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.