A civil servant writes

So, in response to the AHRC’s continuing to say nothing much you’d want to hear about this Big Society business, there is another petition – this one pointing its basal paragraphs in the direction of Rick Rylance’s head.

I was discussing the whole sorry affair recently with a friend who is a civil servant with a policy role. (Yes, you’re quite right. As a clueless humanities academic, I should have no idea that any such activity as government administration even exists, and should spend the entire time eating toasted buttered punts in the ivy-lined seclusion of a book-clad turret or something. My apologies.)

Anyway. With her permission, I’m going to quote part of her response verbatim here. I think it usefully illustrates how those of us who live in Thinkyworld need to bear in mind that other people involved in the decision-making process don’t necessarily share our starting assumptions, are almost bound not to share our working context, and may tend to stare at us in some confusion. It’s also as decent enough place from which to start thinking about policy questions more broadly. (Which is not even remotely what I was supposed to be devoting this blog to, but I can’t think of anything interesting to say about the Blagden-Gilpin experiments at the moment.)

Let’s start with the position that I, and the several thousand signatories to the original Brooks petition, and more than 25 learned societies have adopted. The AHRC Delivery Plan formally and openly endorses a Conservative Party electoral slogan; this is unacceptable; the obviousness of its unacceptability is mind-bending.

To my correspondent, it’s a bit more complicated.

Yes, it’s a Conservative party policy (actually, they are keen to emphasise, it’s not a “policy” but an “approach to government” – but I’ll spare you the details). But given they are in Government, doesn’t that make it a Government policy? I’m slightly unclear how you can accept that research can and should influence and inform policy, but argue that this particular policy is somehow different. […]

[G]iven that (we’d hope) the winning party tends to implement the policies it campaigned on during the election, how can we separate the two?

Which is fair enough. Like a couple of other people, I grasped at the term “party-political” while trying to explain why, unlike more subtle forms of political influence (which deserve serious discussion), the BS-language in the Delivery Plan must straight away be classed as mind-bendingly objectionable. The “political”/“party-political” distinction is the wrong one for that particular job. (In my defence, my mind was all bent at the time.)

Here’s a better presentation. “Big Society” – commonly elaborated as “Big Society, Not Big Government” – was coined as an electoral slogan. Its primary purpose is to get people to vote Conservative. The Conservatives, though they are approximately in government, continue regularly to contest elections. Manifestly, the AHRC should not spend money to “contribute” (in the words of the Delivery Plan) to their turnout.

My correspondent, again, doesn’t see it as clear-cut:

However hard you [as a civil servant] try to draw a line in your head – for example between making [government] policies work better (fine) and making people like the Tories more (not fine) – in practice they are hard to keep separate. The same goes for “Big Society” the election campaign slogan and “Big Society” the idea and accompanying collection of policies […]

“Big Society” basically pulls together lots of things Tories (and some Lib Dems) like – localism, a different role for the state (smaller, but the difference is more than size), more voluntarism, taking personal responsibility, efficiency and choice through more competition (in public service provision), etc.

Most people, I suspect, would end up with something like this view if their job was to enact Government policy. It’s a view which we have to engage with, if we want to end up with anything other than the conclusion that everybody hates us because they’re evil.

By “engage with”, of course, I mean “steadfastly and unblinkingly refuse to take at face value.” Because that, you see, is what we are paid good money for.

If you probe the evolution of the “Big Society” with various standard tools of the humanities trade (a rhetorician’s oscilloscope is ideal, provided you keep a parliamentary history fishknife for the messy bits), you’ll find that its function is predominantly electoral to a degree that’s rarely seen (although the same, as My Lot keep pointing out, would have applied to “Third Way” during its brief co-option by the Blair people in the late 90s). The chief point of the BS initiative is to maximise support across the spectrum of public sentiment, by presenting major state spending reductions in terms that don’t imply the collapse of social infrastructure. It may also, conveniently, make life complicated for any opposing party which wants to promote a social-voluntarist platform.

I am not a Tory, as you will have observed from the striations between my median and axial fins. But it’s not exactly the height of subversion to assert that the Conservatives have engineered an electoral strategy. (I’d have done the same myself, in the circumstances.) Said strategy, being a thing with agency in the world, ought to be studied.


Contrary to the impression the AHRC appears to be trying to give, “The Big Society” is not social voluntarism in general. Anyone who doesn’t see the necessity of the distinction is not doing the work of an academic.

Gordon Finlayson recently published a good piece on (or, rather, leading mercifully away from) this stuff. In brief: co-opting the BS makes no sense even from self-interest, because whoever’s claiming to be the Government a couple of years from now will have ditched it; all of this is distracting us dangerously from general questions of governmental influence on research, and specific questions about why the AHRC wants to do social policy stuff anyway.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with studying the BS, if you have the tools to do so. It’s too transient to be worth a major programme, but might make for a decent ed. vol., I suppose. Or a day conference. Next month, just across the road from me, some social policy researchers, and people working for NGOs, and political types and whatnot are going to try this out. The meeting’s being organised by CRESC, which is core funded by the ESRC, and its title is “The Big Society?” That thing on the end of the phrase there bears examination. It’s what we in the trade call a question mark or eroteme: properly used, it can convey elements of uncertainty, dissent, or critical distance. It’s a surprisingly handy little gadget for its size.

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