While no one would question the positive social commitment of the signatories to this letter defending ‘civil society’ from attack at the hands of pesky politicians, some queries might be raised about the wisdom of their intervention. The construction of straw men in order to push them over is neither a new nor especially shocking device in political debate but – proving the social enterprise movement is determined to be different – this letter constructs a straw man then leaves it standing.
The straw man is that politicians (and others) who have expressed doubts about the Big Society agenda are opposed to civil society. Whether or not you they choose to use the label ‘civil society’ there are no politicians anywhere near getting elected to anything worth running in the UK who think that citizens participating in the running in their communities is a bad thing in principle.
No serious politician would disagree with this broad thrust of this statement (even if the final statement might mean different things to different people):
“Citizens can and should be allowed to be active in their community by participating in local groups to make simple but significant changes in their square mile every week and not just every five years – for example by lobbying to get new pedestrian crossings put in to save children from being killed, by forming neighbourhood watch groups to tackle crime, by deciding the spending priorities of their local council.”
Where there is an important debate is around the role of civil society in delivering both social change and publicly-funded services, relative to the role of the state in doing so. So, this is a slightly more contentious position:
“Even in relation to more complex challenges, while it can be tough for citizens to run hospitals and schools single-handedly, they can and should – with help from social enterprises as well as the state – have much more of a say and be allowed to deliver and commission aspects of local services where they can and where there is demand.”
but it’s also a disingenuous one for a number of reasons.
One reason is that the group most passionately opposed to the idea of the combination of citizens and social enterprises running schools and hospitals is not politicians – in reality, all the main parties are currently offering slightly differently flavoured but practically similar options for how citizens can run their own services after the election – but trade unions.
Trade unions – with millions of members and democratically elected leaders to represent them – have at least as good a claim, possibly a better one, to represent civil society than individual social entrepreneurs or people who run social enterprises.
But more disingenuous is the apparent suggestion that scepticism about the likely benefits of a ‘Big Society’ or John Lewis-style approach to running schools and hospitals somehow reflects a broad-based cynicsim about or opposion to all community-based activity.
Politicians and unions aside, amongst others within the social enterprise movement, Rob Greenland and Rod Schwartz have – in a thoughtful and positive way – raised serious queries about the Big Society agenda and the potential role for social enterprises in delivering public services.
Sadly this letter doesn’t respond to these concerns or even meaningfully acknowledge their existence. Instead, it offers a crude ‘them and us’ choice between the view that civil society can solve all our problems and the belief that it doesn’t exist, while blithely equating support for civil society with support for outsourcing of public services.
I’ve got no doubt that the intention of the signatories is to show support for people working hard to make their communities better places for themselves and others, unfortunately the effect of it is to suggest that some social entrepreneurs and leaders of self-styled ‘civil society’ groups believe that their ideas are so clearly correct that neither politicians nor other groups in civil society should have the gall to question or challenge them.