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Ten observations about the Big Society

Tim Montgomerie

Big Society

The Big Society is not something David Cameron has dreamed up recently as a cover for public spending cuts. From the very beginning of his leadership he was talking about social responsibility and the role that non-state organisations can play in overcoming social problems that have defeated the state.

The Big Society is Burkean. It is about the rich diversity of "small platoons" that lie between the individual and the state. These are the institutions - notably the family - that provide the kind of loving, personal and holistic care that the state will never be able to match.

Cameron needs to reconnect the Big Society with the idea of Broken Britain. Even before the recession struck there was something wrong with Britain. Extreme poverty worsened under Labour. Family breakdown accelerated. Problems of addiction and anti-social behaviour multiplied. Loneliness amongst the old grew, as did mistreatment and neglect in care homes and hospitals. Cameron's Big Society is about finding ways of tackling these problems that neither economic wealth nor government welfare had addressed or can address. People won't buy into the Big Society until they recognise it is the solution to a real set of problems.

Cameron understands that Big Government can undermine social responsibility. This is what he will say today:

"Too many people have stopped taking responsibility for their lives and for the people around them.  Why? Now I don’t think this has happened because we’ve somehow become bad people. I think at its core, it’s the consequence of years and years of Big Government. As the state got bigger and more powerful, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, for their families and their neighbours. It’s the culture of rules, targets, laws, tick boxes and perverse signals that pay people to sit on the sofa rather than go to work. In this world, people start asking themselves: ‘Do I have no responsibility for my life? Do I not count for anything anymore? Do my decisions not matter one bit?’ Too often the answer is no."

Many "charities" are currently arms of the state, rather than of society. The state may have a role in funding some voluntary organisations but there are real dangers when charities become colourless arms of the state. Direct funding of voluntary organisations tends to corrupt charities, pulling them away from accountability to individuals and communities. I've argued that we need a revolution in funding mechanisms so that charities only (or largely) get taxpayers' money via vouchers and in response to how successful they are in raising money from individual citizens. Nothing will do more to create a society-driven rather than a state-driven third sector. Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society, is taking some steps in this direction but they are too small.

Three-quarters of voluntary organisations take no money from the state. They are often more innovative and much more locally-accountable than the larger voluntary organisations.

The Big Society is about more than voluntary organisations; it is about unlocking all social capital. Social capital is about the relationships and institutions that bind us together and that are not controlled by the state. It includes the links between neighbours; the strength of marriage and the extended family; the tendency to volunteer and give time to charity; the involvement in political parties and voting; service on public bodies including as school governors.

The Big Society needs a dedicated senior minister. One of the big reasons Compassionate Conservatism never took off under George W Bush was because the idea's biggest advocate, Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, wasn't put in the Cabinet. Francis Maude is the most senior member of Cameron's team who defends and promotes the policy but he has too many other responsibilities in government. Noone senior is driving the policy from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep.

The Big Society struggles from the overall lack of message focus. A government with twenty priorities has no priorities. 10 Downing Street needs to choose three, four or five priorities and manage public opinion on those priorities. It needs to dump ideas like forestry privatisation (however intellectually defensible) that distract from the main goals. Selling the Big Society must involve careful building of relationships with all the thought-leaders in the area. Greg Clark and the approach he has taken to localism provides a model.

Some of the Big Society advocates are unhelpful. Philip Blond is the best example of this. Mr Blond rarely misses an opportunity in an interview to criticise Margaret Thatcher or to call for a fundamental restructuring of capitalism. Many Conservatives will continue to be suspicious of a good idea if one of its leading defenders defines it in anti-capitalist terms. As Matthew Bishop and Michael Green write in today's Times (£); Blond is much more Red than Tory. It is important that David Cameron's big idea doesn't get the same reputation.


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