Is it a vision of how communities could or should behave? Or is it a political ploy aimed at reducing expenditure and persuading others to pick up the tab? Most people I talk to have mixed feelings and that is understandable.
For one thing, the idea of the Big Society has not had as much flesh on its bones as we might have expected from a party which has had so long to reflect on vision and strategy. It has felt somewhat ‘half-baked’ with little structural or policy development behind it.
If the Big Society has been five years in gestation it does not feel that way. It feels more embryonic.
Then there is the cynicism inevitably engendered by the cutbacks. When financial support is being withdrawn from community services it is hard to sell volunteerism as anything other than getting provision on the cheap. Volunteers do not take kindly to being treated as an unpaid workforce by local authorities, as some council officers know to their cost.
Untrained amateurs, no matter how well meaning and motivated, cannot take over responsibilities which properly belong to professionals. Neither can willing volunteers be presumed upon to fill gaps in provision or to meet needs without financial support – to make, as the bible says, ‘bricks without straw’.
Church leaders have found ourselves in two minds about the Big Society. Has the Government finally come round to our way of seeing the world – or simply embraced an ideology which leaves the vulnerable to rely on goodwill?
For my part, like many of my colleagues, I am going to give Mr Cameron and his government the benefit of the doubt. That does not mean I will abandon all reservations, but it does mean I am going to be positive and look to contribute rather than sit on the sidelines.
At its heart the Big Society is an affirmation of the biblical injunction ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’ and has clear resonance with Jesus’ teaching. And, like the Big Society, it seems when Jesus first started speaking about ‘the Kingdom of God’ his listeners did not really know what to make of it either. They wondered whether it was naïve, or sophisticated.
Jesus did not come with a fully worked out policy and plans; instead he opened horizons and hearts. He told unsettling stories – like the boss who paid the same to labourers who had worked one hour as those who worked all day – in order to illustrate what the Kingdom (God’s version of Big Society) might look like or necessitate. He lived it out, starting with those who were on the margins or at the bottom of society.
When I arrived in Swindon some five and a half years ago, I was struck by the range and number of voluntary groups. Thousands of people regularly give willingly of their time and energy to run charities or activities, support groups or centres which enrich and bless others in the town. From this perspective Swindonians have been engaged in building a Big Society for years.
A mixed reaction to Government motives is understandable but let’s not use it as an excuse to torpedo the Big Society and justify a ‘me-centred’ one. “It is in giving that we receive” may well be a cliché, but it still happens to be true.