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Our bishops are leading the way towards a Big Society

Their support for Coalition reform is brave and bold. But can it do any good?

By on Friday, 3 December 2010

David Cameron alluded to his "Big Society" project in his farewell speech to the Pope in September (Photo: PA)

David Cameron alluded to his "Big Society" project in his farewell speech to the Pope in September (Photo: PA)

From time to time our English bishops have been accused of a lack of leadership. In recent days though they have bravely set out far ahead of the religious and voluntary sector pack by wholeheartedly endorsing the key means by which David Cameron hopes to ensure his personal legacy: namely, the “Big Society”. First, in an interview from Lourdes, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster endorsed the idea. Then Archbishop Peter Smith of Southwark commended the Big Society as the means by which to renew the Catholic justice and peace movement. Subsequently, at their annual gathering, the bishops as a whole – notwithstanding the northern bishops’ reservations about the speed of government cuts – launched a plan to increase Catholic participation in the public sphere. For its name the plan took the core theme of the Prime Minister’s speeches and the title of his only book, Social Responsibility. While Archbishop Nichols had once mistakenly thought Cameron was quoting Catholic social teaching when he used the phrase “common good”, there is now no mistaking who is endorsing whom. But after years of contemptuous treatment under Labour, how will the bishops make an impact for the better?

For example, to which account of the three main strands of the Big Society have they given their blessing? Is it the “civic conservative” strand represented by David Willetts, which seeks to “work with the grain of human nature” because individuals selfishly like to act together? Might it be the breakdown Britain strand, heavily influenced by the Conservative Christian Fellowship, and focused on character, morals and welfare dependency? Or is it the powerful advocacy of localism and decentralisation that provides a crossover between liberal community politics and Conservative objections to centralised targets? The question is vital because very soon the true colours of those influenced by each strand will come to the fore.

Any moment a new – and huge – Localism Bill will be announced. Underpinned by the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, it seeks to drive power and resources to the most local level and create a level playing field between the state, the market and the civic sector as to who gets to own and run society’s assets. The Bill will give churches and other voluntary organisations the legal right to save or buy a building that should not be lost to their locality, and a legal right to appeal to take over any part of local government that they believe they could run more creatively and cost effectively. Greg Clark, the brilliant Communities Minister in charge of decentralisation, has described the Bill’s potential as being to “take away the garden wall” that holds the voluntary sector back. And he is keen for churches and faith communities to step up to that opportunity.

Concurrently, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley is seeking to drive resources to the local level too. His White Paper strips power from hospital-based health professions and gives it back to GPs. And yet just as all this influence is being returned to the lowest appropriate level, Iain Duncan Smith, the Catholic Work and Pensions Secretary, has launched a White Paper on welfare reform that promises to be among the most centralising government initiatives of the last decade. It is also unclear how it will enhance solidarity.

Duncan Smith’s reforms will strip local authorities of responsibility for housing benefit, possibly increasing the number of redundancies that authorities will have to make. They will then give central control of housing benefit, tax credits and social security payments to the already bloated Department of Work and Pensions.

The upside of this is that a single point of contact will be established for those in need. The downside is that all benefits will be controlled inflexibly from the centre. Specifically, they will be capped at £500 a week, which is the national “mean” household income of those in work. This centralised cap will potentially have myriad devastating effects.

While bringing down the huge welfare bill is essential, £500 in some neighbourhoods does not have the same purchasing power as in others. If you are poor in a leafy suburb of Leeds or in Guildford funds do not go as far as if you have been consigned to an outer area estate or an inner city ward. If you had a nervous breakdown in Ascot while running a firm and are now too anxious to work should you be moved away from family and friends? The “flat rate” in effect becomes a tax on the neediest who survive on the margins of wealthy areas and in Conservative heartlands. What is worse is that Iain Duncan Smith is outsourcing his work creation programmes in contracts so large that they shut out the charitable and civic sectors. For the Church that is a double tragedy: in Spain and Austria it has pioneered flexible, personal and local responses to help the long-term unemployed back to work and the mentally ill find fresh footholds in society.

It could be, of course, that the bishops have been advised that the Big Society is “what we have always done”. They might also have judged that engaging in this way is a small price to pay to protect our schools. And yet the only recent research undertaken to assess the scale of Catholic civic welfare contributions suggests that our role is not as great as we first thought. One well-known Catholic charity, for example, often cited during the papal visit, has a wholly Catholic client base and its volunteers are the same age and social profile as those it helps. Meanwhile, at the heart of the Big Society is a still unclear but radical reform project for educational structures that has the potential to empower parents and pupils while undermining episcopal authority at every turn.

The bishops, then, have stepped out with imperfect information into the heart of an agenda for revolutionary reform that cuts across much of what they have said before. For now we must applaud and encourage. Archbishop Nichols and Archbishop Smith are leading the Church from the gloom of Gordon Brown’s Labour into the light of a rich encounter with the detail of policy, politics, and competing principles and priorities. This audacious move ahead of the pack may stand them in good stead to unlock the potential buried in many Catholic hands, minds and hearts. Whether they can pull it off, and what influence they will have to enhance the common good by being first movers, only time will tell.

