Spending cuts threaten Cameron’s big idea

WINDSOR, England - After nearly 100 days in power, British Prime Minister David Cameron is struggling to sell his vision of a smaller state to voters awaiting the harshest spending cuts in decades.

By (Reuters)

Published: Mon 9 Aug 2010, 10:26 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 9:22 AM

Cameron, who formed Britain’s first coalition since 1945 after an inconclusive election in May, wants to reduce the size of government, transfer more responsibility to local people and expand the voluntary sector’s role.

Calling it the “Big Society”, the Conservative leader says it is his “great passion”, a new type of politics he says amounts to the biggest redistribution of power in modern times.

Among the ideas mooted are turning over to volunteer groups the rehabilitation of offenders leaving prison, the running of community youth clubs or of some libraries and museums.

Cameron says “community empowerment” goes beyond getting charities to do the state’s job, and will give citizens more say in running the local post office or approving building plans.

However, public apathy, union opposition, coalition strains and a shortage of funding could wreck his plans, analysts say. Finance minister George Osborne will announce details of the unprecedented austerity measures on Oct. 20.

“To do these things you do need to have money. Exhortation is not enough,” said Professor Steven Fielding, director of the Centre for British Politics, University of Nottingham. “Cameron is trying to get away with just the exhortation element.”

Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the last British leader to roll back the frontiers of the state, would have taken a tougher line, closing down services and leaving the private sector to step in, Fielding argued.

“The Big Society is the rhetoric with which (Cameron) is trying to persuade people he is not Thatcher,” he said.

Yet the concept failed to capture people’s imagination during the election campaign. Polling by Ipsos MORI for Reuters suggests almost half of voters have still never heard of it.


Opponents dismiss the idea as spin designed to hide a traditional right-wing agenda of spending cuts, “detoxify” the centre-right Conservatives’ image and help keep them in power.

Dave Prentis, head of Unison, Britain’s largest public service union, said the plans are all about saving money in a country where the state employs about a fifth of the workforce.

“The government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative,” he said.

Thatcher infuriated many with her 1987 comment that “there is no such thing as society”, a remark construed as heartless, even though she later said her message of individual responsibility had been misunderstood.

Cameron’s coalition deputy, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, said during the election the Big Society offered “fake change”. He has since embraced the idea as in line with Liberal values.

Under the plans, voters could get a bigger say in local spending, set up their own schools, generate their own hydro power or influence policing.

Cameron says lack of public money is exactly why the state should rely on charities, volunteers and local people, rather than “micro-managing” communities with endless programmes.

“We’ve got the biggest budget deficit in the G20,” he said in a Big Society speech in July. “It’s time for something different... something that doesn’t just pour money down the throat of wasteful, top-down government schemes.”


The former public relations executive, who at 43 is the youngest prime minister since 1812, invoked John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” speech to seek support. Breaking the state’s grip should reinvigorate towns and villages, tackle social problems and encourage people to take responsibility rather than rely on the government, he said.

Commentators have compared the Big Society to former U.S. President George W. Bush’s “ownership society” and France’s transfer of some powers to the local level in the 1980s.

Ralph Michell, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations with 2,000 members, called the policy “very, very radical”, but say it will be hard to do more when their funding is threatened.

“We have got to be realistic about the task on our hands,” he said.

Voluntary bodies can be cheaper and more flexible than the state in areas such as public health, but there are questions about funding and how the state will monitor their performance.

Calling it “political window-dressing” is unfair, according to Wyn Grant, politics professor at Warwick University.

“I think Cameron genuinely believes in it,” he said. “He didn’t want the state to keep on growing. He’s got to give these organisations some money and that’s very difficult.”

Ian Trenholm, chief executive of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, one of four local authorities involved in a “Big Society” trial, said that once the policy takes root, the brandname could be dropped.

A straw poll of shoppers in Windsor, a town west of London famous for its royal castle, showed support among those who had heard of the Big Society, although many were still in the dark.

“Is it a reality TV show?,” asked student Mark Webster, 19, on his way to college near Queen Elizabeth’s weekend home.

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