Government cannot build the Big Society



Liberalism, empowerment, responsibility, redistributing power so that people in their everyday lives don’t turn to officials or central government for help, but instead help themselves and their own communities – finally, we’ve got Cameron’s definition of the Big Society and it’s a clear and important one. But how we get there is as muddled as ever.

Cameron is arguing for something desperately needed – a revolution in the tired approach to public services which has sucked the life out of many communities, broken the connections between people and encouraged us to think there is no need for us to take responsibility for ourselves, let alone for those around us. Yet it is hard to see how he makes the leap from his visionary starting point of enabling people to the conclusion that the main way to improve this situation is for the state to take more responsibility. David Cameron’s primary commitment seems to be that the government will give people the tools to realise their vision for their local communities.

The precise point of civil society is that the tools people need to realise their visions cannot be given by central government. If enabling people to live a good life was a question just of public money or central organisation then with public spending at 52% of GDP things should be looking a whole lot better than they are.

People help themselves and those around them when they see the necessity of doing so. They understand their local problems and issues; they have flexibility to adapt and to meet need in a messy and diverse way. Cameron fears that if government pulls back, people won’t be there to take up the slack. He suggests that it is up to the government to build the Big Society. But government cannot build the Big Society; a Big Society will only develop by government pulling back and leaving room for people and communities.

A radical reduction in the size of the state is required if philanthropy, community building and personal responsibility are to flourish. This means reducing the number of functions perceived as the responsibility of government rather than individuals, with a corresponding cut in taxes, regulation and bureaucracy. Cameron seems to understand this with his approach of devolving more financial freedom to local communities to decide how their local budget is spent and with ideas such as helping local groups to overcome red tape, but he needs to apply this same principle to other areas.

10 thoughts on “Government cannot build the Big Society”

  1. Posted 19/07/2010 at 15:06 | Permalink

    Quite agree – three further points.

    1. Most of the examples I have heard today involve local government organising people – not the “spontaneous order” of the great society.

    2. The government is financing this (which should ring alarm bells itself) by effectively stealing (under 2008 legislation) money that belongs to people in bank accounts of which they are unaware.

    3. To take one of your points further: it is not just that the tools cannot be given by central government but that central government cannot know either the problems that need to be solved by individuals and voluntary communities or know the tools that will best solve them. Communities must discover them.

  2. Posted 19/07/2010 at 15:17 | Permalink

    The Government can’t build the Big Society?

    I know I certainly can’t!

  3. Posted 19/07/2010 at 15:27 | Permalink

    I agree with all the points made by Ruth and Philip, but the issue is that we start from where we are, and that is with the majority expecting government to do most things for them and it take the blame if it goes wrong. Most people perhaps don’t even see that there is a problem.

    Encouraging responsibility is, if this is not heresy, a demand-side problem and the major role for government is to alter expectations. This will take time and will have to be top-down. This is perhaps unfortunate, but there is no other alternative in a democracy.

  4. Posted 19/07/2010 at 16:17 | Permalink

    Yes, imposing laissez-faire is a bit of a problem.

    A story I’m fond of is from right at the start of the Thatcher government. An interviewer was asking Sir Geoffrey Howe, her first Chancellor of the Exchequer, what he was going to do about some problem; to which he said: ‘Nothing: it’s nothing to do with us!’

    The interviewer was gob-smacked. He had obviously set aside five minutes or so for the topic; yet after ten seconds there was nothing more to be said.

    We really want government to abdicate from many areas into which it has stuck its many fingers. Not only that , but to say that it is abdicating, and to explain why.

    That is quite a tall order. Go for it, Dave!

  5. Posted 19/07/2010 at 16:54 | Permalink

    This Big Society sounds uncannily like Karl Marx’s famous passage in The German Ideology: ‘do one thing today and another tomorrow, to run a free school in the morning, supervise a school chess club in the afternoon, shoot a burglar in the evening, construct a public park after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a teacher, supervisor, terminator or groundsman.’

  6. Posted 19/07/2010 at 17:56 | Permalink

    I do understand anonymous’ perspective: it is not entirely straightforward – though it is important to push the envelope rather than just accept the politically possible. But it would help to have some evidence of what the state did not intend to do – and there are plenty of candidates!

  7. Posted 19/07/2010 at 17:57 | Permalink

    Sorry for forgetting my name off the above post.

    A further point on the Big Society is that it is still very hard to articulate what it means in simple terms. It is too easy to caricature – DIY schools and hospitals, etc – and too difficult to explain in one or two sentences. Cameron should have been laying the groundwork for this idea two years ago and used the election to put some policy flesh on the bones.

    The name ‘Big Society’ is not helpful – it sounds macho and doesn’t carry with the sense of voluntarism and the ‘little platoons’ that it is meant to invoke.

  8. Posted 19/07/2010 at 20:27 | Permalink

    Can someone close to Cameron get a large portion of the real world into his head. As long as he keeps the Stalinist Totalitarian smoking ban in every pub, club and place of leisure in this land, he has absolutely no chance of convincing ordinary people of his “inclusive” crusade for a more coherent society. Time for him to listen to the voices of reason rather than tiny Westminster cliques and corporate funded health freaks.

    Spread the freedom, dish out some choice or just forget The Big Society flannel.

    Nearly Ex Tory

  9. Posted 20/07/2010 at 04:13 | Permalink

    […] IEA Blog » Blog Archive » Government cannot build the Big Society […]

  10. Posted 24/07/2010 at 11:31 | Permalink

    […] under: Economia,Internacional,Nanny State Watch,Política — André Azevedo Alves @ 12:30 Government cannot build the Big Society. Por Ruth Porter. Cameron is arguing for something desperately needed – a revolution in the tired […]

Comments are closed.