Francis Davis advises senior Westminster politicians and county council leaders and is an Associate of the Oxford University Centre on Mutual Enterprises

  • paulpriest

    Mr Phillips – you SERIOUSLY need to read the papal documents on social justice from Rerum Novarum onwards….
    Presently the only response I can afford you is you're either sincere and stupid or sincere and quite, quite mad!

  • Annie


    I have found my way to The Catholic Herald because it's becoming increasingly difficult to read Damian's blog. His articles are still great and while there's still some worthwhile comments the vast majority of comments are posted by trolls, goldencher made a great observation when he said Damian's blog is turning into Haddock's Facebook page(and that comment equally applies to Mickey Ross, stbosco, and others). Reading the comments on Damians' blog is increasingly like sitting down to a meal of garbage.. Most of the old contributors have stopped posting because they've wisely decided not to submit themselves to the continual spewings of those people .

    What I don't understand is why Damian doesn't eject them. There was a time when going off-topic would get an instant reprimand from Damian and he even ejected people if they kept doing it. Now he seems to have abdicated his authority and replaced it with a group of moderators. I understand it's become necessary to have people removing comments for libel reasons but why is that now the only criteria by which comments are removed? Fr. Z has no compunction in deleting views that are off topic or offensive ON HIS OWN AUTHORITY and I fail to see why Damian has given up using his authority to do the same. He periodically says that it's his blog and he can post whatever he likes so why doesn't he assert his ownership of his blog and kick out the people who are derailing it?

    You're a friend of his and so would you please put this question to him and see if you can get him to take back control of his blog? As gregorymurphy posted the other day, Damian's blog is the most influential blog for Catholic issues in England and helps to frame the debate for other Catholic bloggers in all the English speaking countries. Doesn't he get that there's an all-out assault on his blog by those who seek to weaken and even end its influence? Damian's been given a unique role in the Church Militant to protect and defend his and our faith. That defense must extend to the “Comments” part of his blog, which means chucking out those posting whose sole objective is to vomit on the Catholic Church. Perhaps he'll listen to you.

  • Annie


    Thanks for reminding me about The Catholic Herald, which I didn't realize had a comment section. I would urge caution in promoting it on Damian's website as your invitation might attract the trolls here as well.

  • paulpriest

    Annie – don't you think I'm pulling my hair out as well?
    Any idea how many of the old-style Catholic regulars have bombarded my inbox over the past few months and years saying the same thing?
    I'm sorry if you disagree but a lot of the blame has to be laid at Mundabor's doorstep: He became increasingly maniacal and belligerent and turned into a troll himself; irrespective of the topic he always turned it back to his favourite three subjects: gays, commies and nobody else was a Catholic apart from him…
    The anti-semitic multiple posting pushed out many – and so many of the normally behaved Catholic posters went for a wobble and decided to act as badly as the trolls themselves – posting inanities and irrelevancies ad nauseam, cloning and just destroying anything remotely near a conversation/argument; we had Teresa's love duet with that nutter…that whole mess with the CP&S…
    And so Alfredhaddock and Mickyross moved in, with stbosco and lazarus and a whole other crowd of nasties with no desire to discuss the issue – merely to disrupt – the well's poisoned – there's simply nothing we can do about it…especially when a few decide to just jump on board [john henry etc] and fight these oafs over the most ridiculous of issues – look at last night – a 300 post splurge of nothing!

    I would hate it to turn into Fr Z's – I rarely if ever knock the man because he's doing a necessary job – but he brooks no opposition at all – many times I have attempted to correct or qualify or even disagree with him and my post never sees the light of day – at least Damian has the courtesy and integrity to allow opposition.

    But yes – we do need the Holy Smoke of old ; but Damian's too inundated with a heavy workload to afford anything but 'leftover' time to it – and you must know by now that Cormac and the Nuncio did a pretty good job at almost ruining him for good a few years ago.

    I hate to say this but the blame for its getting so bad has to mainly lie on our doorsteps – had people stayed loyal and tried to work around the trolling and stuck to the issues and given Damian some support – and had other Catholic bloggers networked with it and commented on it to give it even more powerful credentials – then maybe the powers that be might have said 'hey this is too bloody important not to be moderated' and provided Damian with the help he needed….

    I won't deny that there have been a few times I have left – once because it went too political, another because I was simply too ill and another because my ancient PC couldn't cope with the disqus system without crashing just after I'd spent ages writing a post…
    …but to go all mercenary ; I have gained nothing but a great deal of grief for trying to defend the faith in my own little way – amassed more than a few enemies – lost friends and opportunities and credibility; while others have moved on to much more significant roles and have gained financially and by reputation.
    The only thing I cling to out of my millions of words was the chance to see the Pope up-close in the Cathedral for a few seconds.

    Other people should be queuing up to write and argue to defend the faith – much of them have the time, resources, talents, capabilities, credentials and the finances to do it – I have little if any of these…I know I'm not a writer; I don't know the right sort of people and am definitely not part of any in-crowd – so cannot consider myself informed on the issues – all I have is a bit of basic catechesis and a lot of reading behind me with predilection to be able to start a fight in an empty room – but I do get a little frustrated when people simply don't come to the fore and say what should be said! Please be aware that this isn't an exercise in narcissism or self-pity; but I am a shelf-stacker with a house to keep clean and four kids to care for – and I'm exhausted and need help from out there if I'm going to continue arguing for the Faith and His Holiness!

