Rosamund McCarthy: The dream of the big society needs a well-funded and accountable state

Cutting off state funding is the biggest threat to David Cameron's programme, says our columnist

Rosamund McCarthy
Rosamund McCarthy

I have been contemplating the meaning of the Conservatives' 'big society' from a remote part of the Hebridean island of Lewis, where I am on holiday.

It is refreshing to be in a place where no one locks their doors or cars, strangers give you lifts and the only shop is community-owned. This is one kind of society, but there is also a community in King's Cross where I live in London, with voluntary projects, the London Wildlife Trust sanctuary and arts community hub King's Place just around the corner.

So what do the Tories mean when they talk about the big society? It has to be broad enough to encompass communities both on Lewis and in King's Cross. It is tempting to think that creating the big society just involves the voluntary sector doing more. But the Tories have been using the phrase as an overarching term that includes greater localism, community control of planning, free schools and giving citizens better access to information.

Margaret Thatcher famously said there was no such thing as society - only individuals and families. Cameron has shouted from the rooftops that society exists, but he has made it clear that it is not the same as the state. Indeed, the coalition government says it wants to shrink the state.

Yet cutting off state funding to the voluntary sector is the biggest threat to Cameron's dream of the big society. The more the government invests in voluntary action, the more civil society flourishes. A decent level of public provision can encourage people to do more because they feel a level of security. In fact, by funding voluntary groups that hold it to account, the state is the only guarantor of the big society.

It is these voluntary groups that are now most vulnerable to the cuts that are about to be inflicted on the third sector. Local authorities faced with swingeing budget cuts will find it easiest to choke off the smaller, local projects.

The Compact, precisely because it is not on a statutory footing, could become meaningless if funding is withdrawn in breach of the principles of best practice.

Failing to give the Compact the protection of the state was one of the biggest omissions of the previous government, which feared the agreement would be used against it, but did not look ahead. So let's not set up any false dichotomies. The big society needs a well-funded, accountable state. And this is as true on the island of Lewis as it is in King's Cross.

Rosamund McCarthy writes in a personal capacity.

- Rosamund McCarthy is a partner in law firm Bates Wells & Braithwaite.

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