‘Big society’? Let me explain

Published in The Guardian (October 9th, 2010)

My first task after joining David Cameron’s team earlier this year was to help with a major speech to go with a report and seminar on the ‘big society’. Towards the end of the first meeting I asked whether this was the big idea at the heart of his potential government. He replied, with some emphasis, that it most definitely was.

The event went well in those long-distant days before the election campaign and the setbacks of the debates, winning plaudits from pundits across the political spectrum, including on this paper. One headline read: “Eureka! At last I can see what David Cameron is on about”.

But the concept failed to fly in the election. At a conference fringe meeting in Birmingham this week, a roomful of activists were asked if the big society was helpful in their campaigning. No one put their hand up. Despite this Cameron used his conference speech to underline how the big society remains central to his political vision. Indeed, without this optimistic message of renewal, the government’s tone would be unrelentingly pessimistic as it embarks on heavy spending cuts. But there is still confusion. Some critics deride it as a return to Victorian philanthropism, some as a cloak for Thatcherite cuts, some as meaningless waffle.

One right-leaning commentator told me yesterday that she hoped the big society was just cover for a smaller state. She looked dismayed when I said it wasn’t – and worse than that, to paraphrase Tony Blair, the prime minister actually believes in it. Indeed, contrary to popular wisdom, many in the core team at Downing Street are idealists driven by this concept.

So what is the big society? First of all, I must confess that I am no fan of the slightly fuzzy title. I mentioned this during one meeting at party headquarters, only to feel like the central character of a Bateman cartoon. But it is better than its predecessor, the clunky “post-bureaucratic age”. Challenged to come up with something better, I failed.

At its core, the big society is an attempt to connect the civic institutions that lie between the individual and the state – and these range from the family and neighbourhood to churches, charities, libraries, local schools and hospitals. It is born out of recognition that our centralised state has become too big, too bureaucratic and just too distant to support many of those most in need of help, and that it deters people from playing a more active role in public life.

In political terms, this means passing power to the lowest level possible: radical public service reform, so that schools, social services, planning and even prisons are more responsive to the needs of those using them; and social action, to encourage more people to play a role in society. Not just charities, but neighbourhood groups, workers’ co-operatives, social enterprises and, yes, businesses.

To amplify the devolution of power there must be greater transparency, freeing up the state’s information and data. This is vital because much of the reform is results-driven – it does not matter who delivers a public service, only that the best possible service is delivered to the public and that they have a clear view of successes and failures.

So take crime. The public could use online maps to see where there are outbreaks of antisocial behaviour or drunken violence near their home. If problems are not addressed, they can demand answers at beat meetings – and if still nothing is done, vote in a new police commissioner. And if police officers want to win promotion, there is only one way to do it – by cutting crime on their patch.

Opponents sneer that people don’t have time to attend meetings and determine local issues, although there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. After all, if people will unite to fight a big housing application in their community, why not to fight crime? And look at what is happening online, where thousands have come together to create Wikipedia in their spare time for everyone’s benefit.

Ultimately, it does not matter if people understand the big society. Nor that it flopped in the election campaign. All that matters is whether Cameron delivers on his brave words and the subsequent response of the public. This alone will determine whether the big society turns out to be hokum like the third way, or the philosophy that transforms the state of Britain.

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