Can the Big Society work?

In the first part of a three-day debate, our chief political commentator Steve Richards examines the genesis, development and ultimate misjudgment of a Coalition policy that, he argues, is doomed to fail

Tuesday 08 February 2011 01:00

Since becoming Prime Minister David Cameron has managed, with majestic flair, to rise above the political fray. While his tormented senior ministers are associated with policies of raging controversy, Cameron has escaped such deadly definition. There is a single theme that challenges the neat but improbable image of a Prime Minister conveniently detached from his Government's policies. The Big Society originated with Cameron's leadership. No one else in the Government can be targeted if the Big Society does not take hold. Nick Clegg was no pre-election advocate. Andrew Lansley had other matters on his hyperactive mind. The Big Society is Cameron's big idea. If the idea is in trouble, Cameron is in trouble too.

During his victory speech when he became leader of the Conservative party at the end of 2005, Cameron uttered a defining phrase. The single sentence was a work of political genius, transforming the Conservatives' prospects and holding in thrall an army of non-Conservative columnists in the media desperate to hail another Blair -like figure after their hero had left the political stage. For Cameron, his intoxicating words were also a trap.

With an apparently modernising flourish the youthful new Tory leader declared: "There is such a thing as society, but it is not the same as the state."

The words formed the framework for the Big Society, the one theme that Cameron has clung to through the years. Many of his other early priorities as a leader were dropped once they had served their purpose of rebranding his party. The environment no longer enjoys the attention the Tory leader once gave it. The NHS shivers with fear rather than the dramatically counter intuitive hope Cameron had generated in his early speeches. But the Big Society endures, to such an extent that Cameron made it the central theme of his speech at last year's Conservative party conference, the first he delivered as Prime Minister. It was also the idea that permeated every page of the Conservatives' election manifesto last May.

While those original words from 2005 were politically brilliant, they were much riskier than they seemed at the time. Words do not evaporate. They carry obligations, even those with imprecise policy implications. As a phrase, Cameron's observation about society and the state were as significant as Tony Blair's sound bite in which he declared that Labour would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. With a single leap Blair had escaped from a perception that Labour was soft on criminals while retaining his party's more familiar theoretical commitment to social justice. Because Blair's sound bite covered a relatively narrow area it was fairly easy to follow up in relation to policies. As Prime Minister, Blair included a crime Bill in virtually every Queen's Speech, although quite a lot of the subsequent legislation was pointless or counter-productive, an historic sound bite was being fleshed out. Blair made sure he was at least perceived as being tough on crime.

How does Cameron create a Big Society with a smaller state? The answer is nowhere near as straightforward, if there is any answer at all. The policy implications of the Big Society are simultaneously more evasive and challenging. The political calculation behind Cameron's sound bite about society not being the same as the state was subtler than Blair's crime slogan. In one sentence Cameron appeared to refute Margaret Thatcher's famous observation that "there is no such thing as society". This is what excited some non -Conservatives. Dinner parties of gullible progressives in north London had a regular theme: "Here at last was a Conservative leader moving on to the centre ground and perhaps was more progressive than Labour. He recognises the importance of society!"

But a reading of Mrs Thatcher's speech, in which her famous words about society were taken, shows that she was making precisely the same case as Cameron, about the need for a smaller state in which other institutions or communities would deliver services more effectively. Indeed, in the late 1970s when she was Leader of the Opposition, Thatcher delivered a series of speeches, chronicled in John Campbell's excellent biography, in which she highlighted the importance of charities as an alternative to state provision. Cameron was endorsing her view of a smaller state while adopting tonally, a more compassionate language. In opposition, one of Cameron's allies described his agenda approvingly in private as "reheated Thatcherism".

There is, though, an important difference. Having placed such an emphasis on a new tonal compassion Cameron is under immense pressure to deliver on the vague vision of a cohesive society bound by agencies other than the state. Thatcher's provocative, confrontational tone seemed to match the demolition of some services in the 1980s. If a library or charity closes under Cameron there is a more politically explosive clash between tone and outcome.

Cameron, his senior adviser Steve Hilton, and close ministerial ally Oliver Letwin, have been contemplating the Big Society for years. The idea is not as superficial or vacuous as some of the policies that have been rushed out in a hurry at various phases of the Cameron/Osborne era. In theory at least, there are agencies other than the state that can deliver services at a local level. Individually, Conservative MPs have anecdotes of barriers being removed, knowledge pooled and money saved as a result of Big Society-related measures. The Cumbrian MP, Rory Stewart, told The Independent of a local imitative to install high-speed broadband at a fraction of a cost charged by British Telecom. In Haringey, a top floor of one of the libraries that currently remains open is being utilised by a community group citing the Big Society as justification for their joint project. Amid economic gloom, a thousand very small flowers still might bloom.