    I'm afraid if you have concerns over the blog you really should tell Damian. I'm not exactly the most popular individual after the Pope/condoms fallout.

  • Annie


    I don't have Damian's e-mail so if you could send it to me I'd appreciate it.

    The reason I contacted you through The Catholic Herald is because I don't have your e-mail address either, so if you also could send yours to me that too would be appreciated. I also need to note that the above comment to you was in response to a comment you posted on Damian's blog yesterday. I didn't respond to you directly because it would have resulted in heaps of derision and abuse being showered on me and – although I'm quite capable of dishing it out if I have to – I'm just so sick and tired of getting those inane responses that I looked for another way to communicate with you and, fortunately, saw your posting here and hoped you'd see mine.

    I agree with you about Mundabor who seemed to get increasingly paranoid about the topics you mentioned. I also think teresa's narcissitic going off message to carry on her fruitcake mooning over moonshine is what finally tipped Damian's blog into the deep blue sea. Before, even the crazies were basically addressing the topic in some way but her going off the reservation gave the idea to other people to do the same. This brings us to the present day where we've had 48 hours of stbosco repeating like a mantra that we bow down to graven images, followed by the puke-fest of Haddock and MR and the scumbag lazarus stroking each other. Reason doesn't work with these people because their objective is to destroy Damian's blog, not to enter into a rational discussion of the issues.

    I also agree with you that the only way to correct things – short of Damian taking back his blog and ejecting the whole lot of them – is to ignore them and only to respond to bloggers who are serious about the issues. It's sad to see so many who think if they just find the right words that they can make these trolls see reason and admit that they're mistaken about something when all it does it give these losers another and another and another opportunity to vomit on us. And yes, if the Holy Smokers would stay and deluge Daman's blog with on-topic comments and ignore the trolls then Damian's blog would be in much better shape. However, many have been so turned off with the garbage they increasingly had to wade through that they just gave up and it's hard to fault them as I've often thought of doing the same thing. As it is, I usually try to post a comment as soon as Damian posts a new article so I can get in and out before the trolls are up and running. The funny thing is that many of the regulars are still reading D's blog – witness misericordia and gregorymurphy and bernadette popping up recently.

    You know a heck of a lot about our faith and about what's going on, paul, and your voice needs to continue being heard somewhere. It's a breath of fresh air to see you or one of the other old regulars posting on Damian's blog or here or somewhere else and I give a lot of credit to newcomers like srdc who have come in under such adverse conditions and tried to contribute. Her only problem, in fact, was that she kept responding to the trolls but even she's stopped lately. I'll keep checking out Damian's blog, although I mostly scroll through the trolls without reading them anymore, let along answering them. I'm also going to pay more attention to The Catholic Herald which impresses me as 'the little engine that could'. I don't even want the trolls to know about The CH or any other Catholic website as they'll probably migrate to those sites as well to continue spewing their venom.

    Take care,

    Why do I care? Because Damian's blog articles are among the best out there and because he's guaranteed a large reading audience by virtue of his being in The Daily Telegraph. Where else does a secular newspaper routinely carry the Catholic point of view about anything? He is in a unique position to articulate and defend the Catholic faith as few others are. I was incredulous when I first stumbled onto his blog in a mainstream paper – a Catholic being allowed to present Catholic beliefs in a general newspaper? You think you'd find that in The New York Times or any mainstream American newspaper? NEVER!!! and the ability to talk to other Catholics in the world in a venue run by a professional journalist who can keep us apprised of what's exactly going on with our Church is a total blessing for all of us.

  • Annie

    Oops!!! My “Take Care” is supposed to be at the end of my posting. I'm temporarily using my daughters laptop and can hardly read what I'm writing.

  • paul

    Nasty, idiotic, trolls that do not read your responses are not helpful. However polite dissent is always necessary in order to avoid an echo chamber of unchallenged and therefore increasingly extreme views :)

  • paul

    Don't let the conservative party Hijack the idea of morals in society in order to cloak the entirely immoral cuts that are being put in place. The Labour party at least stood for something, rather than standing behind meaningless slogans.

    How exactly do cuts in the education of our children, cuts to benefits for the poorest children, cuts in surestart programs, cuts to vital public services used by the poor and cuts to housing benefit that force young families to move area, are moral?

    Lets remember the government you deride did the most to help the poor, to reduce inequality, giving a minimum wage to allow people to be self-sufficient, and increased Aid to Africa and projects fighting aids sixfold. It built better schools for our children and restored public faith in a crumbling NHS.

    You can criticize other aspects if you will, but the millionaires in cabinet now are certainly not being moral in their decision making.

  • paulpriest

    Sorry I thought everyone knew:

  • gloria

    I so argee with your comments. We need a Good Society not a “Big Society” which is a screen for privatisation and a reduced welfare state.