The Big Society, By Jesse Norman

Confused by Cameron's vision for a new society? Here's the clearest explanation yet...

"What's the big idea?" "Why can't politicians articulate one?" Nobody interested in politics can have failed to hear these laments. They are particularly discernible during election campaigns and following the death of demagogues.

Conservatives tend to be suspicious of big ideas. They think that when ideas get too big, they become ideologies. Ideology is a way of thinking that aims at power, not truth, and the whole basis of conservatism is scepticism towards the possibility of true knowledge. Yet the Conservative-dominated coalition ruling Westminster does have a big idea. It is called the Big Society, and Jesse Norman has provided the best explanation we have yet had of it. The new Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire has worked in finance, academia and the third sector. He writes lucidly, has the ear of the Tory leadership, and during his time at Policy Exchange, Cameron's favourite think-tank, published several works whose ideas this book coheres.

Its argument is clear and cogent: the state is too big and boisterous. It should be smaller and smarter. Growth in the power of our state has produced diminishing returns in the quality of public services, portrays citizens as passive recipients of centralised benefaction, and is unaffordable. It has taken place during the reign of homo economicus – a flawed representation of the human being's economic preferences, which portrays him as rational and acting on the basis of perfect information, when actually he is neither.

At the same time, political theory has been obsessed with the freedom of the individual and the function of the state, but said too little about what is in between: institutions. We need a theory of institutions. The Big Society aims to harness their power, whether large (school) or small (family), to boost fraternity.

Norman calls on a central idea in the work of Michael Oakeshott, his conservative hero, to advance this theory. Oakeshott distinguished between two types of society: civil versus enterprise associations. The former is an association of citizens who are equal under the law but have no common purpose or plan; the latter is a project in which citizens are conscripted into a common, broad undertaking, usually aimed at world improvement. Oakeshott preferred the former.

Norman's introduction of a third category is liable to be remembered as his great contribution to political thought. It is timely, astute and compassionate. For the Big Society, the "connected" society, we need a philic association, from the Greek philia, meaning "tie", "affection", "friendship" or "regard". This can be a vehicle for the human affections embodied by institutions. Unleashing those affections is the aim of the Big Society.

Norman tours all the latest fashions in political wonkery: behavioural economics, Burkean inter-generational obligation, wisdom-of-crowds theory, and Amartya Sen's "capabilities", a brilliant update of Isaiah Berlin's positive liberty. We are living in the Age of Research, and Norman has noticed.

Yet his book is not so much full of faults as full of frustrations. All but one is a consequence of its brevity. (At just over 200 pages, it is really a glorified pamphlet.) Norman pays only passing regard to the recent tradition of Big Society-thinking in Britain itself. David Willetts' pamphlet on Civic Conservatism was about nothing other than harnessing institutional power. He wrote it in 1995. David Blunkett's Scarman Lecture (2003), Labour's "Together We Can" action plan (2005), and Hazel Blears' "Active Citizens" speech (2006) all aimed at the Big Society. The failure properly to invoke this tradition means we don't know why this time will be different.

Nor are all the propositions in Norman's argument given enough interrogation. He says that policies which "increase the scope... for risk-taking will reduce social frustration and increase well-being". But in his peerless essay "On Being Conservative", Oakeshott described the true conservative as risk-averse, as "not in love with what is dangerous and difficult... unadventurous". Are these two positions compatible?

Similarly, Norman says that "promoting diversity" is a chief focus of the Big Society. But nobody could deny that large-scale immigration, of which I am a fan and beneficiary, has in particular instances promoted atomisation. He says Fabians believed "the imperfections of human nature and human society could be eliminated by science", via the state; but that is to ascribe to them a utopianism not even Beatrice and Sidney Webb deserve. The lack of index is annoying, too; I hope there is a second edition which includes one, is twice the length, and resolves some of the above tensions.

Above all, Norman's reconciliation of the Big Society with austerity is incomplete. I work for four Big Society institutions. All but one is skint. When individual and corporate donors are repairing balance sheets, the state is a last hope for precious funds.

But then, that is moving into the territory of a programme for government. This book is something else: the elucidation of a philosophical tendency. It doesn't so much go beyond left and right as reacquaint conservatism with a noble tradition of old Whiggery – one that accommodates the best intentions and insights of the left. It coheres major recent academic advances, and is argued with urgency. Next time you hear someone caterwauling about the lack of big ideas in politics, refer them to this.