Big Community: the return of the Big Society

In recent months there has been a developing discourse which goes somewhat like this:

‘In the face of the growing demographic challenge and pressure on health and social care services coupled with acute financial austerity, we need individuals in their communities to take more responsibility for the care and support of their family members and neighbours. This is after all not the responsibility of the State but rather the individual. If you are ill, we will treat you as a last resort after you have self-managed your condition and used whatever technology that is available which will avoid expensive direct human intervention. We are no longer able to pay for you to be fully independent and achieve what you may want because we simply cannot afford it.’

Maybe I am being a little generalist and overly simplistic in that description, but I suspect not that much. Is this not broadly the message which the Edinburgh Integrated Joint Board has been communicating to the good folk of the capital? Is this not the underlying message from the Westminster administration?  Is this not the message which landed Glasgow’s HSCP on the front page of the newspapers with their threat to remove (after minimum consultation of)  sleepovers in the lives of some of that city’s most disabled citizens?

So somewhere out there at the bottom of the garden is an empathic, time-rich, resource-endowed group of individuals just waiting to step in because the State (also known as that group of individuals created and employed through the taxation of the populace) chooses no longer to afford the cost of care. Oh and as in the past, it is the role of the female members of the community to do all this work. After all care is a woman’s work.

And as I hear and read this developing and subtle narrative where some of our most vulnerable are expected to be supported for less resource by utilising the untapped potential of the community, accessing community ‘assets’  then part of me philosophically says “Yes, it’s good that people have more control and choice, autonomy and power; that people do need take responsibility and collaborate with professionals, to self-manage and exercise responsibility. But ….”

Are we in danger here of unintentionally slipping into a new mode of social responsibility and a new model of social care without having thought through the full consequences of such a move? Is there a danger that decisions essentially made on financial grounds and dressed up in the rags of a social philosophy, are taken without a robust and appropriate moral, ethical or human rights underpinning? Is this idea of the Big Community not somewhat resonant with the failed and flawed concept of the Big Society? Remember the Big Society?

Every political era and every politician looks for a catchy phrase, slogan or idea which will capture the public mood and define them as distinctive and visionary. For Tony Blair in the halcyon days of New Labour it was the Third Way, though we weren’t that sure what the other two were. For Bill Clinton it was ‘community’ – a word which appeared more in his pre-presidential speeches than any other idea. For Gordon Brown it was a brief flirtation with the idea of Britishness. For Obama every change was possible. For Trump it’s the myth of ‘false news.’ But for David Cameron it was at least before the Brexit Fall– the Big Society.

‘The Government indicated that the Big Society is communities feeling empowered to solve problems in their neighbourhood, having the freedom to influence and discuss topics that matter to them, and a more local approach to social action and responsibility.’

The term “Big Society’ aimed to create a climate that empowered local people and communities, building a “big society” that would take power away from politicians and give it to people. It aimed at “integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism”.

Doesn’t that all sound remarkably similar to some of the political rhetoric that we are hearing today about the need for social care to be devolved to the individual; for communities to use their assets rather than the State to support and provide anything other than life and limb supports?

I think we are in the midst of an unarticulated political paradigm which I will term as the ‘Big Community.’ Its failings are not insignificantly the failings of the Big Society. Primarily it is a concept based on a naïve and utopian understanding of community or society. Its foundations are therefore weak and insubstantial. We are not in a bucolic age where people are living in families in geographically proximate communities. We are not living in an era where individuals have so much time that they can spend it in activities to help communities become more cohesive. Most are doing two or three jobs to pay for the mortgage. We are not living in a time when we can be assured that skilled clinical health and social care is being delivered by the State and what we do is an added extra in an individual’s life. Indeed it is an insult to the professionalisation of social care work to suggest that ‘care’ can be undertaken by anyone – that it doesn’t require training, ability and developed skill.

I am more and more convinced that just as the Big Society was called out as a naïve political mantra divorced from the reality of fractured and failing communities, that we now need to challenge the rhetoric of the Big Community and insist that we adequately fund social care beyond our already high levels of eligibility; that we adequately remunerate and resource social care staff and organisations so that we attract the best and deliver real quality; and that we help to use community assets to really advance our togetherness and not to paper over the cracks caused by austerity and fill in the gaps of a failing national health and care system. If not then neither community nor society are big but detached, distant and absent.

 

Dr Donald Macaskill

@DrDMacaskill