Less that 48 hours after David Cameron’s attempt to revive his flagship idea with a speech in Milton Keynes last week, Lord Nat Wei–his Big Society tsar–resigned (ironically amidst rumours that he has left the unremunerated post for some proper paying work). Wei isn’t being replaced, and critics have asked how seriously the government can take the project if there is no one responsible for implementing it.
The whole concept has never been hard to lampoon: just go and interview a mum who has enough on with the school run, never mind running the school. And of course it’s de riguer to argue that it is simply ideological cover for cuts.
But while it’s true that Cameron struggles to get the Big Society to resonate with voters or his party (though there are plenty of commendable ideas that would fail to pass those tests), there are more significant things to be said both for it and against it.
If the Big Society is partly about ”detoxifying” the party, then it’s hardly a disagreeable adjustment to the Conservative brand. As Cameron said on Monday, he wants to mine the “‘hidden wealth of our nation”:
“The idea that the centre right is simply about the philosophy of individualism–of personal and commercial freedom–is a travesty of our tradition. From Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in the 18th century, from Hegel and de Tocqueville in the 19th, to Hayek and Oakeshott in the 20th, all have been clear that individual freedom is only half the story. Tradition, community, family, faith, the space between the market and the state: this is the ground where our philosophy is planted.”
For their own part, Blair and Brown would have made similar arguments, though (sometimes) name dropping different philosophers. To an extent, it’s just a part of making politics affective and interesting.
But if there’s one thing we can glean from Cameron’s attachment to the Big Society, when even his allies wonder if he’s flogging a dead horse, is that he really does mean it. If it were purely presentational, then the Big Society would surely have been quietly dropped in advance of the general election. No, the problem is not insincerity. The problem is finding forms of politics that will live…