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Does the Big Society belong in David Cameron’s new narrative?

By Peter Hoskin
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And the word of the day is “narrative”. Bruce Anderson uses it in his ConservativeHome column today, suggesting that David Cameron needs to find one — and quick. But it has also been hovering, more generally, over this Olympic period. As I suggested in a post yesterday, the Tory leadership has clearly recognised how the Games might help them tell a new, more optimistic story about this government and its plans.

One question is whether the “Big Society” should, in some form, be part of that story. After all, it may have stuttered and stumbled in the past, but this Burkean vision of society has just been given a boost by the Olympics’ own little platoons: the thousands of volunteers, troops, policemen and others who gave of their time and energy to make sure that the Games ran smoothly. The Big Society minister, Nick Hurd, is interviewed in the Times (£) today, praising their efforts and pushing for more in future. “Just as we want to use the Games to inspire a new generation of sports people,” he says, “there is the opportunity to inspire a new generation of volunteers.”

So should the Prime Minister return to this terrain himself? He placed a few toes on it yesterday, but there are some who would have him go further. The Telegraph’s Iain Martin wrote a blog-post last week arguing that the Big Society is a fundamentally decent idea that has been badly mis-sold — Mr Cameron might want to ditch the “BS” for starters, and repackage what lies behind it. And in today’s Independent Ian Birrell suggests that it return in a beefed-up, more bruising form:

“The words 'Big Society' produce nervous giggles in government circles these days. But Mr Cameron must be brave if he wants to be in Downing Street when the Olympic Games reappear in Rio. The odds are against this – so far better to govern as though each day is the last, determined to make deep changes for the better, rather than rely on the kind of shallow calculations that corroded faith in his Government.

He must return to the 'Maoism' of the first months of his Government. This time, it should be unflinchingly focused on the economy, the plight of the young, the need for more housing and ensuring the cash-strapped welfare state focuses on those most in need rather than the middle-classes, however loudly they shout. Public services must be reshaped around the needs of users, not producers, however dire their threats.”

Against that, there is the argument expressed by Tim that David Cameron should stick to the economy, economy, economy, and avoid the distraction of a rebranded Big Society.

As for myself, I’m on the side of Iain and Ian: the Big Society always was a powerful theme — in tune with the great, long-standing generosity of the British people and with their aversion to the nanny state, even if it has been unsuccessfully sold so far — and it deserves a second political life. Besides, as his original leadership pitch made clear, this is what David Cameron truly believes in. We lose that, we lose what our Prime Minister is about.


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