There are two entirely separate questions that the Big Society throws up. The first relates to the politics of David Cameron's big idea. Are there significant and perhaps fatal electoral risks for him in persisting with the theme? The second is over the substance of the issue. Will the Big Society flourish as an alternative to state provision?
In most cases the answers to two such questions would be intimately entwined. There would be a direct connection if we were analysing Cameron's NHS reforms or the deficit reduction – two precise policies. In the case of the Big Society they are not connected. Cameron takes no political risks – and might even benefit – by battling on with his governing theme, but the Big Society will not succeed in changing people's lives.
Cameron is at his Blair-like best when putting the arguments for his cause. There he was yesterday in shirtsleeves, tackling the familiar objections with passion and good humour. There must have been shivers of unease inside No 10 when his carefully choreographed event was billed as a relaunch – the deadly term that signifies doom. It was no such thing. Instead, Cameron went for emphatic reiteration of arguments and policies that he has espoused for several years.
In doing so he highlighted an important and underestimated element of the Big Society. Politically it is a "no-lose" for him, providing a sense of purpose that extends beyond spending cuts. Take away the Big Society and all that is left is the sweeping cuts as an overwhelming theme. With the Big Society still in place there is at least tonal variety and a theoretical focus on uplifting social causes.
Ed Miliband was on to something when he wrote in The Independent on Sunday at the weekend about the re-contamination of the Tory brand – how it looked once more like the nasty party. The Big Society does not sound nasty. On this basis alone it serves a purpose. But beyond crude expediency there are also small parts of the Government genuinely more excited about this agenda than any other.
I believe Cameron when he describes it as his mission. People go into politics for many reasons. One of them is to bring about changes they believe in. If Cameron were to indicate that he was dumping the Big Society, some of his closest allies would give up. There would be a tangible and dangerous loss of political energy from within. They have been planning this for years. It is not true that the Big Society is a cover for cuts. They were making these arguments when they were committed briefly to Labour's spending levels.
Politically there will be enough examples of local initiatives by the time of the next election to provide Cameron with some limited ammunition. Already I can hear him argue that given more time (a second term, thank you very much) his big idea would get bigger. At the next election he will be seen outside a "free" school and a library taken over by some old people with time on their hands. Politically that will be enough.
At worst the Big Society will have no impact at the next election. At best Cameron will be able to claim in difficult economic circumstances that he has set some people free to deliver services. His claims will be tendentious, but all propositions at elections are seen in a sceptical light. In the meantime he will have the chance to display Blair-like energy in appearing to take on weak institutions already on their knees – councils and libraries.
Perhaps as he prepared to make the case yesterday Cameron thought of Blair and his welfare revolutions and the scars on his back. Now Cameron has his cause too. The politics of the Big Society are utterly safe for the Prime Minister. There is no risk whatsoever in him sticking with it. But he will not improve society by cutting the size of the state with unprecedented speed. His predecessors have already tried.
There is a convenient mythology about the 1980s in which Margaret Thatcher and her allies are seen as a bunch of malevolent revolutionaries. Like parts of the current Government, they were indeed revolutionaries, but they were not malevolent. They did not seek to leave Britain with some of the most dilapidated public services in Europe. Like Cameron they aimed for the precise opposite. They meant well.
In the late 1980s I got to know Nicholas Ridley. He was Thatcher's Environment Secretary at the time and one of her favourite ministers. Ridley proclaimed a "revolution in social housing". The state would cease to build social housing but private landlords would be encouraged to take over run-down housing estates. Tenants would be given powers to form housing associations and take over estates. There was no revolution. Without the power and finance of central or local government there was no activity at all. As a result there is still an extreme shortage of affordable housing. But I know from long discussions with Ridley that he genuinely believed that if the state shrunk, other more efficient providers would fill the gap.
Now Cameron hails the Big Society Bank as one alternative to the cuts. In doing so he inadvertently highlights the practical and self-imposed limits of this latest vision of compassionate conservatism. The banks are lending – not giving – the Big Society Bank £200m at commercial rates. The Big Society Bank will operate independently of government. It will not make grants and it will be expected to make a sufficient return on its investment to cover its operating costs. It will not put money directly into social enterprises, or businesses with some kind of social purpose, but will invest in funds and operations that in turn make the direct investments.
I suspect that future historians will pay as much attention to the Big Society and its bank as they do now to Ridley's housing revolution. But politically Cameron will bear no scars on his back from this particular theme. His electoral fate will be determined by the decisions made last May on wiping out the deficit more quickly than other governments. No doubt his belief in a smaller state and a Big Society made those decisions much easier to take, but it is the economy that will determine his electoral fate.