A couple of weekends ago The Observer published an interesting essay by Robert McCrum on EF Schumacher. The story of Schumacher’s life and the development of his ideas of ‘economics as if people and the planet mattered’, espoused most notably in his book Small is Beautiful, was generally well told. Less convincing, I thought, was McCrum’s account of how Schumacher’s work has been a basis for David Cameron’s concept of the ‘Big Society’, which was explored in a brief but rather uncritical way at the end of the article.
Many readers have expressed their shock and horror that Cameron or his advisors believe their actions are in any way interpretations of Schumacher’s ideas. The general consensus of discussion groups online seems to be that Schumacher would be spinning in his grave at this notion and that were he alive he would certainly not be a supporter of the coalition. His daughter wrote a letter to The Observer the next weekend to point out that her father shared his ideas with anyone who wanted his advice and that he ‘didn’t do cynical’.
I hadn’t appreciated how much was going on about Schumacher at the moment to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and it seems that different groups have interests (as McCrum says also happened after his death) in drawing sustenance from his reputation. One main website is: http://www.ef-schumacher.org/. At the same time, like many other university workers, I’ve been following the row over the AHRC’s adoption of ‘the big society’ as a core research theme (see also The History Workshop website). Given that the AHRC funds this project and that its title comes from Schumacher’s best-selling book, should we be at all concerned at being seen as some vehicle of the Big Society agenda, whatever that is? My favourite comment on the idea of Cameron drawing on Schumacher for his concept of the Big Society, and the one probably most apt for this project, said simply: ‘How apt that the idea should be Schumacher’s when most people think it is cobblers’.