Big ideas for a big society?


David Cameron’s ‘new era’ of conservatism has often come under criticism for its internal ideological contradictions and its lack of direction. However, from the outset Cameron has emphasized the importance of community. He has rallied against our ‘broken Britain’, encouraged us to ‘hug a hoodie’ and declared that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state’. The latest Conservative campaign for ‘Big Society not Big Government’ marries these ideas to foster a sense of community and responsibility, and a reversal of state centralization and power.

Cameron argues, quite rightly, that local groups, charities and communities are both capable of and prepared to deliver a range of public services better than central government currently does. If powers to run particular services are handed to local communities, the outcome will be services that are both tailored and accountable. The Conservatives also believe that harnessing the power of ‘Big Society’ will help tackle social breakdown, and with the right resources, it will almost certainly make a more efficient use of taxpayers’ money.

Cameron has said that the ideas of Big Society could transform Britain as profoundly as the establishment of the welfare state. However, it is hard to see how the policies announced will bring about such radical change. The use of £100 million in unclaimed bank deposits to fund a ‘big society bank’ and the training of community organizers to spur on community action are hardly dramatic measures to revolutionize the way we view the state. The announcement of a ‘Big Society Day’ is gimmicky and faintly embarrassing, while plans to ‘judge’ civil servants on their participation in community services undermines the separation of the state and community and the ethos of voluntarism.

This said the idea of a cohesive society is a powerful one and something that Cameron draws upon time and time again. His recent announcement that he is prepared to be as unpopular as Thatcher suggests that should he take power, he will be prepared for determined and decisive action. The ‘contracting out’ of public services to society may become a worthy idea if pursued vigorously and I for one would be delighted to see the remit of the state shrink, as people begin to take responsibility for themselves and others around them.