Is the Big Society the good society?

Saturday 30 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Courtyard Gallery

David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is the big idea of the new government, but what does it actually mean? Is it about individual liberty and freedom from overweening government, or something to do with rebuilding community and reforming public services? Though it failed to resonate during the General Election, there has been considerable interest since the new government began cutting public spending, and looking to the public to help do ‘more for less’. For Cameron, the Big Society reflects his ‘profound faith in my fellow human beings and a healthy awareness of the state’s limitations’. Too much government is inhibiting, he says, it can have the effect of ‘undermining social and personal responsibility’, and end up ‘making things worse’.  The ‘state will assume a new role as an agitator for social renewal’, he says. Public services will be ‘cheaper to deliver… while bringing communities together. It might even restore people’s trust in the political process’.

But is the Big Society really such a new ‘big idea’, or have we heard it all before? The National Citizen Service, the Big Society Bank, and ‘army of community organisers’, are arguably no more than a reframing of New Labour initiatives around volunteering and ‘community’. Nevertheless, the rise of social enterprises and the mutualisation of public services do seem to speak to the old fashioned notion that people can come up with their own solutions to problems. Maybe parents can run their own schools, nurses can start up their own cooperatives, and concerned locals can manage parks and elect police authorities.

Perhaps all this is little more than a smokescreen for official inertia. But it could also be an opportunity, not only for social innovators to inject a bit of life back into the public sector, but for the rest of us to claim the Big Society for ourselves. For all Cameron’s supposed ‘faith’ in individuals to get on with their lives free from state interference, illiberal initiatives persist. Whether it’s policing how we raise our children, our behaviour online, or our unhealthy lifestyles offline, the state is never far away. If the autonomy of individuals is in doubt, then so is the Big Society. On the other hand, shouldn’t we be questioning the eagerness of politicians to ‘hand over the keys’? And should we be turning our backs on post-war achievements like the NHS, social housing or a universal education? Should civil society be expected to fill the gaps as public services are cut, and ‘do-it-yourself’ services put in their place? Perhaps in times like these we need Big Government, and a Big Politics to match?

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Kevin Harris
community development consultant, Local Level; writer, Neighbourhoods blog

Dr James Panton
head of politics, Magdalen College School, Oxford; associate lecturer in politics and philosophy, Open University; co-founder, Manifesto Club

Steve Reed
leader, Lambeth Council; councillor, Labour Party, Brixton Hill Ward

Dave Clements
adviser to local government; blogger, Guardian, Huffington Post; convenor, IoI Social Policy Forum.

Produced by
Dave Clements adviser to local government; blogger, Guardian, Huffington Post; convenor, IoI Social Policy Forum.
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