The Sunday Times

February 20th, 2011

Take heart, prime minister – the other lot want that big idea

David Cameron is right about the big society. He is right and brave to stake his reputation on it, despite all the scorn thrown at him. The big society is an idea that is easy to mock, easy to misrepresent and hard to define. It is a great shame that Cameron’s policy wonks did not come up with a less ridiculous name. It is also a great shame that people confuse it, both innocently and cynically, with cuts in state spending and with local authorities cutting funds to charities rather than axeing their own unnecessary non-jobs. Nonetheless, the big society is a great idea, an expression of what has traditionally been best in the Conservative party and in the human spirit.

The proof of this is that the left loves it, really. That is to say, the more thoughtful leftists pay the big society the compliment of claiming it for themselves. Jackie Ashley, a senior voice of The Guardian, warned her side last week to avoid partisan abuse of what is really their own: “The big society is out there, a vague but powerful notion, related to our deep desire to help our neighbours and be part of something greater than our own payslips — but it is an idea that properly belongs to the centre-left, not to the right.”

That weather vane Peter Mandelson committed himself to the view last October that with the big society the prime minister was “onto a good idea … we will have to find more of our solutions from within the communities that make our society”.

Jonathan Freedland also admitted in The Guardian last week that “there’s a good idea in there screaming to get out. Labour should grab it and claim it as its own”. Referring back to Labour’s roots, he points out that with the co-operative movement and friendly societies and trade unions, Labour had “an ethos of collective organisation and self-help which pre-dated the Fabian emphasis on central government and the later obsession with state ownership”.

He adds: “There is no reason for people on the left to be opposed to a society made up of neighbours who don’t wait for the council to clean up a needle-strewn park but do it themselves,” and warns that the Labour party will be making a big mistake if it opposes the idea at the heart of the big society, “for they will be offering an impoverished notion of what it is to be on the left, reducing it to mere statism”.

It is always encouraging when your own arguments are made by the other side.

None of this, however, really clarifies what the idea at the heart of the big society is. At an obvious level it is a Conservative reaction against the bloated big state — the intrusive state that has created welfare dependency, nationalised charity and undermined personal autonomy, while failing to do much about the broken society, as Cameron rightly calls it.

I think it has to do with a spirit of fellow feeling, a sense that everyone can, in smaller or greater ways, make life sweeter or more bearable for others and is to some extent responsible for other people. It’s a mentality that doesn’t turn to the state when embarking on a project; it doesn’t expect state solutions to everything, although it acknowledges the role of the state. It is a culture in which, despite different incomes and education, we are, except for some unregenerate plutocrats, “all in this together”.

There are many things that money and position cannot make better, any more than welfare and high taxes can, but that personal kindness can ease. There is in extreme difficulties only fraternity — the fraternity of the graveyard hour in a children’s hospital, for example. Suffering is a great leveller, and in such places people hold their hands out to one another in the brotherhood and sisterhood of unavoidable hardship. That kind of fraternity has nothing to do with funding. It cannot be created or imposed by the state, but it can grow strong in a society that openly values it.

The big society, as Cameron keeps saying, is intended to empower individuals and neighbourhood groups and communities to choose how to deal with their own affairs, as opposed to encouraging everyone to depend passively on local or central government solutions. This does not have anything conceptually to do with cutting or increasing benefits; it is bad luck that such a radical idea happens to coincide with the need for such radical reductions in public spending. But it does, or should, have to do with cutting back the obstacles in the way of the small platoons, those little groups of people who have for decades been trying to make life better. Those obstacles are legion and they have grown bigger during years of statism.

I am thinking of the enormous amounts of form-filling that even the tiniest charity has to do, state-supported or not. It would put most people off. I am thinking of the needless vetting and monitoring that drives volunteers away. And I am thinking of the controlling attitudes of social services, which have for decades imposed an orthodoxy on clients and the charities that serve them.

For instance, in the case of people with learning disabilities, the money they were entitled to has for years been controlled not by them and their families but by social services. And social services will often dictate where they live and what services they get, frequently paying only lip-service to choice. Charities serving such people find they cannot survive if they don’t follow the instructions of the local authority, even though there may be plenty of clients who want something different.

All that can be changed. The government has already done a lot to empower individuals and groups and to restrain the state. It has revealed Whitehall and council spending, publicised crime maps, offered elected police commissioners to give voters a direct say and made free schools possible. I am rather sceptical about the new big society bank to finance social enterprises, but it deserves the benefit of the doubt. All in all this does appear to be an attempt at a kind of social revolution, a rolling-forward of society combined with a rolling-back of the state.

The big society cannot but be a vague idea, which will need a long time to take hold and prove itself. If it works, it will mean that at a time of national debt council employees will be ashamed to clamour for pay rises while they cut frontline services. It will mean that nurses are ashamed to leave old people lying in pain on bedsores and faeces. It will, at the very least, mean that people try consciously to do as they would be done by.

If not a big society, that would certainly be a better society and well worth the huge political risk.