As the Middle East continues to burn and the powers are being shaken by the winds of hope, some domestic matters maintain their importance for the future of British society. The Prime Minister seems to be letting no day go by without some major statement on something. This is not a bad thing in itself – especially as the subject matter is usually important – but it makes me wonder whether everything is being properly thought through before publication.
We all know that the forest sell-off has been embarrassingly dropped – and rightly so, in my humble opinion. But, today the Telegraph has an exclusive article by David Cameron in which he sets out his intention to expand his Big Society by decentralising public services and “replace targets with common sense”.
All this sounds great – giving local people control over the details of their lives – but there is a nagging doubt itching away in the back of my mind about the reality. ‘Decentralisation’ seems usually to increase bureaucracy, not reduce it. ‘Common sense’ of one group is the ‘madness’ of another. And none of this addresses the serious concerns about the impact of the ‘millionaires’ Cabinet’ proposals on the poorest or most vulnerable members of our society.
I don’t necessarily disagree with some of the sentiment behind Cameron’s agenda, but I have little trust that the outworking won’t simply benefit those who are most able to exploit it – at the cost of others for whom the charities will be expected to care.
The Bishop of Huntingdon expressed these concerns well – and with a clear appeal to the prophetic tradition in his sermon in the chapel of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge:
The strength of saying that we want a Big Society not a Big Government is that more people can be empowered and use that power to help others. The weakness, which many of us are worried about, is that for the powerful to say this, but then not take or not be able to take the actions that are necessary to empower others, but only cut their support, is to doubly disempower them: at best a Big Sell-Out – abdicating from government not augmenting society – and at worst a Big Smokescreen, if the benefits of privilege are perceived to stay just where they were, or even grow. If there is one thing that should sometimes keep our Prime Minister awake at night, this should be it.
One of the things I like about David Cameron is that you can usually tell when his own voice is behind the things he says or writes (as opposed to the voices of speechwriters or PR people). Reading his recent speech on terrorism at the Security Conference in Munich he not only wagged his real finger at his audience, but he also kept using the word ‘frankly’. This is good: it suggests openness, honesty and clarity. But, frankly, being frank and convincing isn’t enough when it seems that some thinking is being done on the hoof and without realistic thought being given to the implications.