The Church seems to be taking an increasing interest in engagement with the Big Society (BS) agenda. On 1 February a conference hosted by Caritas Social Action Network in Liverpool explored various elements of the Church's work in the area of its social teaching. There will be a further conference on 6 April. While CSAN it would seem is the chosen tool for delivering up Church agencies and activists for the BS agenda, the question remains as to whether this is a good direction to be taking?
The BS is an idea that came from the Conservative Party manifesto. It is in theory about devolving power and responsibility to the lowest levels in society, like families, groups, networks, neighbourhoods and locally based communities. The work is to be done by community organisers, neighbourhood groups, volunteers, mutuals, co-operatives, charities, social enterprises and small businesses.
The type of projects envisaged could be running a forest, a library, transport services or shaping a housing project. Five parts of the UK have been designated so far for community projects- Liverpool, Eden Valley, Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead and the London Borough of Sutton. (Liverpool recently withdrew.) The whole concept though will roll out right across the country over the coming years.
The funding for the BS is to come, partly, from money gained from redundant bank accounts. The localism legislation that enables things like parish councils to be established, allegedly taking power from the larger state bodies, also dovetails into the BS agenda.
In theory, much of the BS rhetoric sounds like good news, a real back to grass roots action, building community. The concept though would have more validity for many if it was not being set against the background of the government’s cuts agenda. In this context it looks like an effort to get people to do something for nothing. Jobs that were previously paid, now being done for nothing by those volunteering out of charity or coercion in the case of those forced to volunteer as a condition for receiving benefits.
Another concern is that while the cuts agenda has been justified on the back of the deficit, in reality it appears to be being used as a reason to decimate the state and public sector. Public sector workers jobs are being lost, pay frozen, terms and conditions made worse and pensions cut. The government theory is that the private sector will come in to take over much of what is being done by the public sector. The concern is that the BS could well be just providing cover for cuts.
The Catholic Church interest in the BS seemed to take off after the Pope’s visit. Much of the language of the BS seems to chime in with Catholic Social Teaching, with references to concepts like subsidiarity, the common good and dignity in work.
The BS also seems to offer the Church a chance to occupy a clear position in the public space. There have been concerns over recent years with the growth of fundamentalist secularism, some of which was reflected in certain policies and attitudes of the last Labour Government that the position of faith in the public square was under threat. It seems a clear aim of Archbishop Nichols in particular to stake out this space for Catholicism. Given as some have pointed out that much of what the BS professes to be about is already being done by the Church in many shapes and forms, it seems a good opportunity to advance on a number of fronts.
There is though also another concern which is that some in the hierarchy yearn for a return to the days of old when the state was smaller and the Church held much more power over the people.
Developments of the modern world, most notably that of the state as a force to intervene, usually for good in the case of the eradication of disease and poverty, have not always been appreciated by the Church. This anti-statism surfaced again under the last government as a growing state seemed to be increasingly encroaching on the Church’s domain, particularly in the area of education. Given these attitudes the new government’s small state/BS agenda found a resonance with the Church.
The danger for the Church is that it effectively gets co-opted by a right wing government. In its desire to join the BS, it forgets those being put out of work by the cuts agenda and fails to consult with trade unions.
If the Church colludes in the BS simply picking up the pieces from these destructive policies, it could be seen as providing charity but denying justice. In the words of Pope John XXIII charity must not become justice deferred.
On a more positive note, Church charities and organisations are already doing much of the work of the BS; this could be an opportunity to do more. It could offer an opportunity to be outspoken on matters of injustice. The BS could be taken over as a model for justice.
The BS could work, given the right circumstances. The New Economics Foundation has prepared some excellent material as to how this might be possible. Among the suggestions is that social justice needs to be made the main goal, meaning a fair and equitable distribution of social environmental and economic resources between people, places and generations.
There needs to be recognition that the state has a significant role to play, even if it is as "a smaller more strategic state" planning for a long term sustainable future.
In order for people to be able to give up their time to do volunteer work there needs to be a shorter paid working week. "Because the ‘Big Society’ implies a big demand for unpaid time, and because some people have so much more control over their time than others, we propose a slow but steady move towards a much shorter paid working week, with an ultimate goal of reaching 21 hours as the standard," say the NEF.
The BS must also be sustainable, reducing the carbon footprint." Cutting carbon emissions and reducing society’s ecological footprint must be integral to the ‘Big Society’, shaping the way homes, institutions and neighbourhoods are designed and managed, as well as how people and organisations use energy, travel, shop, eat and manage water and waste... It must give priority to preventing illness and other kinds of risk, so that fewer people have problems that need fixing. It must help to loosen our attachment to carbon intensive consumption and give greater value to relationships, pastimes, and places that absorb less money and carbon."
The New Economics Foundation analysis certainly offers some food for thought as to how the BS agenda could be adapted to serve the common good. The concern must be that the BS is really all about picking up the pieces of devastating changes being socially engineered on society under the aegis of the cuts agenda. It would be more credible if the BS was being introduced at time of economic plenty. The lack of funding for the whole process is it’s really achilles heel.
There could be some mileage for the Church in this agenda but it needs to be very wary . It should also be talking to and articulating the concerns of the likes of the public sector workers about to lose their jobs and the welfare claimants about to be forced to do "voluntary" work. The Church must not lose its voice on the need for justice, indeed some would argue it could do with finding a much stronger voice on behalf of the poor. The BS agenda cannot be dismissed out of hand; it does potentially offer opportunities to do good. The Church though needs to be aware of these problems and be ready to sup with a very long spoon when dealing with what is a very right wing government set on implementing the next stage of the Thatcherite neo-liberal revolution.
* This article is based on a paper Paul Donovan presented at the National Council for Lay Associations meeting on 6 February