The Big Society. Do we yet understand its goals or implementation? David Cameron’s grand-social-ambition “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will ‘take power away from politicians and give it to people’” is certainly an ambitious idea, and, as a Conservative formulation, it remains faithful to the English preference for support at the level of family and local councils (in contrast to other states like those in Scandinavia, where there is a contract of trust between individual and state). It’s certainly more than a smokescreen for privatisation.

The problem is it resembles little more than using volunteers as a cheap alternative to public services.

…plans to “unleash entrepreneurial spirit”…

When it comes to social issues I’m as politically agnostic as they come. It can’t be denied that this spirit of developing communities sounds attractive. It was a gentleman of Cantonese heritage, Baron Wei, who was appointed an advisor to Mr Cameron’s plans to “unleash entrepreneurial spirit”, support charities and local enterprises, and empower local groups and individuals to do… what?

Well, it really depends on what one wants to do. In theory anything is possible, and the Government would argue that in such freedom lies the beauty.

…the Big Society can take a few ideas from these groups.

So whatever you make of Baroness Warsi’s recent comments, religious communities possibly have plenty of advice to offer on how local groups and individuals can be empowered. Especially in multicultural London, churches, temples, synagogues and mosques are already at that level of local, grassroots empowerment, where there are loving networks that contribute good, altruistic people to society.

The only thing we want to leave out is our faith’s brand name. That’s easy enough. In light of the fact that many religious communities are more or less the kind of small, active, and close-knit groups Mr. Cameron wants to champion, the Big Society can take a few ideas from these groups.

…we meditate in tranquil silence together for about half an hour…

Any Big Society needs to be glued together by “spiritual” values: the cultivation of wisdom and self-reflection in meditation. Training in compassion and seeing enemies as the best teachers. Building love for neighbours and enemies. A Middle Way needs to be trodden between public engagement and an encouragement of private self-development.

In a Buddhist meditation centre, we meditate in tranquil silence together for about half an hour, before sharing in some readings from our sacred texts and reflecting on how to apply them in our daily lives. The rest is up to us to do at home, at work, and everywhere else.

…look to the horizon of eternity, we might have a thing or two to say…

So what does this mean for community carers angry about cuts? Take a leaf out of the Buddhist book: be backed not by the Government, but by private philanthropists. In the meantime though, we won’t be complacent, and continue to give our support in protesting against these potentially harmful cuts to the most vulnerable of us.

If the ideal contribution of Buddhism is to build communities of faith and love, it would seem only natural that faith groups enjoy a little bit more input into how the most important beacon in people’s lives sustains communal ventures. The Government might believe itself to be acting for the long-term, but when Buddhist organizations, as well as our Anglican and Catholic brothers, look to the horizon of eternity, we might have a thing or two to say about planting deep roots and watering seeds.

 

About The Author

A journalist of religion, Raymond is the editor of Buddhistdoor International. He divides his time between London and Hong Kong and can be reached at raymond@buddhistdoor.com.

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