British PM relaunches ‘big society’ campaign

NationalPost.com – news/world
Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011.    Matt Falloon, Reuters

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister. relaunched his “Big Society” vision of devolved power Monday, hoping to convince doubters there is more to his coalition government than deep spending cuts.

Critics have panned his vision of engaged citizens, less state control and more philanthropy, calling it a vague and poorly constructed idea that may turn out to be little more than a fluffy smokescreen for the government’s cuts agenda.

Mr. Cameron says it is his duty to cut a record budget deficit running at close to 10% of national output, but sees it as his passion to create a “Big Society” where citizens have more control over their own destiny.

So far, the Conservative leader has failed to dazzle the public with an idea floated at last May’s election.

It also appears to be at risk of backfiring on his Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. Rather than encouraging volunteers to step in to provide services, his cost-cutting has spawned grassroots protests over local issues like the threatened closure of libraries.

“We need a social recovery to mend the broken society — to me, that’s what the Big Society is all about,” Mr. Cameron told charities, volunteer groups and policymakers in London.

“To me, there’s one word at the heart of all this and that is responsibility. We need people to take more responsibility. We need people to act more responsibly.”

His words distance him from Margaret Thatcher, the 1980s Conservative leader who promoted self-reliance and was famously quoted as saying there was “no such thing as society.”

Trades unions and the Labour opposition fear the Cameron mantra of taking more responsibility ultimately means leaving many parts of society to fend for themselves.

“The most worrying thing about the Big Society is that the prime minister truly believes that policies of slash, burn and sack will make all our lives better,” said Brendan Barber, general secretary of the umbrella Trades Union Congress.

The Conservative leader admits his broad-brush social vision is hard to define, but categorizes it under three areas — devolving power, opening up public services to greater competition and encouraging acts of charity.

The government’s social policy proposals range from empowering communities to set up schools or helping run hospitals to making it easier to save a village pub from closure.

He also wants to spark volunteering through a national citizenship service for young people and to help charities gain access to finance through a “Big Society” bank.

Given the depth of cuts — about 20% of departmental budgets by 2015 — gaps in funding for charities and community groups are inevitable, leaving many worried about how they will take up the strain.

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