The Big Society void


I've just finished The Big Society by Jesse Norman. It's a very wide-ranging exposition and assessment of many different strands of political philosophy – here is an MP who actually reads books – and books on important things, indeed. Sometimes his review of different philosophies becomes so wide-ranging that it becomes hard to see the wood for the trees. But Norman's idea is strong and comes through. Human beings are social creatures, he insists. They are neither rational individualists as the economics textbooks often suggest, nor as malleable as the rationalists and communists might have wished. They need, choose to live in and are shaped by, a complex web of social relationships, from families through workplaces to clubs and churches and much, much else.

Norman believes that the two competing approaches of the Conservative movement – paternalism and libertarianism – have both lost this plot. One would impose a specific political and moral order that ignores the living dynamism of these social ties; the other exults in the individual but forgets that all individuals are part of, and are shaped by, this social context. I am not sure he is right on this: it seems to me that the paternalists are actually trying to identify what constitutes a good society and to make it law, while the libertarians argue that people should be free to be part of whatever social networks they want, but that these have been distorted by big, intrusive government.

Prune back that intrusion, I would say, and people would find their own 'big society'. Norman believes that part of the problem is that the state has become too big too; but he feels that the social structure we all might dream of will not reassert itself easily, or perhaps at all, when the state withdraws. Hence the need for policies that actively encourage it – not prescribe it as if politicians knew how we should all live, but simply allow it to grow. There is, of course, the localism agenda – 'control shift' in the Tories' PR-talk. Beyond that, it seems to me, there is not much of a programme. Yes, we need to empower people to make the most of their own potential. Yes, we need to encourage non-state alternatives where people have got used to relying on officialdom to intervene. And yes, we shouldn't try to second-guess what society should look like. But I still have yet to see a coherent programme of how to grow a Big Society. The danger of that is that statists might step into the breech and create their own pet version instead.