Calling time on the Big Society: Gerry Hassan at Lunchworks

Calling time on the Big Society: Gerry Hassan at Lunchworks


I do love Manchester and it’s also a bit like being in Glasgow but with better weather!
Better football, of course, as well. There’s another set of subjects. I’m going to talk
about the future and also about the Big Society and I’m going to draw particularly on two
projects I’ve had the pleasure of creating and leading. First two were both with Demos,
UK think tank. First one’s called Scotland 2020, eleven project partners and about a
story in the future, and the second one is this one, this is the website even though
the project ended Glasgow 2020 who produced a book, The Dreaming City, Glasgow 2020, who
invented the phase master we think, well, your think tanks clearly didn’t invent everything,
and we even did, from stories, a music album – ‘The Dreaming City’. Just because we loved
the stories, we decided to give nine music artists choices of tracks to create music
landscapes. It’s jazz, it’s ambient – I ended up MCing at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, something
I had never done in my life before. It was great fun, and obviously horrible fearfulness
in an attempt to introduce seven acts musically. Just like mini Live Aid, you know. Journey
into their future. Obviously everything I’m going to say is short, full of holes and simplifications,
because I’m going to summarise very very complicated things, that I’m sometimes going to say, ‘Did
I actually say that?’ When I type up my notes from this that I’ll give to the organisers,
I’ll put some links and suggestive reading, just if there’s anybody here who wants to
explore that. Things about your knowledge of economy, the carnage neo liberals in terms
of the world. So I’m going to address, try to address anyway, three things. How government
and institutions increasingly see the future, and why that’s a problem. Look at the ideas
of the world they’re suggesting, and a change implicit in that. Examine within that a little
bit about the relationship to this term ‘Big Society’, the context of the public spending
cuts and the uncertainty that we all live in and face. So firstly, again very briefly
and simply, apologies for this – the idea of the Big Society. Clearly it’s a problem
term. It’s confused and it’s window dressing. This confusion is why we are having it? Is
it because of the cuts or because it’92s a good idea? What’s the inter-relationship?
Yet, there is still something in it, I think. It draws from traditional conservative pre-Thatcher-ite
thinking. The little platoons, the conservative deep sense of localism, Pre-Thatcher or maybe
even going back as far as Pre-Heath. And it also draws from post-Thatcher-ism, this concept
of red Tory-ism, which I think again is an absolute kind of mushy set of ideas and filled
with contradictions. Phillip Blond, again a strange kind of character I think in lots
of ways, has hit something here when he talks about being sceptical of state and markets,
and talks about things like the perils of monopoly capitals. When did you last hear
someone mainstream talking about the perils of monopoly capitals and the damage of Thatcher-ism?
Along with, you’d argue, sixties liberalism did to lots of values and traditions. I think
the Big Society also draws on what is a pretty consensus of a critique of new labour’s command
and control. To my mind, new labour took command and control to the point of grotesque caricature,
and that’s despite the fact, coming from Scotland obviously, we got devolution, the Welsh got
it, Northern Ireland and London. Within that, these were kind of by-products of a profound
command and control that existed, also there were Scotch and Welsh versions of that as
well, in Labour. And I want to turn to this thing, the official future, which is a term
we came up with in Scotland 2020, which is the way governments and institutional opinion
increasingly sees the world. It’s their version of the future. And what we argued was, it’s
increasingly become more and more narrow, inflexible, dogmatic; a profoundly ideological
view of the world. It’s jargonistic, it’s a kind of soulless world, its language is
once increasingly filled with terrible words, you know like step change, and drilling down,
and things like Team Scotland and Team Manchester. We’ve all got to be pointing the same way
in a cause that we never actually debated we wanted to be a part of, or given our choice.
There’s terms like modernisation, a word I used to use when I briefly thought of myself
as a moderniser. I think absolutely one of the fundamental problems here; intolerant
about the old, but not just that – embracing a very very narrow certain sense of the new,
a very narrow instrumental new. Modernising the conservatives is the new project, along
with detoxing, modernising volunteering people talk about. And often, as is in the case of
an ideology, not even realising they’re talking from an ideological position. A version of
the economy, Britain open for business, is Cameron’s mantra. Scotland open for business
is Alex Salmond’s as he pals up to Donald Trump. It’s knowledge economy, again another
problem term, a term that confuses knowledge and information. You’re not a knowledge worker
if you work in Starbucks – sorry if anyone here is working in Starbucks. Making that
special latte isn’t actually knowledge, you’re following ingredients that were created in
Seattle. Knowledge economy to me seems the reverse of the Morning Star version of the
proletariat that everyone but Rupert Murdoch was a member of the proletariat. These are
meaningless terms when they include everyone. The creative class, creative nation. A land
of opportunity, a nation of classes, a way of saying we are all middle class now, once,
famously. And underneath this, a vision of globalisation that I think, and this is a
contentious point, that globalisation I think took the language of a liberation movement.
It says to the world, we took the Chinese rural people, when we pulled them out of their
houses practically out of poverty, we’ve taken millions out of Indian poverty. It poses as
a movement freedom, fluidity , and usurped a language that the central Left thought was
theirs. And you get Blair talking about this lots of times, when he says, ‘The world is
unforgiving of frailty,’ he says. ‘No respecter of past reputations, it has no custom in practice.’
Now he’s saying that, unbelievably, as a good thing, because he’s talking the language of
the winners, of the metropolitan classes of the world, the Richard Florida guff. Maybe
some of you have read Richard Florida, ‘The Rise of the Creative Class’, as far as I’m
concerned a dreadful book about winners, and you can be lesbian, gay, but as long as you’ve
