BigSoc, faith and cohesion

Paul Mason has an excellent post about the Big Society, which starts with his local library in Kennington, South London. Like my local library, his is an arts and crafts building, built in the golden age of philathropy, a testament to an age when the state did not provide. And, like my local library, it also now
embodies a promise: that young mums will always have somewhere to meet; that the digitally disconnected will always have somewhere to go online; that the elderly will always be able to find a large print book; that the cold and lonely will have somewhere dry to sit. Above all that the poor and marginalised will have access to literature.
David Cameron defined Big Society for us today:
"devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community."
As a libertarian in favour of a small state, autonomy, mutual aid and voluntary co-operation, those are all things I believe in.

The other weekend, Cameron also set out his position on security and multiculturalism. He attacked a state multiculturalism that fosters segregated lives and tolerates reactionary values, calling instead for a muscular liberalism. Again, although not muscular myself, I have been accused of muscular liberalism, and I have some sympathy for this position.I particularly endorse this:
we should encourage meaningful and active participation in society, by shifting the balance of power away from the state and towards the people. That way, common purpose can be formed as people come together and work together in their neighbourhoods. It will also help build stronger pride in local identity, so people feel free to say, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian, but I am also a Londonder or a Berliner too’. It’s that identity, that feeling of belonging in our countries, that I believe is the key to achieving true cohesion.

But what is the Cameron government doing to bring about a muscularly liberal Big Society, where we are cohesive instead of segregated? Where are the spaces, vacated by the shrinking state, where people can come together?

Five of the thirteen libraries where I live, the London Borough of Lewisham, including Crofton Park, where I take my kids perhaps once a fortnight, are due to close on 28 May, as Sir Steve Bullock's New Labour council implement the Con-Dem cuts. Via Caroline's Twitter, I see the Londonist reporting on what may happen to them.The Sydenham Society has published the relevant council report (pdf), summarised here by the Lewisham Anti-Cuts Alliance blog.
Expressions of interest in the buildings have been received from 13 parties, including an IT recycling and refurbishment company, a GP surgery, a handful of charities proposing community centres, a PFI company and a faith group.
The list gives a good insight into who will be taking over council services in Cameron's Big Society: big professionalised charities not much less bureaucratic and out of touch than local authorities, for-profit businesses closing in on a potentially lucrative market, fly by night small businesses, and churches. The community sector will not be more empowered, and actual communities still less: we will just be less well served.

The role of the faith sector is particularly worth noting. As Paul Stott tweated today, "Cameron's big society likely to be a beanfeast for religious groups - weakening social cohesion by further dividing communities." People of faith have been a great force for good in contemporary history, and a great force for evil too; I have no problem with the faith sector as such. But I have two concerns.

First, when services are provided by faith groups then users start to get divided by faith, and the spaces where we might come together - where we might say "Yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian, but I am also a Londonder or a Berliner too" - become more scarce. We've already seen this with education, where the kind of principles the Tories now want to spread to all our public services have already been in place for some years, and left us with a school system segregated socially and ethnically, with faith schools playing a major role in that. (The Cameron bambino attends a Church of England school, not their local school.)

Second, the particular faith groups that are at the forefront of these sorts of initiative are often groups that, scratched a little, reveal a less than pleasant face. The fastest growing denomination in the UK, a scholar of religion recently told me, is the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Brazilian-based Protestant sect who preach a "prosperity theology" based on financial reward in this life for those who follow the ways of the church. The UCKG now own the former cinema in Catford (the last cinema in the borough), and promised it would become some kind of community facility, which hasn't occurred. Possibly we should be thankful of that, as they were allegedly involved in the exorcism of Victoria Climbie, the Ivoirean girl who tragically died in the cruel care of relatives in Haringey. And the kind of "non-violent extremist" Muslim groups Cameron urged local authorities not to partner with are involved in delivering public various services to Muslim users across the country, as part of the faith-based agenda unfolded by Tony Blair. As the social arm of the state shrinks, the regulation that tempered these sorts of groups from taking over our services becomes toothless, and the grip of dangerous ideologies tightens.

The Big Society may yet kill the big society, and Con-Dem cuts threaten any genuine muscular liberalism.

Other reading: The FT: A quiet rebellion; Dave Rich on the Munich speech; Paul Stott on Cameron and Birmingham Central Mosque; David Osler: what to replace state multiculturalism with?; Tim Hunt: both a borrower and a lender be; Phil Dickens: Why I won't be signing UAF's petition on multiculturalism; Dave Hill: Tory London, council tenants and the 'big society'.
Previous: Snow, stones, trains, cuts, bullocks, etc; "Kosovo style ethnic cleansing"; Neo-liberalism's assault on civic culture.


Andrew Brown said…
Your point about who is likely to take over vacated public buildings is one that I worry about too. It seems to me that the pace at which the state is being rolled back doesn't foster well thought through localism, particularly in areas where civic cohesion is at its least developed.

So while the Age Exchange proposals for Blackheath library look, from a very superficial outsider reading, quite promising (if the objective is to save the library) it may be more difficult to see that happening across the borough.

Its the frontloading of the cuts to local government that is driving this and which is making it immensely difficult for councils and the local voluntary sector to properly plan for the changed social offer that the government seem intent on pushing through.

On your wider point about the role of faith communities; like you I take a balanced view of this, recognising that it was the activities of religious communities that helped push the Make Poverty History campaign, and whose members do all manner of small kindnesses in their communities every day. But also seeing the segregation that can happen in communities that predominantly see the world through that prism.
skidmarx said…
Great cartoon.
bob said…
Thanks Andrew - good to have you back.

The Age Exchange proposal is potentially promising, and I am not in principle against non-council bodies delivering public services, including even libraries.

And I also ought to add that my characterisation of the types of bodies taking over from the local state in the age of Big Society was something of a caricature - there are lots of social enterprises rooted in local areas with thoroughly good motivations and good working practices, but these, but these are (at least in my experience) the minority.
Waterloo Sunset said…
From Dave Rich's speech:

The EDL acts in many ways as a traditional far right group, and has many followers with a track record of activity in the BNP, but it has reframed its activity in the language of culture, not race. Understanding how this has happened, and how it will play out, is very much a work in progress: Hope Not Hate and John Cruddas MP were amongst the first to recognise this

lol wut? They've 'recognised' it publically for a fucking year, at most. As opposed to having a record of writing on this subject for, ooo, a decade or so.
darren redstar said…
The big society seems to mean Cameron does not believe that the state has any role in the provision of services and assistance to the public and therefore the states provision must be hived off to the individual; moved from the public to the private sphere, in other words, privatised.

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