By the end of 2011, commentators had reached a consensus that David Cameron had failed to produce a coherent domestic agenda, beyond George Osborne’s strategy for the recession and Michael Gove’s activism in schools. The ‘Big Society’, many concluded, had lost its way and should be given a quiet burial, confined to the dustbin policies of history, like Tony Blair’s abortive ‘third way’.
In the Politics of Optimism, published today by Policy Exchange, I argue that the Big Society is not dead. It must still be the defining idea of the government. Its comparative failure to achieve traction to date is not because of inadequate communication, as the Public Administration Select Committee suggested last month. It is because of inadequate substance. The government has let itself toy around with micro thinkers like Richard Thaler with his Nudge thesis, or David Brooks with The Social Animal, and has given insufficient credit to truly profound and significant thinkers.
I argue that the Big Society platform needs to be reconstructed on the basis of four sturdy legs: proactive as opposed to reactive government policy, optimism, trustworthiness and ‘goodness’. It is the last which is my concern here.
Conservative governments have been wary of articulating moral agendas, with the ever-watchful media ready to pounce on anything that smacks of hypocrisy. John Major’s ‘back to basics’ campaign, launched at the 1993 Tory party conference, was thus rendered a laughing stock. Yet government is nothing if it is not asserting moral imperatives and if it is not trying to act in a moral way - even if some of its lieutenants will fall short of the standards that it advocates. Policy needs to be grounded upon an uplifting and positive conception of human nature, which stresses the ‘goodness’ of man, and which attempts to bring about outcomes that improve the quality of human experience and communal life.