At first it sounded quite lovely, didn’t it? The notion of a “big society” – back in those heady days when David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood side by side in the Downing Street garden. In May 2010, we were still ignorant of the devastating austerity these two men would go on to inflict. And so they offered us the “big society” – from the Cabinet Office a document was proudly produced. “Our Conservative-Liberal Democrat government has come together with a driving ambition: to put more power and opportunity into people’s hands,” reads the opening. “We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want.”
Cut to 2019, and it’s unclear how much of what was promised ever materialised. Broad-brush pledges such as “we will train a new generation of community organisers” and the “radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government” meant little or nothing in practice – one can only assume their “full review of local government finance” concluded with the line “just take all their money away”.
By 2013, Cameron stopped using the phrase “big society” in public. The Big Society Network collapsed, its final audit making clear that funding cuts, restrictions on rights to challenge the government in court, and an obsession with multinational private-sector contractors ensured the coalition “failed to deliver against its original goals”.
It seems, however, that on one front the coalition was successful: the number of people volunteering in their local communities is on the up. “We will take a range of measures to encourage volunteering,” says that ill-fated paper. Figures released by YouGov last week suggest almost four in 10 Britons volunteer in their spare time, doing anything from running events to providing transport and raising cash. The benefits of doing so are now well-researched, offering our time free of charge to people, organisations and causes that need it can often do both parties the world of good.
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has found that those who are able and willing to offer their services for free see improvements in their mental and physical health, helping combat the increasing problem of loneliness and isolation that an increasingly old, increasingly metropolitan and increasingly digital society can produce. Fostering a sense of community on a local scale – at a time when the nation is bitterly divided – can only be a positive thing. And, when used well, volunteers can change lives: at the end of a Samaritans phone line, through hospital radio, as a leader with Girlguiding to name a few.
The fact we’re volunteering more, however, should be understood in its context. It’s quite possible that Cameron and Clegg are responsible for these statistics, not because of the pledge scribbled down in a document, but as an indirect consequence of austerity – another far-reaching failed policy of theirs.
Take, for instance, the NHS – there are now an estimated three million people volunteering in health and care and plans to recruit many, many more. It’s no secret that the health service is in the midst of a staffing crisis – an army of volunteers are needed to fill the gaps. “The government should make sure that NHS trusts have the funding they need to fill vacancies and hang on to existing staff,” Unison head of health Sara Gorton tells me. “This is not about replacing NHS staff roles but is about providing extra time for care and support,” Catherine Johnstone , chief executive of Royal Voluntary Service explains – volunteers are a sticking plaster but can’t and won’t solve this crisis.
In education the picture is far less clear, thanks to a combination of decentralisation and welfare regulations. But as a spokesperson for the school leaders’ union NAHT told me: “From running the PTA to coming in and reading with pupils, parents and carers have always been an essential part of the school family … Now, many schools have come to depend on the help that parents provide, which puts undue pressure on everyone concerned.” With secondary schools being forced to cut 15,000 staff, it’s hardly surprising.
And when Tory MPs tour the nation’s foodbanks to thank people for their public service, they normalise their presence in our cities and towns. The 40,000 Trussell Trust volunteers who helped distribute 658,048 emergency supplies to people in crisis between April and September 2018 should never have needed to do so.
That so many of us volunteer our time is testament to our individual good nature, but in many cases it’s a sad indictment of our society that we have to do so at all. “To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting and shows what a good compassionate country we are,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg when questioned about the number of people using foodbanks . Of course, in reality it’s nothing to celebrate – far from it, it’s a national embarrassment. The role of civil society organisations and other voluntary groups should be to enrich our communities, but they are now too often providing essential services to the most vulnerable among us when the state has failed them and, in doing so, keeping our public institutions afloat.