Times are hard, but Cameron's idea could unlock the "hidden wealth" in our communitiesby David Halpern / August 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
It is striking how many people are still struggling to get their head around what David Cameron’s “big society” actually means. For critics on the left it’s simply a way to dress up cuts: get volunteers into museums and cut their budgets; get neighbours to look after community centres and reduce grants. It’s a smoke and mirrors game to cut the size of the state—an acceptable mask for laissez faire.
But even these critics sense there’s more to it than that. At a recent seminar, one ex-No 10 Labour adviser commented: “I just reread our manifesto, and I couldn’t believe how statist it was.” Labour supporters may be suspicious of the big society but they also know that the big state can’t be the only answer in town.
The public has a similar view. One of the most striking findings in my recent book, The Hidden Wealth of Nations (Polity), was the hostility the British people had built up by 2008 to both the market economy and the state. Nearly three out of four Britons agreed with the statement that “the state intervenes too much”—a higher level than almost any other EU nation. Yet Britons were not warmly embracing the market either: just over half agreed that “free competition is best for prosperity”—far fewer than in Germany, Belgium, Sweden, or eastern Europe. For many of the public, their experience is of being trampled under the feet of both state and market. It should give pause for thought that Danes and Swedes feel much more positive about the state and the market, while we languish with the Portuguese and Greeks in our unhappiness about both.
So if it’s not more of the state or the market we want, what is it? There seem to be three main elements to Cameron’s own thinking, set out in his big society speech in Liverpool: community empowerment, social action and public service reform.
Community empowerment is the part of big society that attracted most attention during the election and the early days of the coalition. But it is also the part most prone to parody: parents setting up schools, even with a bit of help from Michael Gove, sounds like hard work (see Judith Judd, p24). For most, it’s something they would rather have the state do, even if they would like it done better and with a greater input from them. As Ben Page,…