Letter from the Editor: Does anyone have the guts to defend the Big Society?

 

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Speaking in Liverpool on 19 July 2010, David Cameron explained his mission in politics.

“You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society.” This was his big idea. Yet going into this May’s election, there is almost total silence about it in Westminster. Does that mean it was a failure? My answer is: yes and no. But first, some context.

For much of the past half-century, politics in the West has split along ideological lines of right and left. The main parties became known as guarantors of either the free market or the state. In America, Republicans and Democrats followed this pattern; in Britain, Tories and Labour did similar. Then three things happened.

First, the Clinton/Blair eras, with their Third Way approach, showed this distinction to be unnecessary. Second, the financial crisis and ensuing recession showed that both free market and state were incapable of meeting many of our biggest challenges. And, third, political thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic cottoned on to a huge new body of academic research, in the areas known as behavioural economics and social psychology, which showed just how deeply influenced we are by our social environments.

This was the context in which Cameron launched the Big Society. The notion that it was mere cover for austerity was lazy. It contained many excellent new ideas, and gave a rebranding to many old ones that had been gaining traction for two decades.

In practical terms, the Big Society was erratic. This newspaper had the scoop that the Big Society Network was being investigated by the Charity Commission. Lord Wei, Big Society tsar, left after less than a year. Millions of pounds were given to Locality, the community organisers: a decision that was ineffective to say the least. Last month, Civil Exchange, a think-tank, was scathing: the “Big Society has failed to deliver against its original goals… [and] has not reached those who need it most”.

For all that, there have been successes. The National Citizenship Service is doing reasonably. Free schools have given power to many more parents (and taken it from others). And the Localism Act allowed local communities to control public assets. But the big irony about the Big Society is that those who devised it seem no longer to believe in it – or, if they do, feel they have to shut up about it.

I think this is a shame. I get that political messages need to be clear. I know that cynicism rules. But the Big Society contains too much insight to be abandoned altogether. One day, someone will revive it. I just hope they’re better salesmen than this lot in power.

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