got spare cash to be an active gay consumer. And a book adopted by regional development
agencies all over the world. So you get Newcastle gay quarter designed by the Council, you get
everyone working on how many visible lesbian and gay groups they’ve got on pavement in
a city and things like that. Demos, bless them, did an index of forty British cities
based on just aggregating some figures with Florida, which Scotch story was with Edinburgh
heading above Glasgow, and that was it, that was what we were interested in. This official
future, how do you challenge it? You don’t challenge it through facts. You don’t challenge
it through evidence based policy, they’re not interested. UK is the fourth most unequal
country in the developed world – only the United States, Portugal and Singapore are
more unequal. This has happened to us in the last thirty or forty years and been done to
us. They’re not interested in that. London is the most unequal city in the developed
world. That’s good, isn’t it? London, a world city, which has a wonderful story underneath
it, also has that undercurrent of something terrible in it. And the official future is
a dogma. One way we defeat it, I think, one way we can subvert it is, I think funnily
enough, and again this is slightly and maybe we can bat this about, is humour. New liberal
is an earnest fanatical view of the world. It’s in a sense a kind of revolutionary movement,
its inheritor in its styled tradition, even some of its beliefs of the worst of the radical
left. You can see the link between new liberals and new conservatives and earnest ex Marxists
in Britain and America. And where it has some similarity more in content is the sense neo
liberalism, the market, fundamentalism, is the last modernist utopia standing. It’s about
people as playthings, it’s about human nature as pliable, we are all consumers, the only
way we are visible is through shopping or through our purchasing power. That’s how we
see ourselves. And even, I think in many ways, there’s an element, some element at play in
that. I don’t want to think all shopping is bad, I like shopping, but it’s not a lifestyle
that can be everything. And two quick points here, I think in terms of humour; the caricature
of the left as you know Dave Spar, I don’t know how many of you remember Dave Spar and
how many of you don’t remember Dave. Dave Spar was invented in the 1970s, he still lives
in the pages of Private Eye. And what it did was, it took the mickey out of the earnest
lefty revolution, where revolutionary, and it still has resonance to this day, unbelievably,
despite what we’ve been through, because people know those characters. I have been guilty
of Dave Spartism with friends, by being over earnest and lecturing them at points, you
know? And my dad was a – well, he was a Dave Spar before Dave Spar. And I think one of
the things we need to do, is we need to create caricatures, characters, names and stereotypes
of the neo liberal age. These people are right for taking the mickey out of, you know? The
people that talk the jargon, the consultants that don’t believe in anything, the people
who have kind of a world view, they would do business at any dictatorship in the world.
People go on too much about Chinese human rights abuse, or China getting more open to
the West, those sort of things. And secondly, again coming from Scotland we’ve produced
a whole pile of books on Scotland in the decade. I’m guilty of about half of them, you know.
So you call them a kind of devolution industry. And I’ve increasingly begun to realise that
books that influence me in the last ten years aren’t any books about politics, history,
socialism, they’re not the serious books. The books that influence me are books about
and that are written about play, humour, surrealism and subverse subversiveness. And one of them
is this guy called, he’s this singer songwriter from Paisley, who now lives in Berlin called
Momas. He wrote a book, published by an obscure German publisher last year called the book
of Scotland. And the book of Scotland has one hundred and fifty, well, over a hundred
and fifty parallel Scotlands in it. Past, present and future. Some of them are literal
and believable, Alan Lomax who collected world music comes to Scotland in the fifties, that
sort of thing, and since the war the Scotch health education campaign on him. In fact,
the Scots are masturbating too much, it’s highly possible, highly possible! But other
ones, absolutely utterly magical that take you into another dimension. There’s one where
the black swan – you know, the story of the black swan, this do black swans exist? A huge
black swan comes and decides to habit and live over South Ayrshire. So the South Ayrshire
people hate it at first because it smells, then they decide to tie it to them so it doesn’t
go because there’s a tourist industry based on it, and then the whole thing dies and suffocates
South Ayrshire. I mean, what a story is that? I’ve no idea what it’s about, truly, something
not of the mainstream; and yet it’s got some connection to Scotland at this moment and
where we are. Challenging official future, I think, if it’s not through facts, partly
through humour. The main way to explore it is through story. Now, the official future
is a story, especially the one we had in Glasgow 2020 was the official future story. I should
say, this project, which was a crazy project, every single public agency in the city, in
Scotland, twenty public agencies, because this is one way we challenge the systems.
We don’t build a barricade, we generally touch their toes and say, ‘Let’s do something different,’
and then you go and do something crazy once you get the money. We had a great relationship
with the City Council on that, with the leader Steven Purcell before he blew up in a drugs
scandal etc. It even got UK coverage. We had a great relationship with Council which also
are part of the problem, part of the solution. The official future is a story, and also people
in the system, some of those deep recesses in the system even use innovative processes
like storytelling, all sorts of participant of things, so you can’t just use story as
a good, you can’t just use innovative processes as a good, the people insist on an up to forward,
what you’re up to, what we’re all up to. They aren’t smart, that’s why they’ve brought power
and privilege around them. So you need to explore ways of telling a different story,
of how to use that to democratise and remake and retake the future. Story is fundamental
to being human, and at the moment in a way, there is only official future as a story.
And where does this take us? I think in the climate today, we face personal challenges,
economic and social challenges, we face institutional challenges, and we profoundly face

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