Cameron, Capello and the Big Society

April 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm 2 comments

by John Craig

Last week I was in Toronto to speak at a Symposium on the Big Society – a fun opportunity to go toe-to-toe with Philip Blond and to catch up with my friends at the brilliant, Mass LBP.  I told the audience in Toronto that I felt about the Big Society the way I do about the England soccer team – I don’t like the guy in charge and I’m really not sure about the tactics, but I can’t fight off the hope it might amount to something.  So I find myself – against my better judgement – standing on the sidelines shouting encouragement.

When American presidents during the Cold War developed the narrative of the Free Society and the Free World, it gave the civil rights movement a strategy – to hold those in power to that standard of freedom.  We should do the same with the Big Society – stop worrying about the idea and hold the Government to account for the reality.  The claim is that the Big Society is for the many not the few, but if it is not simply to be a charter for those already with power and resources, there is work to be done.  In Blond’s analysis, the Big Society is an attack on two things; big state and big market.  Predictably, the Government has only heard the first of those messages, so that far from a new politics, it is business-as-usual for the Conservative Party.  There is no compromise involved in Labour challenging the Government to live up to its rhetoric on the Big Society – they would be exchanging their weak claim that is insincere for the strong claim that it is hypocritical.

The biggest reason, of course, that the Big Society is struggling is our fiscal crisis.  However, there is a second important reason at the heart of Coalition thinking.  Their views of the state and civil society presents them as competing for the same territory – so that society can only step forward as the state steps back.  International and historical comparisons show that state and civil society grow together, just as in de Tocqueville’s America, the advent of the public postage system hugely expanded the ability of sectional interests to communicate and organise privately.  As Alex Himelfarb said at another Toronto event, ‘the big state without the big society is an empty shell, but the big society without the big state is a myth’.

Entry filed under: Big society, Innovation Policy, Public Services.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alecpatton  |  April 3, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    Great post. The comparison to civil rights is inspired, as is your point calling out the coalition on treating the state and civil society as competing, rather than (dare I say) co-productive interests.

    Is there online Toronto speech footage that you’re not telling us about?

  • 2. himelfarb  |  April 17, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    great post!


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