From: Sir Humphrey Appleby
To: Bernard Woolley
Subject: The Big Society
I have noted the general hilarity in the Department at The Big Society, and admit that I have partly shared in it myself. There is something engagingly ridiculous in politicians’ use of slogans to conceal the absence of policies. But we have to be very careful; if carried out in its extreme form it could be disastrous. If large sums of money were to be controlled by local councils and committees, our departmental budgets could be seriously reduced. If legal authority were delegated to them, we would be under pressure to reduce our staffing levels when their function has been removed. The prospect is hideous. Councils would compete for businesses by offering lower taxes. Different areas would have different rules. National uniformity would cease to exist; legislative inconsistency and administrative untidiness would flourish. You only have to look at the United States to see the chaotic variation between state governments, not to mention their permanent conflict with the Federal government.
We and our predecessors have spent the last two centuries removing legal jurisdiction and taxation revenues from the regional areas and provincial authorities and centralising them here in Whitehall where they are under the control of people who are in a position to understand the needs of the country. All this could be put at hazard if a government were to take serious measures to return them to the control of the ignorant, inexperienced and irresponsible local people.
Fortunately the Big Society is at its formative stage. Like most political ideas, it has not been properly thought through. We must therefore welcome it, while making sure it does not in any way diminish our authority or reduce our revenue. We must focus on the involvement of voluntary groups, while supervising them to make sure that they behave responsibly; we may need a modest staff increase for this. And we must encourage widespread consultation on many subjects and at many levels; this may involve a small increase in our budget. And we must draw out the process long enough for the politicians to lose interest and impetus, and wait for them to find a new slogan.
(Sir Humphrey Appleby KCB CVO)
© Sir Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, 24 September 2010