Previously a Trojan horse for the small state, 2020 is showing how the Big Society should have worked all alongby Julian Baggini / June 18, 2020 / Leave a comment
Do you remember the Big Society? Despite being mocked as vacuous, vague or both, David Cameron’s big idea was at the heart of the 2010 Conservative manifesto and survived into the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats. In his book The Big Society, the Conservative MP and philosopher Jesse Norman wrote that “Most political slogans have a life-cycle of days to hours. Yet it is already clear that the idea of the Big Society is taking root in the public mind.”
Ten years later, it looks more like the Big Society was nipped in the bud. Cameron last used the phrase in 2013. The charity The Big Society Network, which was set up in 2010 in order “to generate, develop and showcase new ideas to help people to come together in their neighbourhoods to do good things,” collapsed in 2015 following a critical National Audit Office report. Big Society Capital, an independent social investment company set up by the Cabinet Office in 2012, does still operate but seems to be living up to its billing by the FT as “a tiny acorn from which it is far from certain that a giant oak will grow.”
The Covid-19 crisis, however, suggests that the Big Society has legs after all. If it failed the first time, it was not because of any inherent flaw, but the disingenuousness of those who championed it. Officially an attempt to redraw the social contract between state and society by empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives, for many Conservatives it was primarily just a more palatable way to sell the shrinking of the state than a Thatcherite rolling back of its frontiers. Shorn of this not so hidden agenda, the Big Society has life in it yet.
Cameron launched his Big Society agenda in his Hugo Young lecture in November 2009. What is striking about the speech is how seriously it took the concerns of the centre-left. Cameron cites Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work on inequality in The Spirit Level, mentions studies by the Sutton Trust on decreasing social mobility, and even declares that new Labour’s flagship Sure Start programme directed at disadvantaged families “should stay.”