Nick Wood: David Cameron's vision of a Big Society is a genuinely radical idea which is in tune with Tory traditions
In the red corner, the Big State. In the blue corner, the Big Society. The battlelines are drawn today by David Cameron as he unveils the Conservative Party manifesto.
The media, ever anxious for a bit of colour to enliven the story, will contrast the garish Stalinist realism illustrating Labour's prospectus with the sober imagery of the Tory pitch for the nation's support.
A laughably phoney optimism from grumpy old Gordon Brown is pitted against an offering from baby-faced Mr Cameron positively dripping with gravitas. It is a neat clash of imagery with both leaders seeking to neutralise their negatives - gloom in Gordon's case, inexperience in Dave's.
But the real difference lies beneath the cover. Gordon may have so shattered the economy that he can no longer seek to bribe the voters with their own money - or more accurately bribe the voters with money borrowed from foreign investors. But for all the Blairite gloss, the great, lumbering Big State still lurks beneath the surface gobbling up £650 billion of our money every year and hungry for more as soon as there is any sign of an economic upturn.
Cameron is facing in the opposite direction with his notion that the Big Society can replace the Big State. It is both a genuinely radical idea and one in tune with the Tory tradition, from Burke's little platoons to the Trust the People message of the One Nation Conservatives to Maggie Thatcher's people power revolution of the 1980s, most clearly seen with her sales of council houses.
His vision is one of a Britain where the public is no longer the passive recipient of services doled out by the Big State, be they health, education, law enforcement or care of the disadvantaged.
As the Daily Telegraph puts it this morning:
"He [David Cameron] will allow people to be “your own boss, sack your MP, run your own school, own your own home, veto council tax rises, vote for your police, save your local pub or post office, and see how the government spends your money..."
Charities, individuals, volunteers, community groups and entrepreneurs will be invited to play a bigger role in the public square with the suffocating, meddlesome Big State pushed to the sidelines.
The theory is that this will make public services more devolved and more responsive to consumer demands. It will both raise standards and lower costs, a key factor with the public finances in such a parlous state.
In short, it is a truly radical idea and one that helps frame this curiously listless and amorphous campaign in a way that gives it a shape and a purpose.
Of course, doubts are legion about the practicality of what Cameron is proposing. Would NHS staff make a better job of running the local hospital than the senior management at the health trust or in Whitehall? Can parents run a school better than the professionals? How do you ensure that taxpayers' money is not filched by unscrupulous rogues infiltrating charities?
But if Cameron is serious, there are the makings of a Big Debate here about the country's future.
For some - maybe many - all this may be too esoteric, too abstract. But as "Red Tory" Phillip Blond has argued, the welfare state has done grave damage to the very people it was meant to serve - the working classes and the poor.
As Blond has argued:
"It was socialism that destroyed society. It was socialism that produced the centralising and disempowering state that destroyed working class life and socialism that produced the wanton middle class individualism of the 1960s that continues to underpin all the unequal moral and economic distribution of today."
Who created the underclass eking out an existence on benefits and drugs and booze on our council estate? The welfare state, the very agency that was meant to protect them.
That is the thesis. The danger is that a popular understanding of the perverse effects of the state is still too weak for Cameron's radical prescription to gain traction. Getting this message across may be more a job for government than for campaigning.
As the fight gets more intense and the polls stay too close for comfort, we may find ourselves moving back to more familiar Tory themes of tax, crime, immigration and Europe.
But Cameron deserves credit for trying to take the argument to a higher plain.
Nick Wood, Managing Director, Media Intelligence Partners Ltd.