Personally, I think the phrase is rather good. It neatly summarises the notion that the counter model to ‘Big Government’ is not an atomistic (non-)society of lone fighters, the old straw man argument of those for whom government can never be big enough. It is a plea for a strong, autonomous civic society, where the issues we care about are run by a tapestry of multiple organisations with diverse philosophies, approaches and organisational models.
Of course, the danger of the Big Society project is that politicians will turn it into an activist political agenda. Analogous to an active industrial policy where the state attempts to ‘foster’ successful enterprises and industries, new state bureaucracies would attempt to ‘foster’ successful civic organisations.
And indeed, this seems to be the mindset behind the remarks of Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, head of Community Service Volunteers, who argues that budget cuts threaten the Big Society project. She argues for a much more proactive approach, with the government working towards ‘volunteer targets’.
But can a Big Society really be ‘built’ by the government? Is that not a contradiction in terms? A look at data from the World Values Survey on international variations in the extent of volunteering suggests that it is. The table below compares six selected countries by the share of the population who are active members in charitable, humanitarian, religious, recreational, artistic, musical, educational, environmental, professional, labour union or other voluntary organisations. People who are active in more than one organisation are counted more than once, so the figure can, of course, exceed 100%.
We can see the following loose pattern: the USA and especially Switzerland, where the state has historically occupied a subsidiary role, display high levels of civic activism. They come close to being ‘Big Societies’ already. France and Germany, traditional homelands of Big Government, come out with much lower levels of activity – remarkable insofar as they clearly have the organisational infrastructure for Big Societies in place. Britain, on this measure, comes out in between. And finally in Russia, historically one of the most state-dominated places on earth, an autonomous civil society has never been able to develop.
In the longer run, Big Government and the Big Society are not partners. They are competitors. And rather fierce ones, at that.