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Big Society. Little useful debate

March 1, 2011
A circus tent

I was just reading an article over on the BBC News website about comments made by Stella Creasy MP (Lab) about the ‘Big Society’ being pushed by the coalition government.  In Parliament on Monday Ms Creasy said:

“By not setting out the purpose of the Big Society, the government leave themselves open to acknowledging a whole range of volunteering activities that they may not want to support.

Taken to extremes, for example, the Ku Klux Klan and the English Defence League would be seen as wanting to bring people together for a particular purpose in their local community, but I am sure none of us would want to promote such organisations and their values.”

Ms Creasy made her comments in response to what she sees as ‘wooly’ descriptions by the government of what the Big Society is.  Conservative Chairman, Baroness Warsi, has responded by taking offence, something she is very good at.  I don’t want to get bogged down in discussing the Big Society and whether it’s a good idea or not.  What I want to look at is the political language being used here.  Suffice to say that the government is selling the Big Society as a way of saving public money and increasing social responsibility, both laudable aims up to a point but lacking detail.

Are the comments by Ms Creasy her honest assessment of the situation or is she, as Baroness Warsi says, trying to smear the Big Society by linking it with racism and extremism?  Or is she simply making a rhetorical point by using an extreme example?

Ms Creasy is a social psychologist and can be expected to know a little about the subject of social responsibility.  I think I must give her the benefit of the doubt here and believe that she is making a point.  I do not think that her comments reflect her honest outlook on the plans, nor does it seem to me that she was trying to smear the Big Society.  I think she was trying to use an extreme to draw attention to the lack of detail in the government’s outline of what the Big Society is for.  I also think that, politically speaking, it was a bit of a stretch too far and merely opened up her argument to the exact response she got from Baroness Warsi.

Which brings us to Baroness Warsi taking offence at being linked with racism and extremism.  Is she helping her case by taking offence?  Is she even addressing the point Ms Creasy is making, however clumsily?  Personally, I don’t think Baroness Warsi does herself, the government or the Big Society any favours by simply taking offence at what has been said.  Baroness Warsi, as a supporter of the Big Society, might have done it a lot more good by providing some concrete examples of what the Big Society will do, and how.  This would have the effect of moving the debate forward and allowing for a proper exchange of views.

What we have here is someone using an extremely blunt instrument to club the baby seal that is the Big Society plans and the baby seal’s proponent simply whingeing about the type of instrument,  rather than strengthening or defending the seal.  Neither the blunt instrument, nor the ineffective defensive strategy do much for the baby seal, which is a shame because I would at least like to know what exactly the Big Society seal might grow up to look like.

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