The Big Society gets the Dreaded Shrinks

Glen Newey

In Roald Dahl’s The Twits, the eponymous couple wage attritional marital warfare. Mr Twit gradually lengthens his wife’s walking-stick and chair-legs to make her think that she’s got ‘the dreaded shrinks’ and will soon die by dwindling and finally disappearing. Such an end now awaits the fast-shrinking Big Society. Before Margaret Thatcher, Conservatives in government were chary of pursuing political projects. The likes of Lord Salisbury and Stanley Baldwin saw their job as keeping the seat warm, for fear it might pass to someone who meant to use office and not merely sit in it. But it doesn’t do nowadays for Tory leaders to own blandly that the propertied interest has its fists round the loot, and intends to keep things that way. Unlike Bob Cecil or Stan ‘the man’ Baldwin, Dave Cameron has to ‘reach out’ to the rank-scented many. Even the party of cloven-hoofed squirearchs must proffer a ‘vision’ or ‘narrative’ to voters who supposedly crave such a thing.

Social bigness can be exaggerated. It got only a few brief mentions in Cameron’s Tory conference speech earlier this month. Insofar as it purports to be about anything, the BS pretends to empower local communities against the Westminster-Whitehall behemoth, as in the Localism Bill currently going through the Lords. The original bill allowed for referendums, if backed by 5 per cent of local electors, on such matters as planning decisions, opening the prospect of Waitroseland jacqueries against wind farms or the London-Manchester high-speed rail link.

The referendum clauses of the Localism Bill, already composted before the summer recess, have now been wholly shredded by the Lords. A prime mover behind the amendment was the Lib Dem colporteur Tony Greaves, once in the van of community activist liberalism. He used to epitomise the Liberals’ willed unelectability, when the annual party shindig was thought to debate such motions as bringing in a 99p coin, or tax-breaks for people who wore vegetarian shoes. Three times Greaves offered himself to voters as a candidate for the Commons, and three times they advised him to bog off. Now he’s turned his unelectability to advantage, having been raised to the ermine as Baron Greaves of Pendle. In the Localism Bill debate, Baroness Hanham, for the government, greeted Greaves’s amendment with what sounded like relief.

Those mistrustful of plebiscitary democracy have a point. But are unelected placemen well positioned to make it? Some people revere the upper chamber as a democratic ‘check’ on the Commons, whose own democratic credentials often look less than pukkah. Were the Commons perfectly democratic, the Lords could impose a check on it only by reasserting some non-democratic system, like aristocracy. If the notion is that no unicameral system could meet an ideal of perfect democracy, a second chamber might help. But believing that the Commons’ democratic deficit can be made good by the Lords as currently constituted is a bit like thinking that a leak in a boat can be fixed by drilling a hole to let out the water.

Also coming soon on the roster of government bills: the draft House of Lords Reform Bill, which proposes to P45 all but 300 peers, of whom four-fifths will have to face election. It’ll be interesting to see how democratic centralist arguments play with their lordships then.