The Big Society remains a pivotal aspect of the conservative platform in Britain. Transfer power to small communities, or so say the current stable of Tory hacks. Take the controls away from the bureaucratic centre in London. But such ambitions are not keeping Prime Minister David Cameron in the good books of the public. The Big Society is simply code for budget cuts and merciless austerity measures.
The anger of the public, or at least sections of it, is brimming. Tuition fees have trebled. Student discounts for public transportation have been cut. Various other subsidies are being slashed, with the total amount numbering some $130 billion. So, while Libya burns at the end of British bombs in the name of freedom, British citizens are tightening their belts and waiting for a significant smaller state to come into existence.
The protesters had been mobilized for the grand effort through the services of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), the union umbrella body. The country hasn’t seen the like of the ‘March for the Alternative’ since February 2003 when the Iraq War placed itself squarely at the feet of Britain’s politicians. Approximately 250 thousand donned their protest shoes and marched through London on March 26.
The protest signs were colourful, the marchers well watered at stages with pints before setting off on their show of indignation. ‘You are tightening your belts around your necks.’ There was some trouble – a few anarchists took it upon themselves to vandalise Fortnum and Mason’s, though nothing more serious was reported.
British libraries are set to fall into the hands of American companies. LSSI, the key participant in what will become an important feature of Cameron’s Big Society program, has a goal of taking control of libraries across eight districts. What exactly this means for services is a big mystery.
It is perhaps in health where the Tories are tripping most. Numbers about the maligned National Health Service have been fudged. The NHS, ever notable in Tory demonology as a failing beast in need of being put down, is trotted out as fodder to be altered and slaughtered. The hacking device is meant to be the Equity and Excellence: Liberating the NHS bill. It is obtuse, hard to read and difficult follow by all and sundry including politicians. The cunning drafters have won again. The idea of ‘choice’ is shot through the document, but the problem of such choice in medical treatment through the country is a choice on who is more unequal than others.
There is little basis to the scare mongering over the situation of health in the country. For one thing, the UK spends 7 to 8 percent of its GDP on healthcare compared to 15 percent of the US. British citizens would be pleased to know that their life expectancy is higher than their transatlantic cousins, and mortality rates amongst children lower. The figures on heart attack deaths have also been used mercilessly to discredit the system, with special reliance being placed on a figure from 2006 suggesting that Britain’s heart attack death rate was twice that of France.
Whatever Cameron’s optimism, there are signs that the Big Society is being pushed back. At the local level, the council of Liverpool, one of four local governments selected for pilot projects, voted to withdraw last month (UPI, Feb 15). Cameron’s Big Society is spluttering. The vision may even be shrinking, but not for the reasons he intended.