When the 'Faith in the City' report came out 26 year ago, it shocked the establishment. It was the Churches response to state of British society in the mid eighties. It noted how the policies of the Thatcher administration were deeply divisive to the nation, penalised the poorest in society and were causing an increasingly wide gap between rich and poor. The welfare state was under attack by a government committed to reducing the size of the public sector, and increasingly leaving national and local decision making in the hands of the private sector.
So here we are a quarter of a century later, and once again, the same issues are re-emerging. This time, the only difference appears to be that whilst Thatcher denied that there was actually anything called society, David Cameron keep desperately talking about the 'Big Society'. Many argue that the term is too vague and meaningless, but I think that it is not as vacant a phrase as commentators often make out. In fact, it is very concrete in its ideology. The concept is clear; 'big government' is to axed, and replaced by an overwhelming trust in the free market. The private sector is to be trusted with our woodlands, our schools, our hospitals. Local authorities need to contract and hand over responsibilities to the private and voluntary community. At best, our local councillors should have an oversight role, but not interfere in anything as complicated as regeneration, housing or employment issues.
William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the second world war, and one of the architects of the welfare state once said of the private sector: 'If they could sell you the air you breathe, they would.' Now though, it is not the corporations selling what isn't theirs, it is the state itself. The government appears to be tearing off its own limbs, almost like someone willing to sell off their own body parts to raise some money for their rich chums.
Cameron appears like a confident, but out of his depth magician. He is trying so hard to cover his tricks by clumsily using the art of 'mis-direction'. While he distracts everyone waving the wand of 'the big society', using all the usual tactics of a beautiful, smiling assistant (Nick Clegg) and a bouquet of flowers, he hopes we will not see what his other hand is doing. But it is increasingly hard to miss the fact that his other hand is butchering the public sector.
The crowd begin to realise what is going on. Liverpool council pulled out from the 'big society' magic show, when it noticed the bodies piling up behind the stage, bodies of voluntary sector jobs being axed because the government were no longer able to support them. 80 Libdem councillors started jeering from the audience as it became clear that 'big society' means little more than massive attacks on the welfare state and the accountability of local government.
'Big Society' is nothing more than an ideological struggle that has been going on since the emergence of the Reagan-Thatcher neo-liberal age. Those with power and links to the wealthy seek to increase their power and influence by handing over huge resources over to the corporate sector. The easiest way to do this, as pointed out by Naomi Klein's book 'The Shock Doctrine; The Rise of Disaster Capitalism' is to create the public perception of continual crisis, creating a climate that allows government and corporations to do whatever they like.
The encouraging and hopeful thing is that people are quickly seeing through the deception. They know that the voluntary sector is interdependent on the public sector. Many of the best community projects and organisations are part financed by the state, and would struggle to do the work they do, or could even disappear without public sector finance. Many people are also seeing the link between cutbacks and to the growth of tax avoidance in the private sector. Why is the government so quick to cut back the public sector and yet so unwilling to seriously take on corporate and banking greed?
The government had better watch out. Tunisia and Egypt are not the only places where the population are ready to flex their muscles in the face of ideologically corrupt regimes.
And where is the church in all of this turmoil? Some see the governments agenda as a 'big opportunity' to show how important a role it still can play in the nation, it desperately wants to be a player in the 'Big Society'. This is the side of the church that seeks to be a buffer against unrest, a comfort to those with power, a side of the church that still seeks to display its importance and power. But the church has a deeper tradition than this. It has a tradition of speaking 'truth to power', of prophetic disruption to the status quo. It has the tradition of entering the place of the money changers and those who profit from the poor, and driving them out. For there can be no holiness without justice and fairness for the whole of society.
The Church is not interested in a 'Big Society' but a 'Healthy and Content Society'. We need to strive for a nation that recognises the interconnectedness of the public and private sector, not a government that wages an ideological war on public services for the benefit of friends in 'Big Business'. As with the Faith in the City report, the Church will be relevant only when it speaks out in defence of the most vulnerable, the biggest victims of these ideologically driven cuts.