In his call to arms for the Big Society, Nat Wei harks back to Regency and Georgian Britain, when social reformers emerged to set up the cooperatives, friendly societies, schools and housing charities that provided welfare during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As the centralised welfare state which took over from these institutions declines, he argues, we will need a new generation of social reformers to fill the gap.
He’s almost certainly right. You don’t need to be a Big Society romantic to believe that, if a few of us don’t get out there and do more, things could get very bad. As Dave Briggs said earlier this month:
I’m not saying this funding-free environment is a good thing. But it is a thing, possibly the thing……..maybe it’s a change in mindset that’s required to get through the next few years, and make the most of the fact that the big society agenda – whatever its faults – has some serious backing in government.
In other words, it’s happening and we’ve got to deal with it.
Sadly, though, the few people with direct experience of localised social provision are now well into their eighties. Most of those who were cared for by the institutions set up by the nineteenth century social reformers are no longer with us. Hardly anyone remembers what life was like before the welfare state. However, having talked to people from that generation over the years, I’m struck by how their experiences differed from each other. Some would describe thriving communities with what seemed to be functioning welfare systems. The mayor would discreetly buy shoes for the children who couldn’t afford them, the local headmaster knew the police sergeant, so abused children and battered wives were identified and their husbands dealt with! Cottage hospitals, charities, friendly societies and the church held the whole thing together. Others, though, told of grinding poverty with little social provision, where people came close to starvation.
It really depended on where you were and, as always, who you knew. If you lived in an area with strong charities, a well-run hospital and good relationships between doctors, teachers, police officers, council officials and local churches, you were probably OK. If you didn’t, you weren’t. A key aim of Beveridge and other advocates of the welfare state was to eliminate the randomness of welfare provision.
The Big Society, though, will be very much dependent on who steps up in a particular area and, crucially, on the relationships between those people. Even if you get lots of capable and dynamic people delivering services, it could still all fall apart if they don’t get on.
We British like to think that centralisation is alien to us and that bureaucratic states are a bit of a continental thing. In truth, we have become very attached to centralised universal provision especially in health. Fury and accusations of scandal accompany the very suggestion of a postcode lottery.
But Lord Wei’s nineteenth century social reformers created postcode lotteries all over the country, simply because they couldn’t be everywhere at once. The care and services you got depended totally on where you happened to live. Passing responsibility for social provision to a new generation of social reformers will have the same effect. People might not like postcode lotteries but they will have to get used to them. If we go back to a Regency and Victorian model of social provision, that’s what we are going to get.