Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote the leader for The New Statesman, in which he questioned the government’s implementation of its devolution initiative, touted as ‘The Big Society.’ Meanwhile, to much less attention, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster addressed the Caritas Network Conference at Saint Mary’s College, Twickenham. The first half of his address also tackled the progress made by the Big Society thus far. His view of the government’s policies was much more forgiving, and even led the American-based Catholic News Agency to portray the two events as a tête-à-tête between the two archbishops.
This characterisation seems a bit unfair. Dr Williams seems in fact almost to take it for granted that an increasing focus on local politics is on the horizon, and even goes so far as to say that he doesn’t ‘think that the government’s commitment to localism and devolved power is simply a cynical walking-away from the problem’ of the financial strain on welfare services. Archbishop Vincent echoes this belief in the good faith of the government and applauds the opportunities the Big Society offers for stronger social cohesion and ‘local initiative and enterprise.’ Even more important than the political liberty promised by local governance, it also facilitates the fostering of real, practical community. All good stuff.
However, the criticisms raised by both men are necessary ones. Dr Williams frames his concerns in strong and practical terms, primarily centred around the issues of healthcare and education. With regard to the wider concerns of devolution, he makes a very important point:
The uncomfortable truth is that, while grass-roots initiatives and local mutualism are to be found flourishing in a great many places, they have been weakened by several decades of cultural fragmentation. The old syndicalist and co-operative traditions cannot be reinvented overnight and, in some areas, they have to be invented for the first time.
Archbishop Vincent also worries that as far as the question of localism is conceived, either positively or negatively, solely in terms of the state’s agency, it neglects the real purpose of the initiative: to foster empowerment and responsibility among local communities. He points out that ‘the growth of subsidiarity cannot be achieved simply by the withdrawal of the state. It requires intelligent capacity-building to reduce dependency, and the creation of conditions for the sustained flourishing of local initiative.’
One of the largest obstacles to achieving true localised communitarian liberty is its sloppy implementation by well-intentioned governments. This is the very thing that threatens to make the idea ‘painfully stale.’ While I think Dr Williams has less faith than I do in the long-term ability of a localised, distributist community to sustain itself with minimal interference by a centralised state, his observations are perfectly valid in the short-term. Even if the Conservatives had won a majority in last year’s election, giving Philip Blond and his Red Tories a mandate to fully implement their agenda, the transformation into a localised and federalised state could never be achieved immediately. Over a half-century’s acclimatisation to the welfare state cannot be discarded overnight. If the coalition (or at least the Conservative Party) is honest and serious about creating lasting change to the way political responsibility is handled in this country, and not just hoping to save the government money by allowing numerous public services to be privatised by large corporations, it needs to hand power back to the people in a measured and feasible way. The entire structure cannot be dismantled at once, otherwise the community initiatives that the programme is supposed to foster will be drowned in the ensuing chaos even before getting a chance to breathe. The very people that the return to local empowerment is supposed to raise up—the poor—will instead suffer the most. The transition to a sustainable communitarian society will take time, but I promise you, David Cameron, it will be worth it in the end.
On a brighter note, the really exciting thing about both of these comments is that these men are taking the advent of localism to political discourse seriously. Obviously, subsidiarity is integral to Catholic social teaching, but as it is so rarely practiced in modern democratic states, it can be all too easy to see it as a quaint ideal that we’ll never really reach and therefore should give little attention. Dr Williams’ challenge to the political left to give us an idea of what their ‘version of localism might look like’ is also very exciting. If the issue of true political subsidiarity can transcend party divides, we are on a very promising course indeed. The very fact that Archbishop Vincent’s talk was given to an delegation from Caritas is also encouraging, as it shows that the extrapolitical organisations (e.g. the Church) necessary to make devolved power possible are getting involved. The poor will outlive the welfare state, and they will still need care; the fact that community charities seem to be stepping up to the challenge that devolution places before them is a very good sign. So despite the questionable implementation of the Big Society by the Conservatives thus far, the extent to which its principles seem to have penetrated into discourse about the future are enough to give me hope that subsidiarity and localism might survive the present government.