Tory rift with sociologists threatens 'Big Society'

David Cameron must overcome bitter Thatcherite legacy. Hannah Fearn reports

August 12, 2010

A long-term rift between sociologists and the Conservative Party must be healed if the coalition government's "Big Society" policy is to succeed.

The argument is made by John D. Brewer, sixth-century professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, who said that the "legacy of Thatcherism" in the party's relationship with sociologists left David Cameron's flagship policy at risk of failure.

The current prime minister has put the idea of local responsibility and volunteerism within British communities at the heart of his coalition government - yet Professor Brewer said the policy had been introduced without consulting sociologists. He argued that the idea exposed the "strengths and weaknesses of sociology in Britain".

"I am old enough to recall a Conservative government claiming that there was no such thing as society, let alone a science of it," he said.

"The Social Science Research Council was downgraded in nomenclature to the Economic and Social Research Council to signal this belief.

"The separation between British sociologists and government policymakers, politicians and civil servants is our weakness. This is the enduring legacy of Thatcherism: told we had no subject matter and were not scientists, we withdrew from engagement with the government."

Professor Brewer said that despite Margaret Thatcher's attitude in the 1980s, sociologists had ploughed on, convinced that their work had value.

When Labour came to power in 1997, it too failed to bring sociologists back into the fold, turning instead to independent think tanks for policy advice, he said.

Now there is a new opportunity for the government to work with scholars in the field, with the introduction of the "Big Society" policy highlighting the "desperate need" for dialogue between the two camps.

"Governments with big ideas can be thought of as dangerous when they do not utilise academic knowledge and skill to infuse them," Professor Brewer warned.

John Scott, professor of sociology and pro vice-chancellor for research at the University of Plymouth, agreed that there was much for Mr Cameron to learn from the discipline.

"The idea of local citizen participation in social policies and practices was a central element in the founding ideas of British sociology," he said.

"What they recognised, and what I think we must recognise today, is that there is a difference between local control over a service and local provision of a service."

Sociologists could point out some of the practical problems the coalition government may face, he said.

"A real move to the 'Big Society' requires public investment: the creation of local investment funds, under local control ... and with the government encouraging the fit to carry on working for longer, the available pool of appropriate volunteers would be small," he added.

Tony Trueman, spokesman for the British Sociological Association, said: "Sociologists have undertaken influential studies of community, citizenship and participation, and are very well placed to examine the current debate on the 'Big Society' concept and to provide crucial insights on its likely success."

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