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What chance the Big Society?

    My guess is that supporters of the CPS are not greatly interested in the Big Society. I might be wrong, but I suspect that for most the priorities lie in limiting the activities of the state, cutting taxation, and reducing the deficit. Ending big government rather than crafting the big society would be their main concern and preoccupation.

    Yet David Cameron seems to think that these two objectives go hand in hand. And perhaps he is right. Today the state performs an enormous number of vital functions. Should it withdraw from any of these activities – the provision of public libraries, to take a relatively trivial example – who, if anyone, will step into the breach? After decades of collectivism, can it be assumed that individuals, voluntary associations, charities and other similar bodies will be both capable and willing to take on the job? Is this likely to happen if we lack a sense of society as an expression of something larger than its individual parts? Presumably it is an awareness of these difficulties that led David Cameron, while still in opposition, to declare that “we need to use the state to remake society”. 

    There are of course good conservative reasons for believing that much of benefit will flow from a society characterised by thriving, self-governing civil associations. Most obviously, the individual will be freed from the clutches of the servile state. Social ties will be strengthened. Communities will be empowered. Individual responsibility will be enhanced.

    Nor is there a shortage of conservative thinkers towards whom one can turn for inspiration. Most often, and most easily, reference is made to Edmund Burke and his “little platoons”, the “sub-divisions” to which we all belong and through which, in Burke’s typical elegant phrase, “we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind”.

    Yet here we might pause for thought. Burke was writing at the end of the eighteenth century. His was a predominately agrarian and non-urban society. It was a relatively static and homogenous society and one characterised by near religious uniformity. Can his vision be transposed onto an urbanised, commercial and multicultural society like our own?

    This question came forcibly to mind after reading an essay by Oxford political scientist Alan Ware.[i]

    Ware makes the point that typically three criticisms are made of the Big Society project: the provision of the necessary infrastructures could be massively expensive; resources are unevenly spread across the country; and compliance with health and safety legislation could greatly complicate and diminish the provision of services at a local level.

    To these however Ware adds a more fundamental question: to what extent can local communities be effective loci of power in contemporary Britain?

    His point here is that territory matters far less than it used to. Not only are populations increasingly unstable and mobile but many of us work, shop and entertain ourselves outside the neighbourhoods in which we live. For many – especially the young - the Internet provides a means for people to live in “virtual communities”. In such circumstances not only are community activities in decline but an absence of appropriate patterns of social interaction makes the development of a sense of collective identity increasingly difficult. This in turn raises the question of whom, if anyone, has the right to speak in the name of such a loose and diverse community. This is a particularly problematic as many of the traditional sources of power – the Church, for example – no longer possess the authority to do so.

    Ware does not want to deny that there are places in Britain where a strong sense of local identity and an enthusiasm for community-based activity still exist. The retired in particular show a willingness to volunteer and an appreciation of services provided at neighbourhood level. But in today’s Britain this is not the norm.

    Does this mean that the Big Society project is best seen as an example of Burkean nostalgia for a lost past? Was Mrs Thatcher right after all to suggest that there is no such thing as society? The huge numbers of people who volunteered during the Olympic Games is sufficient to indicate that this might not be so. But capturing and sustaining that enthusiasm is no easy matter. It certainly takes more than speeches at party conferences. Building the structures that facilitate and extend the opportunities for neighbourhood activities will not be done either cheaply or quickly. Nor should the quick fix of a greater role for mutual societies and charities be relied upon. They have neither the resources nor expertise that some people imagine. Much more energy, money and long-term commitment will be required from government than has been evident to date.

    So the prospects for the Big Society do not look good. No doubt many of those who still support the government would not mourn its demise. This, they might say, would be the least of David Cameron’s difficulties. But if the Big Society goes, what remains of the vision David Cameron offered the British people of rebuilding a broken Britain? Not much. Time for another big idea?

    [i] “The Big Society and Conservative Politics: Back to the Future or Forward to the Past?” in Jason Edwards (ed), Retrieving the Big Society (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, pp.82-97.


    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest works are 'Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France' published by Oxford University Press and his edition of Destutt de Tracy's 'A Treatise on Political Economy' published by Liberty Fund. 

    Professor Jeremy Jennings is Director of the Centre for the Study of Political Thought at Queen Mary, University of London. His latest work, Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

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