Britain's Big Experiment With Civic Engagement

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There was plenty of chatter Wednesday about the UK's big defense spending cuts. Defense, however, isn't the only area in which Prime Minister David Cameron and his coalition are making big changes. Scaled-back spending across the board may be practical—part of a Europe-wide move toward austerity—but Cameron also sees it as something else: part of the building of a fiscally streamlined, morally and civically engaged Big Society.

But do people really respond to that kind of counterintuitive, laissez-faire social engineering? Cameron is, one might say, trying to hit a target by not pulling the trigger--or, perhaps more aptly, running trust falls by suddenly pulling out all the usual spotters and assuming passersby will step in. What happens to services that really need government money and intervention? These are some of the questions commentators are batting around as they try to process this change in direction.

  • What the Big Society Is  The "goal is to compel a more robust citizenship, in which people must not only pay taxes and refrain from doing ill but actively seek to do good," explains Lauren Collins in The New Yorker. Of course, "to an American ear, [it] has a slightly Orwellian ring," and, "depending on whom you talk to, the plan is either very simple or very vague." Another problem is that the Big Society, with its attendant cuts, "makes perfect sense in areas that depend upon the government primarily for enrichment (parks, libraries), but it chafes in those which depend upon the government for basic services (housing, police, schools)." Here is, theoretically, she explains, how it is supposed to work:
The program comprises public-service reform (cutting red tape) community empowerment (transferring authority to the local level), and social action (encouraging voluntarism and philanthropy--or, to a cynical ear, getting people to do things for nothing that they used to get paid for). Cameron envisages a garden-fence government, in which little platoons of concerned citizens, unhindered by senseless regulations and sclerotic bureaucracies, band together to conceive and execute the governance of their own communities.
  • What the Big Society Is Not  The Spectator's Alex Massie focuses on backlash to a "'self-help' scheme" involving Londoners being able to request a shovel for snow. "Clearing snow from in front of your house or shop is a small thing," he acknowledges, "but if people can't manage that for themselves then god help us all." Ultimately, "expecting people to clear their own patch of pavement" is not "the cure to everything," but it's "this underlying attitude--even culture--of utter hopelessness that is the killer."
  • But the Big Society Might Actually Need Funding  Much has been made of Britain's severe cuts in funding for the arts. But in The Guardian, David Juritz argues the arts should be funded if the Big Society is really what Cameron is after: "people that attended performing arts events are 2.7 times more likely to be involved as volunteers in their community than people who stayed at home, while someone who reads literature is 1.8 times as likely to take exercise as a non-reader." If you want to grow a model society, proper support for the arts, he argues, might be a good place to start.
  • Practice What You Preach, Cameron  The government is "call[ing] for a culture of philanthropy to replace the hand out culture" writes Martin Bright at The Spectator. "I have a suggestion ... David Cameron should order each government minister to publish details of his or her charitable giving and the number of days a year they spend on voluntary work." Why? It's "what they are demanding of the rest of us. The richer members of  society will now be expected to underwrite the arts and the charitable sector, while the rest of us volunteer to take on the functions of the public sector." He just thinks, if Cameron is really serious about this, he should lead by example--possibly by having wealthy ministers start up charities on the spot.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.