Predictably, the Prime Minister’s relaunch of the ‘Big Society’ has been a bit of a damp squib. He’s failed again to define it clearly, outline what the government will do to facilitate it, and why it’s worth doing.
Let’s start with branding. The name ‘Big Society’ is naff, condescending and vague. I’m sure it’s intended to sound approachable and unintimidating, but in dumbing down the name it’s lost all meaning in the process. What is a ‘big’ society? Is China’s the biggest? Presumably not – the ‘big’ been appropriated to mean something entirely different to the way most English-speakers use it. This isn’t a simple matter of aesthetics. It’s a continuation of the Blairite tendency to reduce ideas to meaningless, nice-sounding phrases whose owners can use them to justify anything without giving critics solid grounds to attack from. It’s tactics, not strategy.
The concepts that underlie the ‘Big Society’, like increasing personal responsibility and allowing civil society groups to replace government bureaucrats in certain roles, are good. Cutting back the state’s spending and allowing the private sector to fill in the gaps is what any responsible government should do. But is this really what it means? Apparently not. David Cameron’s speech is heavy with rhetoric about personal responsibility, but light on the implications of that. If personal responsibility means anything, it is that people must choose to be charitable, not be forced by the state to be so.
The practice of the ‘Big Society’ seems to be to use state money to pay charities to do what government departments used to. An example of this is the Big Society Bank. Why is this expected to be any different to direct state action? Charities are often as poorly managed as state bodies – but, to their credit, a pseudo-competition means that the really bad ones might lose their public support. With state funding, that semi-market in charities disappears and they become no better than government bodies. The government-sponsored charities crowd out the competition in charities. Likewise with getting 'ordinary people' to help run state services. Most civil servants were ordinary people once: it's the structure of the state that's the problem, not the content of civil servants' characters.
So, if the ‘Big Society’ means cutting government spending and roles, and letting the private sector – for-profit or non-profit – take over, great. But everything I’ve seen so far suggests that it means switching state spending towards charities. All this’ll do is change the instruments that the state uses to intervene in society. I suspect that the ‘Big Society’ concept is vague by design rather than accident, to mask the fact that it really won’t change much at all.