Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Big Society and beyond.

An  interesting interview  about Philip Blond by Alison Roberts in the Evening Standard
David Cameron's mood music

With cuts like these - it's as if the Government doesn't believe in its own policies

David Cameron's favourite 'Red Tory', Phillip Blond, tells Alison Roberts that Cabinet infighting and a failure to grasp the point of the Big Society is punishing the poor. Where did it all go wrong?
Phillip Blond, founder of the Right-wing think-tank ResPublica and driving intellectual force behind David Cameron's Big Society, lives in an apartment in King's Cross - the kind of aspirational loft-style bachelor pad that has bronze-burnished doors, an all mod-cons kitchen and ultra-trendy chairs. He says he's not "area dependent", meaning it doesn't matter where in London he lives, which strikes me as odd since his book Red Tory, in some senses the Big Society manual, constantly exhorts us to build better communities through neighbourliness and local social enterprise. The guru of Conservative-style localism, it turns out, doesn't actually have a locality to call his own.

He is due at No 10 in a couple of hours, he tells me. Sitting next to him throughout our interview is a "media adviser" from the PR company headed by Nick Wood, a former spokesman for Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague. Blond, 44, is clearly plugged into the machinery of the Tory party and is often described as a key member of the Prime Minister's inner circle; the provider of Cameron's "mood music". Though the Big Society was not his coinage ("I am one of the fathers, though not the sole father"), he "was there when [the idea] was formed" and has published in the first year of ResPublica's existence a string of reports which, he claims, have immediately found their way into government policy.
So does he think the Big Society is working yet?
"I am frustrated," he says carefully. "It's been communicated very badly partly because it hasn't been thought through radically enough. I think the great missing middle of the Big Society is the economics. The social aspect of it everybody agrees with. For me, it's not really about volunteering and philanthropy, it's about changing the agenda for those at the bottom of our society and in my view the Government hasn't really thought through, across all departments, the radical economic implications of that."
He hints, indeed, at a battle within government between ministers who buy the Big Society and those who don't. "If you've got a big idea, it's imperative that that idea is transmitted across all of your government and in order for that to happen there has to be a department that owns the Big Society. It has to be joined up … It's as though there are competing philosophies of what conservatism is, and that's fine, that's politics. But the sort of radical conservatism I like is coming up on the inside track rather than being the leading horse it should be."
Earlier this month ResPublica issued a report called Children and the Big Society, which contained implicit criticism of Coalition policy on children's services. Today Blond is more explicit. He thinks local authority cuts have been introduced too quickly. "It's almost as if the Government doesn't believe in its own policies. Libraries and children's centres are closing before the right to challenge [local council spending decisions] and the right to take over [public buildings] has come in. I'd have given it more time. I would not have front-loaded local authority cuts in order to allow these new models to come in." Both rights are included in the Localism Bill, which is currently winding its way through the House of Lords.
Blond repeatedly insists that he is a genuine champion of the poor - Red Toryism diagnoses working-class poverty as Britain's greatest ailment - yet acknowledges that many of the Coalition's public spending cuts are bound to have the greatest impact on those at the bottom.
Shouldn't government have ring-fenced local authority money for Sure Start, for example? "And it's not just Sure Start … It's clear that some councils are cutting voluntary services and others are expanding them, so it's a political decision. The recipients of those services should have a say."
How can it be right, as research has shown, that local authority cuts are falling most harshly on the most deprived areas in the land, including Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham? "Yes, that's tricky," he muses, with some understatement. "If you're going to cut in those areas, then I think it's incumbent on you to broker in the same areas genuinely different solutions with state backing. The most deprived areas in my view should have the most help, but the help they have shouldn't be like the help they've had in the past. I would go much further with the banks, for instance."
He calls George Osborne's plans to sell off Northern Rock to the highest private bidder "unimaginative and depressing". "I would like part of that sell-off to be reserved for an enterprise fund for disadvantaged areas. I argued for a kind of people's Dragons' Den so that people could bid for money to start social businesses and enterprises."
However, it's the abolition of the £30 a week education maintenance allowance, paid to underprivileged 16-year-olds to keep them at school or college, that triggers a full-blown rant which I interpret as serious dismay: "Look, I'm basically in favour of a state market-type approach to try to level the playing field for all our people. And what I find disturbing about the rhetoric of social mobility is that it suggests that everybody who's left behind is a loser and a failure. And given that we progress so few people from one group to the group above, it suggests that the population who defeated Hitler, who have been behind most of what's good in current history, is somehow something to be looked down upon. I love my culture. I love the people in this country and I want to create the conditions in which they prosper economically and socially, whereas what I see when I go around the country is a horror show. Particularly for those at he bottom, it's a terrifying horror show."

The controversy lies in Blond's cure for these deep social failings. While prioritising the family and marriage as central to the nation's health, Red Toryism prescribes the wholesale rolling back of state power and responsibility as a means of transferring assets to the working and middle classes. It advocates the handing over of budgets, buildings and services to community groups, to existing employees, or to private companies - proposals close to the Prime Minister's heart, which are likely to appear in the forthcoming public services reform White Paper, dubbed the Big Society Bill. Blond has "no philosophical problem" with public services - including schools and hospitals - being run on a for-profit basis (unlike Nick Clegg).
On this day of teachers' strikes, he insists that progressive education has failed miserably and that schools should be "re-intellectualised" by ensuring greater contact with universities, even introducing "philosophers" and PhD students into the school environment. Try that in Tottenham, I tell him. "No, but it can work. It really can," he cries. "One of the most consequent factors on how a school does, which I think the Government has subtly recognised, is the quality of teachers. We don't get enough people with first-class degrees going into teaching … We need a much better quality of teaching."
Blond has no children himself and is not married, though he'd like a family one day (an eight-year relationship that didn't work out is to blame, he says).
Barely three years ago, he was a teacher himself - an "obscure academic" lecturing in theology and philosophy at what's now the University of Cumbria. He grew up in Liverpool, "in a strong Catholic working-class culture", his father a painter and gallery-owner. His parents divorced when he was 16 and his father remarried, as a result of which, weirdly, Blond is the stepbrother of actor Daniel Craig and now has an in-law in Rachel Weisz (no, he didn't go to the wedding and, sadly, won't divulge any gossip: "Daniel and I have a mutual agreement not to talk about each other").
A series of newspaper articles won him fans in London - among them, the Prime Minister's chief strategist Steve Hilton - and so Blond came to London to flesh out his political philosophy in the comfort of Westminster's think-tank culture.
He is enjoying himself immensely: "These have been the most remarkable years of my life. Normally as an academic you strike a bargain with the world that you'll write solidly for 30 years and nobody will ever read any of it. To suddenly move from that, to this … it's exhilarating." He grins. "This will sound twee to you - but I want to come up with ideas that work for the country I love."

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