All posts by Bisha Ali

Big Society, Big Cuts

Cuts, Aid, Immigrants and Multiculturalism: how the Coalition’s Big Society could polarise people

2011 in the UK has kicked off in style. Students took to the streets to protest government cuts in higher education, while UKUncut turned into a network of homegrown DIY protestors, publicly shaming high street companies dodging millions in taxes while public spending was being cut, cut, cut. Seems like Mr Cameron’s budget cuts are encouraging just what he wanted – civil action and the creation of the ‘Big Society.’

While the media has been haphazardly running Cameron’s Big Society through the wringer and accusing him of evangelically touting a vague, undefined concept, I think it’s relatively clear (and kind of working.) The opposite of the big society is essentially the big state that apparently lost Labour its hold last year. Simply put, the Coalition is cutting things down to size to create a small state. In October, the government revealed its plans for a £81 billion cut in public spending over the following four years – as well as £7 billion extra in welfare cuts, and a 7% cut for local authority councils from April of this year.

What of international aid in all these cuts? At the moment, around £7.4 billion goes to fund DFID annually (about 0.52% of the UK’s GNI), and the Coalition plans to further increase this to meet the 0.7% GNI goal by 2013.

“The coalition government is motivated by a shared determination to erode the terrible inequalities of opportunity that we see around the world today. We are not prepared to stand by as a billion or more eke out an existence on less than a dollar a day or as women and children die needlessly in their thousands. We are proud of the fact that we are keeping our promise to spend 0.7% of GNI on aid.” [DFID]

I’m all for it. But what of the British public? While the Coalition is pushing people to ‘get out there’ and play a bigger role in civil society, it’s also cutting funding to everything from women’s shelters to animal sanctuaries. It’s leaving taxpayers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Is the UK government doing more harm than good by inadvertently polarising the UK public against a global civil society? The dangers are two-fold. In the first case, we run the risk of losing an already shaky public faith in international aid, and in the second case, there’s the serious danger of further segregating an already collapsing multicultural society.

The media and citizens alike are arguing that we’re helping the ‘other’ at the expense of our own livelihoods. Meanwhile, Cameron delivers accusatory speeches, channeling his inner Merkel, claiming that multiculturalism is dead, as the English Defence League marched for the “liberation of England from evil” and chanted for the Muslim “dogs” to get out of their country.

Immigration, ethnicity and cultural segregation were issues already in the public eye in the UK – and it took a long time to get to some kind of tolerant equilibrium. I’m reminded of a quotation from Complex Emergencies by David Keen (very much worth reading) about ethnicity and identity:

“Ethnicity is not just an identity you choose, but also an identity that others may try to choose for you. This relates to a common complaint among some British Asians, for example. A white British person might ask a British Asian, ‘Where are you from?’, and they may get the answer (perhaps in a strong Midlands accent): ‘Birmingham’. ‘Yes, but where are you from, originally?’ And the answer comes again, ‘Birmingham’. ‘Yes, but where are your parents from?’ ‘Birmingham’, and so on. As William Shakespeare nearly said, some are born into ethnicity, some achieve or choose ethnicity, and some have ethnicity thrust upon them.”

By sending mixed signals and pulling at the seams of multicultural Britain, the Coalition runs the risk of perpetuating these forced identities and creating rifts that will take years to rectify.

In my lifetime, London has always been a tolerant, ‘multicultural’ place. I can’t say whether this is true for the rest of Britain. What I fear is that in the Coalition’s commitment to reign in debt while maintaining and increasing international aid funds, the government is forcing its people to choose. Immigration was already hot topic long before the cuts. The media makes it sound like Islamic extremism is being sold at every local mosque and our leader claims that we need a more ‘muscular liberalism’ to revive multicultural Britain. What we really need is for Big Society to pull us together, and not turn us into a society full of embedded groups pointing fingers. I don’t know the answers, but I’d sure like to hear some: how can we reconcile maintaining our international aid budget with the welfare of the UK public? Where does charity begin?