Monday, 16 May 2011

The AHRC and the "Big Society" (III)

This is almost getting too silly for words. In the latest issue of the Times Higher Professor Rick Rylance has defended the use of the language of the "big society" in the delivery plan of the AHRC once again. It has to be said, however, that the kind of defence offered is such as almost to make further attack unnecessary. Firstly, the defence is that whilst the notion of the "big society" was once a slogan attached to a particular political party, it is now, apparently, a legitimate area of research for the humanities given that it has become public policy. The suggestion appears to be that when something that was party political in an election campaign is subsequently adopted in government it has ceased to be a party political matter. This is surely a new view of the relationship between parties, policies and research!

The second "point" in favour is that Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg apparently made a statement eliding the "big society" with a number of other words, including the word "liberalism" and this apparently shows for sure that the term "big society" has no specific party political content. The fact that Clegg could make such an astoundingly stupid comment does not licence Professor Rylance to retail it further. It remains a stupid comment, no matter how often repeated or by whom. The fact that the leader of one of the two parties in the Coalition (a party that did not previously tout the idea of the "big society") has now adopted the language of the other party in the Coalition hardly shows that the phrase in question has ceased to have political content.

Thirdly, Rylance claims that the phrase "big society" found its way into what he terms the "grey literature" which is, apparently, a place where advocacy and research literature get bound up together. Whatever the "grey literature" is it would appear to belong within the province of social science and not humanities so it is again unclear how this reference is supposed to produce an argument for the AHRC's research mission statement.

Finally, Rylance ends his piece by stating that adoption of the language of the government of the day does not imply support for their specific policies and it is a "caricature" to speak as though it does. The fact that there is a difference between the general language of the "big society" and specific proposals in support of it is true. However, it is also the case that the notion of the "big society" does indicate a particular attitude towards government and civil society and this attitude is not politically neutral. There could be research into why politicians adopt such phrases and into what is meant by focusing on them. That would be fair but to adopt the language itself as if it were neutral between approaches to social policy is hardly to manifest such neutrality, it speaks bias and Professor Rylance seems to wish the rest of us to think that it doesn't.

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