Big Society? All I want is my building society back.

The mutual element is the Elephant in David Cameron’s Big Society.

OK, so we have a Big Society Bank. But this idea is a bit of an add-on, when really it should’ve been the core of Cameron’s concept from Day One. Sadly, his problem is that Baroness Thatcher’s Big Bang hoped that mutuality would become associated with fluffy economic nonsense in perpetuity. Given that the highest quality and best upscale supermarket in the UK [Waitrose] is based on this model – as is its owner JLP – the attempt to push mutuality into the ditch of economic history hasn’t proved as easy as she thought. Hurrah for that.

I once worked very closely with a Big Society. It was a very, very big Society, and it was called The Halifax. As an adman, I liked the Halifax people. They turned up for work each day feeling as if they were helping the average Tom and Jane to own a home. Myself and others helped create famous campaigns like the house made of people (remember that one?) and the marketing people were fun. You know – they liked a good lunch and a drink. But at heart, they slept well with a clear conscience.

And then came the wave of demutualisations. The building society managements realised that, by quite truthfully promising the Members more money than they’d ever seen before, everything would be wonderful…for the building society managements, who would take home more money than 99.9% of folks ever dream about.

Halifax became HBOS, and then – inevitably – a burden on the taxpayer. And it’s this legacy that, however hard they try, the Tories cannot lose. It’s not that they want to hide it, but rather that whatever they suggest as a palliative for our ills, there will always be people like me (not left wing at all, in any way, honest) who will write articles like this one.

“There is no such thing as society” said the unturnable Lady. Well, largely thanks to her inspiration, there are almost no such things as Building Societies any more. Britain has become Pottersville, and James Stewart’s savings & loan has become a subsidiary of that famous global bank Omnivore.

Of all people, John Redwood picked up on this theme at the weekend. He asked whether The Big Society would be at least partly about mutuality and community togetherness – as an alternative both to big State and big business. As so often with this awkward man, the observation was razor-sharp. And let’s face it, they don’t come much less fluffy than Redwood.

We are where we are as a species because of a belief in competition and cooperation. This is less about participation (which God help me, I still find a cheesy idea) and far more about an underlying, understated willingness to pitch in when necessary…but generally, to be left alone to be harmless.

The time for participation is during the educational period of one’s life. The most obvious way to create an awareness that renders banker bonuses not just selfish but also childish is to make unpaid social service obligatory for every able-bodied kid in the nation – without exception.

This is not the sort of thing Coalitions do. They fear the Left telling them it’s authoritarian, and they fear the Right telling them it’s Big State. It is neither. It is civics, without which there can be no improving civilisation.

The mixed economy will be part of the future. The mixture won’t be one of ownership, but rather the aims and objectives of each organisation. And if nothing else, it would be worth it just to have those ghastly corporate Mission Statements actually mean something.

There is nothing socialist about any of this. Free markets are supposed to be about choice, but it is very hard to exercise choice when none of one’s preferences are present. I bank with the Nationwide and shop at Waitrose and the Coop. But more organisations with which I can identify would be nice.

8 thoughts on “Big Society? All I want is my building society back.

  1. National service for youth. When the powers that be cannot even organise community payback and we have community service which is a complete joke, just who do you think will be able to organise this? Another layer of civil servants and costs. You need to go back to the drawing board on that one.


  2. John, you’re right…there’s nothing socialist about the ideas you bring forward. Hell, given my long held view that socialism is a mental disease, do you think I’d agree with you if they were ;-) ;-)

    I also lament the passing of B/Socs, especially as they’ve been replaced by a generation of outright crooked, spiv bankers who don’t offer us ‘deposit accounts’ to stash our cash but sell us ‘products’.
    B/socs were the very essence of Big Society mutuality, but the new banking spivs have dragged down their own image to the point of being less trusted than 2nd hand car salesmen. IMHO it is the sad emergence of outright spivvery in banking and business that has damaged the Thatcher legacy of the big bang, because I believe she had the best of intentions in opening up the market to competition.

    Social service for youth? You bet. I can think of little better for personal character building which *has* to be good news for our rejected generation of ferral kids. Only the barmy Right would see that as Big State and the whacko Left as too authoritarian. The Left need to recall the last 13yrs of anti-liberty control laws they rammed through Parliament before blathering.

    Keep it up…..


  3. You have a bit of a hang-up about Thatcher.

    Read the interview where she said there is no such thing as society. It is about people taking reponsibility for themselves and helping others who are less fortunate. I can’t see anything wrong with that.



  4. I see you’re still supporting Googly Ads! –

    “Ads by Google
    Award-winning online banking from Nationwide. View our range today.

    Tagged: Big Society, Building Society, no such thing as, there is an alternative


    This was a copy of what was displayed below your article.

    Sorry! Not worth fighting battles you can’t win!

    And a good article – what we have lost in most businesses is the interests of the ‘Stakeholder’ rather than the ‘Shareholder’. Unless you are a Banker, of course!

    Perhaps we need to find a good orator to lead a movement against the ‘wrongs’ of today. Know any good little guys with a small moustache….

    We could be heading that way, if we are not careful-
    Disgruntled students, squeezed middle, baby boomers, bank customers, pensioners, council workers, armed forces, unemployed, squeezed business owners. Crooked and uncaring MPs, Bankers. And every group I have missed.


  5. John, on Google ads..this script gets regularly blocked by the Firefox Ghostery plug-in and I never see the page ads. It looks like it may be the culprit for the ads appearing on some of your pages.

    “Blocked script: origin:”

    But I cannot say whether it’s included (without you asking) as part of Google Analytics (which I believe you do use) or something else. Although the log says the origin is your blog, that is simply Ghostery’s method of reporting which scripts were blocked from which pages as a historical log record.


  6. More on this from a website forum:

    “I think it [googlesyndication] is Googles Advertisement server. It has come to the fore lately because they appear to be having problems with it, and it is having an adverse effect on page loading speeds.
    You may see the following in the status bar of your browser something like this:

    In addition you may also see a small box with “GoogleAnalytics” appear on the web page. This comes from the same server.

    You can block both of these with a standard ad or script blocker.”
    OpenDNS (which I use) offers its users the option of blocking a list of ad servers including Google
    and people get faster page-loading.


  7. “This is less about participation …… and far more about an underlying, understated willingness to pitch in when necessary…but generally, to be left alone to be harmless.”

    followed by:

    “….. make unpaid social service obligatory for every able-bodied kid in the nation – without exception.”

    ‘understated willingness’ and being ‘left alone to be harmless’ are not compatible with forced, unpaid, exceptionless obligations upon the young. Making them ‘willing’ takes more thought than that woefully lazy offering.

    …. and ‘generally’ – doesn’t cut it and make it so either.


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