DAVID CAMERON’S “big society” was a bid to dissociate the Conservative Party with the toxic legacy of Thatcher, whose “no such thing as society” mantra was too brutal for his preferred public image.
“There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state,” he explained.
What he meant was that the state would abandon its obligations to citizens and throw them on the mercy of charities.
This involved a return to rhetoric around the “undeserving poor” — castigated as work-shy, shirkers, layabouts — and an increasingly hard-to-navigate and punitive social security system, so horrifically exposed in Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake.
The “big society” slogan soon faded into the background. It was hard to take seriously when the Tories were simultaneously slashing charities’ budgets and ridiculing those that did try to step into the gap the state left — such as foodbanks — as gullible nitwits servicing the “infinite demand” for free goods.
Now Theresa May has a new soundbite — the “shared society.” This, a Whitehall source explains, means “there is a role for government, but it must be shared with the public.”
Meaningless drivel? Absolutely, but it’s a further sign of the Conservative Party’s adaptation to the postEU referendum political terrain.
Thatcherism always rested on an alliance between free-market fundamentalists and social conservatives. This is often problematic. The consequences of neoliberal economic policies — shunting industries and people alike to whatever corner of the world means the biggest short-term profit, running down and/or privatising services and closing community assets such as libraries or youth clubs — spawn a multitude of social problems, as do the mass unemployment and downward pressure on wages that go hand in hand with such policies.
Ripping the hearts out of our communities in this way has led to rising crime and drug addiction, family breakdown, increasing incidence of domestic violence and mental illness and the epidemic of old-age loneliness which not even the Tories deny exists.
But they cannot acknowledge the causes. So the indignation is directed at convenient scapegoats, from single mums to immigrants, and the age-old Establishment demand for harsher policing of the poor raises its ugly head.
May recognises what Britain’s vote to leave the European Union last year meant: people “voted to change the way our country works, and the people for whom it works.”
So she hints at a more interventionist state and one less nakedly in bondage to the filthy rich.
Her old-school paternalism and prejudice has been on display before, in her enthusiasm for grammar schools, her petty stigmatisation of people born abroad and her hatred for human rights.
But her “shared” society is no less brutal than Cameron’s. Hence the vicious propaganda war currently being waged on the people who work on our railways and the hysterical demonisation of the trade unionists who fight for them.
The liberal “centre” is still in full-on tantrum mode over the referendum result. Its demands of the left, from support for staying in the single market to jumping into bed with what remains of the Liberal Democrats, are all geared to maintaining the status quo that a clear majority rejected in June. That would be fatal.
In contrast, an uncompromising opposition to the government rooted in socialist demands — public ownership of key industries, intervention to defend jobs, raise pay and tackle the scourge of precarious employment, punishment of the Philip Greens and Mike Ashleys who treat working people like dirt — would call May’s bluff.
It should be coupled to a mass trade union recruitment drive and a campaign to bring down the anti-trade union laws.
Workers’ freedom to organise and bargain collectively will do more to right the wrongs of the market than any amount of hot air from No 10.
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