There was a chance once that the flowers might have been bigger. This was during the brief phase in opposition when Cameron/Osborne were committed to the same spending levels as Labour, the only point when the Big Society sat more or less comfortably with their other messages. Obviously since then, both parties have had to lower their spending ambitions because of the economic crisis, but the Conservative duo opted for the most extreme revision available. On fiscal policy they returned to their Thatcherite comfort zone. Evidently both are more at ease with this variety of fiscal tightening than affecting an enthusiasm for public spending as they previously had done. Perhaps they look forward to tax cutting budgets when the pain has been inflicted. But when they decided last May to implement sweeping cuts quickly, the already vague notion of a Big Society became vaguer.

At this pivotal junction, Cameron could have admitted in public statements that he had opted for short-term bleakness and played down his hopes of a Big Society. Instead, he chose to talk it up even more. In private his allies were more gung ho, arguing that the cuts made the Big Society more necessary. Some of them described the spending stringency as a "great opportunity". Now they discover that local services cannot be so easily delivered when budgets are taken away.

They should not be surprised. During the earlier phase when they were committed to higher spending levels Cameron and his team staged some thoughtful, day-long seminars in which they explored fresh ways of delivering high-quality services. These discussions, taking place in 2007 and early 2008, were the embryonic Big Society.

The context mattered. They had the freedom to explore precisely because they were taking a less Thatcherite approach to "tax and spend". At one of the early seminars Michael Gove declared: "It is refreshing to be at a Conservative gathering when we are not debating tax cuts." Privately, Steve Hilton accepted that debates about levels of spending were no longer central. Instead, the priority was to explore how local communities could deliver services more effectively. Anyone attending the seminars would have gone away with a sense that in the short term at least, the changes would cost money. Another term Cameron used to convey the idea of a society with a smaller state was the "post-bureaucratic age": in theory, the state would cut bureaucrats, allowing a vibrant more productive voluntary sector and local communities to innovate on their own. But it was always less clear in this vision which agencies would be responsible for co-ordinating funds and monitoring how the cash was spent. Quite often at the end of day-long seminars on the "post-bureaucratic age", senior Conservatives had appointed thousands of bureaucrats to implement and monitor the changes. The changes did not come cheap at first.

Now No 10 is frustrated and angry that leading figures in the voluntary sector get publicity for complaining that cuts are destroying any hope of a Big Society. Yesterday, Elizabeth Hoodless, the outgoing head of Community Service Volunteers, was the latest to warn about the demise of Mr Cameron's big idea. Others have already done so. For a Prime Minister who has managed to escape much detailed scrutiny so far, this is a moment of heightened danger.

Cameron's response to the growing criticism has an echo with Tony Blair during his first term. In a speech this week Cameron will argue that reform is difficult. There is so much bureaucracy. It takes so long to bring about change. Blair used to say the same in the first term, when in reality his policies needed more work and cash. Cameron's old friend and former speechwriter Danny Kruger wrote in yesterday's Financial Times that the social revolution needs "a revolutionary in chief" and suggests that Cameron must step forward. Again, there is an echo of Blair. In Labour's first term he decided that if only he was in charge of his self-proclaimed "welfare revolution" could the revolution take place. Blair made a big speech in Sedgefield in December 1997 announcing that he was seizing control of the agenda. The heavily briefed announcement generated huge media attention. Nothing happened. The policies were the problem and, in some cases, the lack of funding. Expect a speech soon from the heir to Blair announcing that he, personally, is seizing control of his Big Society. Again nothing will happen when cuts are being imposed on such a scale. They were warned in advance. Persistently senior figures in the voluntary sector pointed out that they would need resources if they were expected to have more responsibilities. They worried that Cameron's team had a19th- century vision of charities functioning erratically with few resources. Now some of them find they have no resources at all.

Some inNo 10 are adamant that councils should make efficiency savings rather than cut grants to community groups. Cameron made this point at last week's Prime Minister's Question Time and it is a valid one. But Cameron cannot do very much about the way councils choose to implement cuts. He has argued that his Big Society is a form of localism. Nick Clegg has declared his support on precisely the grounds that the vision is another form of localism. They can hardly tell councils what to do from the centre having insisted that they wish the centre to do less.

There is much soul searching inNo 10, critical parts of the Conservative party and the largely pro-Tory columnists about why the Big Society has failed to take off. Should No 10 be re-organised? Should a revamped Cabinet Office run the programme in its entirety? Will a new communications director make a difference by conveying more clearly what the Government is trying to do with its big idea? Blair posed all three questions in his first term during what he and Gordon Brown prematurely described as their "post-euphoria, pre-delivery" phase. All the questions were and are irrelevant. If No 10 were staffed on the scale of the White House, if the Cabinet Office became a mighty machine and Cameron's new director of communications behaved like Alastair Campbell on speed, the policy cannot work when Sure Start centres and libraries are closing, and the voluntary sector is being cut, in front of people's eyes.

There is such a thing as society. Sometimes the state is a necessary binding agency even if it is an inefficient one. Only in Britain is there an enduring fantasy that services can improve with less investment. The day Cameron and Osborne opted for sweeping cuts was a defining one with a thousand consequences. One of them is brutally clear. The decision killed off the Big Society and no relaunches or "revolutionary chiefs" can save it as the axe falls.

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