Bill Hicks and the Big Society
What do the great American comic, Bill Hicks, and the Big Society have in common? Probably not a great deal but one of Hicks’ gags about the illogic driving so many ‘pro-life’ activists in the US suggests a possible link – in my head in anyway. He asks the question: how committed are pro-lifers to the premise that all life is sacred. His gag goes something like this. It’s the funeral of Joseph, a 95 year old guy, who has lived a ‘full and happy life’. The family of Joseph – solemn but with joy in their hearts – carry him through the graveyard to the burial ground. But the family are greeted by a screaming mob of twenty people. They form a human daisy-chain around the burial site. The mob scream at the family: ‘He’s not allowed in”. The family respond, “but what do you mean, Joseph lived a great, long life, and he passed away in his sleep?” And the mob reply, as quick as a gun shot: “You’re missing the point, we’re pro-life, we love life, the old man’s not allowed in, he’s not ready yet. No one’s allowed to die”.
This issue – the issue of commitment to principles and premises – made me think of the Big Society. Just how committed are the coalition government to the Big Society? Now, this is precisely the kind of question that usually makes me want to poke people in the eye – particularly when it comes out of the mouths of reactionaries, from the left and right, who dismiss it without it even engaging with it.
But it’s a question we need to be asking. Because it’s becoming hard to believe the coalition has really thought through its Big Society policy agenda, or at least, how it fits within its overall policy agenda. The recent polemic (and hyperbole) over cuts to housing benefit and the cap on the maximum amount of housing benefit families can claim, would seem to be a case in point.
According to DWP figures, 21,000 people will be affected by new caps on the amount families can claim for five, four, three, two and one-bedroom properties across the UK. This includes 17,000 in London, the majority of which are out of work. One consequence of this will be large number of people having to relocate because they can no longer afford their rent. This will mean people leaving homes they’ve lived in for a long time, leaving the communities they have been apart of and no longer having the support networks many people depend on.
From the perspective of a government who say they are committed to building the Big Society, this seems a very odd policy decision. The large and extensive literature on social capital by Bob Putnam, David Halpern and others, over the last fifteen years, shows that social trust, co-operation, solidarity and feelings of belonging – the things that bind us together with other people – will be forcibly undermined by families and people having to move and relocate as a direct result of the above changes to housing benefit. The big problem for a government committed to the Big Society is this: a Big Society that is sustainable needs a strong ‘economy of regard’ based on strong relationships of trust, co-operation, solidarity and a shared sense of purpose – the very social norms and relations these housing policies threaten and weaken.
And from the perspective of a government looking to make significant savings to public services – 81billion over the next five years – these housing reforms might even prove to be economically ill-thought through. Why? We know that when people, particularly those most likely to depend on public services, move from one place to another, they not only leave behind their family home, they leave behind the networks of support they have depended upon, which saves the state huge amounts of money. Social care is a good example of this. So the result, we can speculate, might be to increase new demand on public services not reduce existing demand, and thereby reduce the anticipated savings generated by putting a cap on housing benefit.
Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong. I certainly hope so.