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Why Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ didn’t work

Wendy Ward


David Cameron giving speech

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I’ve talked before about charities plugging the gaps created by a lack of government funding. When the Conservative Party creams off more and more taxpayers’ money from the top for their own benefit (don’t get me started!), it means there’s less to combat the issues of people in need when the remaining funds eventually trickle down.

Back in 2010, David Cameron decided to build on the plans of his predecessors. He launched ‘The Big Society’. According to a spokesperson, his wish wasn’t to shrink the economy so that charities and communities were forced to step in and help (despite this being the outcome)…he apparently wanted to put more autonomy into the hands of regular people, empowering them to take action on matters that impacted their locality, their friends and their neighbours.

Whether his intention was good or not, these types of initiatives commonly fail, due mainly to flaws in human nature and a lack of investment. Empowering communities is a wonderful premise, and new ideas typically achieve a great deal of buy-in, but once the novelty of the movement ends, and when people’s egos and personal agendas get in the way of their altruism, progress stops. Before long, everything’s back to where it was in the beginning.

In my area, for example, local MPs come running when there’s a positive story that they can take the credit for, or a publicity photocall taking place; on the flipside, they’re just as keen to send their apologies when public meetings are scheduled. I’m sure this is indicative behaviour of many other local and government MPs across the UK. Unfortunately, as is human nature, personal egos and developing greed spoil many a good intention.

People can and will come together in their communities, if the reason or cause is of interest. Think: street parties for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, ensuring elderly and vulnerable neighbours had food and provisions during the pandemic, the various recovery efforts and pledges that followed the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia.

I’ve worked with charity boards and on charitable projects in the community, and I’ve seen good ideas fail to get off the ground because those involved can’t or won’t work together. Even those projects that get further than their launch, at some point, often fail to be about the beneficiaries, the community, or the end user. The people involved inevitably make the project more about them as it unfolds—their interests, their opinions and their ideas. Sometimes, they’re not even aware of this shift, but regardless, they tend to lose sight of why they got involved in the project in the first place and what should happen. It’s a common human flaw.

The people who continually get involved in their communities, who do operate with altruism, strive to be part of new local initiatives and projects, but they’re commonly drowned out when the egos of others are stroked or stoked. They become disillusioned and disheartened and bow out gracefully, because they have enough on their plate doing good and making the small-scale changes that they can control.

The other major issue with The Big Society was its lack of investment. I’m sure, at some point, had Cameron’s vision become a reality, The Big Society may have freed up public funds for other purposes. However, you have to speculate to accumulate, and the lack of investment to get The Big Society up and running in the first place was a huge problem. Once a project has proven successful and can show impact, it holds the necessary tools to attract investment from other sectors, rather than from the public purse…but it has to get to that point of success first.

I fully believe that communities are the key to growth in the UK. We’re too reliant on those that govern us, and they’re increasingly proving to be less than useless. Unfortunately, it’s not a given that the political opposition would be able to radically overhaul this country and solve the problems we collectively and individually face.

The answer is empowerment, just like David Cameron suggested. But that needs to be two-fold: individual responsibility and shared, communal power. Individually, we need to take control of our own destiny a little more, i.e. look at heating and lighting solutions that reduce our reliance on the grid. We should go back to bartering for the things we need with our local producers or use a form of community currency, rather than being reliant on a monetary system that is heading towards digitalisation (without being accused of being a tin foil hat wearer, just look logically at the downsides of a cashless society). We can’t rely on the state to take care of the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and elderly in our communities, as they axe service after service; we should shoulder some of the hard work ourselves in the hope we will benefit from the same benefits when we get to that stage. It needs commitment from all involved and a long-term, altruistic focus. It’s doable, it really is, but it will still incur human-nature hurdles and these will need to be overcome.

Communities hold more power, skills, resources and commitment than those arguing like toddlers in the Commons every week. We just need to realise this and all pull together.

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