onto a viable alternative to rampant capitalism on the one hand and state socialism on the other a hundred years ago, why were they not more influential at the time?

The distributist ideas that the Red Tories are so keen on reviving seem to be rooted in an agrarian model of society that was rapidly disappearing a century ago. Chesterton talked about every citizen needing no more and no less than “three acres and a cow”. It was just a slogan, but it seems to illustrate perfectly the pre-industrial character of his economic thought. So why on earth are Leach and his colleagues trying to revive distributism as the panacea for the problems of our post-industrial age?

Richard Roberts