Well a lot has happened since the Big Society first appeared as a political concept, a Coalition policy approach, and an independent citizen-led movement! established to help remove barriers to mass participation. As I have said before, it can be hard to get your head around at first, largely because it is organic and evolutionary in its nature, and because it maps in my view more closely to real life – infinitely varied and often surprising. It is more substantial than the tedious ‘do a press launch, announce a target, bring out the champagne’ approach of the previous government – which too often did not ultimately seem to really affect people’s lives on the ground.
But despite this, and the critiques from the some on the left and right, I’ve been struck by how the Big Society has struck a chord with ordinary people whether in the country or in town who feel government, and indeed many institutions such as some business or even some voluntary organisations have become too “big” if not in a literal sense then in terms of their attitude. Such organisations have often become overly bureaucratic, bloated, and distant from us, and leave little room for us as citizens to have a say, or to take matters into our own hands to improve our lives together where we live and where it is appropriate – in short they do not make ourselves as citizens, as a society, feel and be “big” but “small” and insignificant. Such a situation is a far cry from the vision of the welfare state which Beveridge had in mind to which we need through Big Society to return, and even of the early pre-Fabian Labour movement. Here is an excerpt from wikipedia quoting one of the principles of the Beveridge report which lay the foundations of today’s welfare state from pensions, to the NHS, social housing, and national insurance:
“Policies of social security ‘must be achieved by co-operation between the State and the individual’, with the state securing the service and contributions. The state ‘should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than that minimum for himself and his family’.
Compare this to David Cameron’s vision for the state in last year’s Hugo Young Memorial Lecture:
“I want to extend and deepen the argument I made in my party conference speech this year, that the size, scope and role of government in Britain has reached a point where it is now inhibiting, not advancing the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality, and increasing general well-being. Indeed there is a worrying paradox that because of its effect on personal and social responsibility, the recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.
But I also want to argue that just because big government has helped atomise our society, it doesn’t follow that smaller government would automatically bring us together again.
Yes, there are specific instances where the very act of rolling back the state will serve to roll forward society, for example when organisations that have been dependent on the state are asked to go outside government for funding, and thereby improve their record of engaging with the public and society. But I believe that in general, a simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life unbidden is wrong. Instead we need a thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size, of the state.
The first step must be a new focus on empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives so we create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop. This is especially vital in what is today the front line of the fight against poverty and inequality: education.
But I also want to argue that the re-imagined state should not stop at creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives. It must actively help people take advantage of this new freedom. This means a new role for the state: actively helping to create the big society; directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal.
So yes, in the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and injustice I do want to move from state action to social action. But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift. Let me put it more plainly: we must use the state to remake society.”
I think this is why opposition politicians before and during the election and today – while keen at times to criticize it as a “veil for cuts” (despite the fact that it was created before the last government created the deficit that now requires such large savings to be made) or as lacking substance (despite it being much more substantial than much of the last government’s programme – remember the Big Conversation?) – are privately and sometimes publicly envious of it. Both Paddy Ashdown during the election, and the Miliband brothers have alluded to it in speeches either claiming to improve on it, or coming up with their own more watered down versions, such as the Good Society. The Left need to listen to the voters who switched at the election, who according to Demos/YouGov research were fed up with Big Government and Big Debt. My big fear from the rhetoric we have heard from the leadership candidates so far is that they still believe in Big Government/Debt but are trying to dress it up unconvincingly in bigsocietyish language, and are risking being seen to be behind the times and out of touch (see another Demos/YouGov survey highlighting how this has started to happen already).