The great abdication crisis of our time

It used to be thought that a government’s duty to its citizens was to govern well. Get education, healthcare and pensions right and you can’t go far wrong. Of course, that also means sorting the economy and taxation – but that’s what they’re paid for. Today, government seems to be all about abdicating responsibility.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron is facing criticism (yet again) for middle-of-the road politics that lack substance and real vision. Before the last general election he had announced the Conservative Party’s concept of the “big society”. The idea was to re-weave the social fabric in communities where it has worn thin. In the process, a new force of 5,000 community organisers will bring people together and support them in making changes for themselves. There is even a Big Society Bank with Big Society Capital, whose mission is “to catalyse the growth of a sustainable social investment market, making it easier for social ventures to access the finance and advice they need – at all stages of their development.”

The “big society” is supposed to describe the shift of power from central government to communities and to volunteers. It is also rumoured to include charities or non-profit groups taking over the running of some public services. Many commentators immediately criticised the move. Award-winning political cartoonist Steve Bell of The Guardian (21 January 2011) and The Guardian Weekly (28 January 2011) adapted Marx’s slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” to describe the Big Society as “From each according to their vulnerability, to each according to their greed.”

Writing in The Observer (13 February 2011) David Cameron said that he would “prefer to see more positive headlines about the ‘big society’, but am very upbeat about the torrent of newsprint expended on this subject.” He added that, “The big society is about changing the way our country is run. No more of a government treating everyone like children …let’s treat adults like adults and give them more responsibility over their lives.”

Not many agreed. And now, in his book Faith in the Public Square, marking the end of his 10-year stint as head of the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has heaped coals on the fire of dissent. He writes, “Big society rhetoric is all too often heard by many as aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.”

But there’s the rub: it’s not just to the most vulnerable in society – the poor, the young, and the elderly. It’s a fundamental abdication of responsibility to society as a whole. It rides roughshod over the egalitarian principle of human dignity that underlies the welfare state, defined by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the “concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.”

No wonder the Archbishop is pissed off. The question is: what is the rest of the country going to do about the great abdication crisis of our time?


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