Editorial: Big talk
David Cameron says Britain is broken. But can the Big Society fix it?
Recent events seem to have confirmed the Government’s contention that Britain is broken. The fix David Cameron has been repeatedly promoting is, of course, the Big Society. In place of the inflexible top-down state provision of social welfare, we will get community-led, entrepreneurial, voluntary projects designed, in the words of the New Society Network, to “enable people to give and engage”, so as to rebuild our neighbourhoods, our values and our national identity. The plan, in the PM’s words, is to “take power away from politicians and give it to people.” The riots have given a new twist to this aspiration.
We have certainly seen an outpouring of entrepreneurial collective action from “the people”. The spontaneous Twitter-organised brush-brandishing clean-up crews might have come from a Big Society photo shoot, but of course quite another group of the people – new-media-linked, organised, voluntary and entrepreneurial, in their own larcenous way – present a contrasting image of what happens when you devolve power to the people.
This problem lies at the heart of the “BS” idea. If the government is going to outsource the provision of public services to volunteer groups, how can we be sure they are the kind of groups we want empowered, and what mechanisms will ensure that they provide services to all in a way that is fair and consistent with the law? This is the question posed by James Gray who considers one aspect of this new policy: the devolution of social care to religious charities.
In the febrile aftermath of the riots Cameron’s rhetoric has noticeably shifted. No hoodie is being threatened with a hug, and in place of misty-eyed invocations of people power we have seen the return to discourse of a series of folk devils of yore, like the feral child, unfit parent and benefit scrounger. Owen Jones anatomises the emergence of one such contemporary hate figure, the “Chav”.
But while some people are unfairly demonised in the popular media, others seem to bring it on themselves. You’ve seen our cover (an exclusive portrait of a crucified Ricky Gervais by the celebrated photographer Nadav Kander) and I know what you must be thinking… “Hasn’t he lost weight?” In our interview with the comic, you will see that his weight is just one of the vital issues we don’t ask him about, since we were far more interested in his new shows, whether he is deliberately trying to shock and why he thinks God loves him.
Whether you put your faith in comedy, art, science or football we have something for you in this issue. Sam Delaney discusses the irrational passion of the football fan, Laurie Taylor gets hilariously knotted up trying to cut the ties that bind and Marcus Chown wonders if there is life in Europa’s deep ocean.
Finally don’t miss Stephen Howe’s magisterial essay marking a decade since the attack on the Twin Towers. An expert on the postcolonial landscape, Howe’s survey of the rhetorical currents that have rippled out from that day in New York is a sombre and fascinating read, and ideally matched by a powerful original illustration from our own incomparable chronicler of human frailty, Martin Rowson.