Andreas Whittam Smith: The idea of Big Society is beyond left and right

Small interventions in local communities can have a major impact through contagion. This is pioneering work. There is nothing to go on. It has not been done before

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Because its meaning is so elusive, David Cameron's notion of a "Big Society" is attracting a lot of attention. Everybody interested in politics is fascinated by the idea, as much on the left as among Tory ranks. But what is it? Perhaps it will suddenly appear among us with dazzling clarity this coming Sunday afternoon in Birmingham, when Conservatives debate "People power and the Big Society" at its annual conference.

One formulation goes as follows: "Remove the bureaucracy of an overbearing state and people across the country will diligently take up voluntary work in their local communities". Or, to take another version: "As the Government withdraws from certain activities in order to bring the budget deficit under control, it leaves us to get on with the consequences and calls our struggle the Big Society". It is not yet clear which is on offer – "Trust the people" because we have unused potential or "trust the people" because the State has backed off.

The Lib Dem Equality minister in the Coalition Government, Lynne Featherstone, gave a well-balanced answer to this dilemma when she said: "The Big Society is undoubtedly a better idea than the nanny state – but the line between public service provision and what can be added by the Big Society is a critical one. So, as we [try] to provide sustainable routes out of poverty, it is the provision of life-changing education, routes into employment and a change in aspiration and expectation that is needed. Much of that remains state responsibility, albeit some of it can be enhanced by the Big Society – or even taken on by the Big Society – but the basic provision has to be authored by the state."

Yet if this were all, churches, voluntary organisations and groups of people working to help disadvantaged communities wouldn't be examining the idea so carefully. What they see is something novel and useful. For it directs us not to what markets can provide, or what the state can do but to what we as individuals, as citizens, can contribute. This is very new.

As Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said in a recent debate in the House of Lords: "We are at a point where a debate about the nature of citizenship is perhaps more important than it has been for a century or more." He added: "Healthy citizenship grows out of a sense that your voice is worth hearing. You will discover that your voice is worth hearing when you are listened to. It is about more than what is due to me, but is about what I positively want, and not simply what I want for myself but what I recognise as wanted by my neighbours."

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts (RSA), and a former strategy adviser in Downing Street, divides the concept into two parts. "The thing that is demonstrably true," he said, "is that we will need an enhanced model of citizenship if we are to create a better future to which we aspire." And he added, "Philosophically, it contains the idea that to live a full life means giving something back and being a full member of society, not just existing as a self-interested atomistic individual". When have we last heard comments like this from social policy experts?

So what would "giving something back" mean in, say, the following context? A recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) about anti-social behaviour and the poor police response found that police had staged a 30-year "retreat from the streets", allowing the "disease" of anti-social behaviour to blight Britain.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson said a "psychological contract" between police and the public over tackling street yobbery was broken. Officers sitting behind desks often leave members of the public to face petty thuggery alone. He said "police must back up ordinary citizens so they do not feel afraid to challenge nuisance behaviour". The public won't tackle anti-social behaviour while they fear reprisals. Instead they avoid public spaces, don't stay out at night and steer clear of groups of youths. Armed with Big Society ideas, the correct response to this terrible problem would surely be as follows. First, the police would substantially improve their response. The State must do what only the State can do. To this end, HMIC have made a number of excellent proposals that seem likely to be adopted. What works on the ground in tackling anti-social behaviour is the regular gathering and analysis of relevant information and a special focus on repeat and vulnerable victims, together with an intelligent deployment of police resources. But that is only half the job.

Using Big Society techniques, work would be done to help local communities enhance their ability to improve what we might call the social norms of their neighbourhoods. And that is exactly where the non-government bodies I mentioned above would come in – churches, voluntary organisations and groups of people working to help disadvantaged communities.

It is relevant here that in a recent publication – How social networks power and sustain the Big Society – the RSA argued that defining "communities" solely in geographic terms has major limitations. A fresh approach based on mapping local social networks in detail is now required. Then the question becomes how social networks shape social norms at a local level and whether such norms can, in turn, help to build trust such that informal transactions become easier, and people feel safer and more likely to help each other out, for instance with child care, shopping, or gardening, in a way that models the Big Society. What has been found so far is that small interventions can have major impacts through contagion effects. This is pioneering work. There is nothing to go on. It has never been done before.

Nonetheless we are going back to a very old idea. Edmund Burke said "to love the little platoon we belong to in society is... the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind". The French revolutionary motto wasn't just "Liberty and Equality" but "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity". And isn't "fraternity" what the Big Society means?

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