Steve Richards: But what if the Big Society doesn't work?

While the over-riding motive is not directly connected to our economic situation, lack of resources is why the vision is so limited

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What a strange government this is turning out to be. Last week it announced without much fanfare a revolution in the NHS, plans that will be costly, chaotic and I predict subject to panic-stricken revisions within months of implementation, but nonetheless epic in their ambition. Yesterday with trumpets blaring, the speech zealously briefed in advance, David Cameron announced that a few volunteers would get the chance to keep open a museum in Liverpool and a few other projects on a similar scale.

While GPs contemplate hiring thousands of consultants and accountants to help them compete in the artificial market envisaged by the coalition, and Whitehall is in a state of semi-alarm as departments seek unprecedented cuts, Cameron gives a speech which offers hope to museum-goers in Liverpool. He claims it as his political purpose, describing the revolutionary activity being carried out elsewhere in more dutiful terms. Indeed, Cameron argues that moves towards a so-called Big Society are his revolution.

He makes the claim sincerely. I have no doubt the speech he made yesterday excites his senior advisers in No 10 and ministerial allies more than details of every pound being cut in the unnecessarily brutal spending round. Labour is wrong to claim that the vision of a so-called Big Society is outlined solely as a disguise for big spending cuts. Cameron and his inner circle were making these plans in opposition when still committed to Labour's spending levels. I recall having a long conversation with Cameron's closest ally, Steve Hilton, in which he agreed that in relation to this agenda, at least, his party had to leave behind its pre-occupation with tax and spending cuts. There was more to it than that. In theory they are enthusiasts for the redistribution of power to the lowest possible levels. If Britain was booming and they were not committed to Thatcherite economics, Cameron would still have made his speech yesterday.

But while the over-riding motive is not directly connected to the current economic situation, the lack of resources is a reason why the vision is so limited. Cameron and others were extolling the virtues of the voluntary sector well before they took over the Conservatives in 2005. Voluntary groups are flattered. But pretty soon the issue of money comes up. Some volunteers work for nothing. In No 10 they enthuse about a company in south London that assigns paid and unpaid volunteers to assist with projects including elderly care. But the company's website shows funding comes from groups including the local council. For schemes on any scale the Government will need to find more than the limited funds in the Big Society bank.

The projects cited in Cameron's speech are not especially unusual. The last government made cash available for all sorts of community projects, many of them vulnerable because of cuts. Funding under Labour might have been channelled differently and had more strings attached, but such schemes were common. Normally none of the initiatives announced by Cameron yesterday would have made the national news bulletins, and might have struggled to make it in to local newspapers. The framing of the puny measures transformed their significance. If Tony Blair had done the same it would have been dismissed as "spin" by some of those who enthuse about the Big Society. If Gordon Brown had announced a Big Society Day, as the Government proposes, he would have been slaughtered for the introduction of the gimmick.

Politically there are dangers for both sides. Empowerment is a popular theme and a populist one. As Margaret Thatcher discovered, voters respond to messages about the state getting off their back and leading their own lives. Cameron projects the argument more subtly, by speaking the language of community as well as the smaller state. The combination of the two makes the Big Society emblematic of his leadership, Thatcherite outlook revised as a progressive creed. One of his close allies once put it to me more bluntly and with great enthusiasm as "re-heated Thatcherism".

The risk for Cameron is that his big idea will not work. Quite often the state can deliver where individuals cannot. Last week the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, announced cuts to cooling systems on the overheated Tubes, saving a few million pounds. Under the Big Society he would no doubt call on travellers to bring their own personal fans as a more communal and cheaper alternative. Perhaps some would for a time, but in the end most projects in which the state has some connection require investment, expertise and co-ordination.

Michael Stephenson, who leads the Co-operative Party, points out that inviting volunteers to run a museum is fraught with risks. He detects no detailed work as to how volunteers will work with others at the museum and fears a casual shifting of responsibility to people not qualified for specialist tasks. He notes that in Cameron's speech there was no reference to Co-ops, supposedly a fashionable idea in the Prime Minister's circle. Co-operatives have a structure and while they empower those who work for them there are recognisable lines of accountability. Stephenson fears that in this case a museum or other similar projects could go under and the state will not bail them out.

The other risk for Cameron is that while his ambition in this area is sincerely held it is also markedly modest. His projection of radicalism has echoes of the early Tony Blair, when the Labour Prime Minister claimed that the introduction of NHS Direct marked a revolution in healthcare. The change was modest and the grandiose claim seemed even more bizarre when hospitals could not cope with an outbreak of mid-winter flu. Nonetheless Blair gave one interview in 1998 in which he proclaimed the government's radicalism 16 times in relation to NHS Direct.

In contrast to the timid Blair, the recklessly bold Cameron has no problems about the need to affect radicalism as he presides over a shrinking state, newly privileged "free" schools and the attempted transformation of the NHS. He argues that his Big Society is part of the same theme, taking power away from government and empowering local groups. He is correct about the consistency of theme, but while historians will record at length the impact of his economic policies and those relating to health and education his Big Society is likely to be no more than a small footnote.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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