Edition number 42; dateline 2 June 2011
The tale of the big society and the prime minister's nose
It has been a busy month for the prime minister. Not only did he have to get ready for the arrival of his new best friend, Barack Obama, playing table tennis and having a barbeque in the back garden, but he also had to pack all the Boden clothes that his advisers had laid out for his holiday. He will have had no time to get immersed in the scandal swirling around FIFA, although he might have had a moment to wonder how the Football Association had so suddenly switched from supine connivance to righteous indignation; he may even have entertained a vague memory of hosting that nice Mr Blatter at Number 10, treating him like a president and meeting him again during his few days in Zurich promoting the England World Cup bid.
The prime minister did, however, find the time to hold another relaunch of his own ‘big society’ idea. Given that this was the fourth time this major policy strand had been officially unveiled, it was no surprise that it was a quiet occasion with only close friends invited. Most of the national media respected the prime minister’s privacy at such a difficult time but however sensitively the event was handled it all proved too much for Lord Wei of Shoreditch, the prime minister’s part-time big society czar, who resigned his post a couple of days later. The Sport and Recreation Association (the newly branded CCPR) was gracious enough to put the coalition government and the big society at the top of its conference programme, encouraging discussion of the implications of both on sport, but ultimately it proved frustrating for all concerned.
The frustration stemmed from the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from this conference, and indeed by anyone with any knowledge of current affairs, that sport, leisure and culture can, with no leap of the imagination required, be seen to equate to the big society in action. The sport, leisure and culture sector has a long track record of serving and building communities, using volunteers and the ethos of public service to engage people from all walks of life and from all areas of the country in positive, fulfilling and – let’s not beat about the bush – enjoyable activities. When measured in terms of the hours of activities delivered and the cultural outcomes achieved the scale of central government support for these community-based activities has been miniscule but instead of recognising and supporting this long-established version of the big society the prime minister steps back, puts his trust in cuts to general expenditure and allows the Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to apply the same rules to local clubs that it applies to the biggest of big businesses.
If in your role as prime minister you have set your heart of the delivery of a big society and on finding it under your nose you refuse to invest in it – fail even to prevent its damage – then it is not irrational for the disinterested observer to conclude that the big society is little more than a marketer’s name for cuts to public service. However, the concept of the big society remains a conundrum for the sport, leisure and culture sector. An understanding of and commitment to community engagement and voluntary service is intrinsic to leisure provision in the UK so the big society seems eminently sensible to most leisure professionals but the government’s understanding of what the big society means for public service provision and its attempts to explain how it is going to transform communities and the services they require are often at odds with leisure professionals’ experience of what makes communities work. While sport, leisure and culture services embody the principles of the big society, they require investment and resources, things that the big society seems specifically designed to prevent. Whether one views it as commonsense policy-making or political sophistry, it is clearly a major policy strand for the coalition government, one that bears the personal hallmark of the prime minister, but the uncertainty remains: will it work, how long will it last and how much should the sport, leisure and culture sector invest in it?
The general view of the big society among the public now seems to be largely one of amused detachment. While the average elector probably views honesty, principle and courage as the essential traits for anyone in public life, they are probably equally convinced that in politicians these qualities are put into remission by the returning officer and removed entirely by the chief whip. Perhaps the whips are able to insert a facility for short-term memory; the banking system is now rehabilitated without reform or censure, the financial crisis has been laid at the door of excessive spending on public services and Sepp Blatter has now become persona non grata. It will be interesting to note when the next SRA conference comes round whether anyone at Downing Street is still looking for the big society, or whether they are still able to remember it? We can at least take heart from the fact that long after the big society is relegated to the long-term memory people will still be playing sport, making art and taking part in their communities. And they will be doing it long after this government and the next government and the one after that are long gone.
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The Leisure Review editorial