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NORMAN Jesse

Jesse Norman is a member of the Treasury Select Committee, and is MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. He has written a biography of Edmund Burke.

Governments are instinctively nervous about policy assessments, and it’s not hard to see why.  Policy assessments are asymmetric: if positive, they often add little politically to what was already known; if negative, they crystallise failure, to the inevitable embarrassment of those involved.

Yet such assessments are a vital tool of political reflection and improvement in government. So, then, what assessment should we give to the Big Society?  Launched by David Cameron in his Hugo Young lecture of 2009, it was seen by many people – and not least by Cameron, its author – as the flagship idea of the Conservative Party leading into and after the 2010 General Election. Perhaps still more significant was his insistence in a speech after the 2010 election on the scale of the shift in attitudes implied by the Big Society. In his words, over time the Big Society would be “a huge culture change … the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”.

Four years in, we can perhaps look back and draw some preliminary conclusions.

1.  The Big Society remains a deeply important idea

The first conclusion to be drawn is that the Big Society remains a deeply important idea.

To recall, its key themes are the empowerment of individuals and of the intermediate institutions that lie between the individual and the state.  At a time when public spending continues to consume a level of GDP unprecedented in peacetime, there remains widespread scepticism about further state spending as a cure for Britain’s economic or social ills. Yet there is also widespread popular and political distrust at the effects of financial and economic libertarianism, especially in the wake of the great crash of 2007-8.

The Big Society offers a potential antidote to both. It is neither paternalistic nor libertarian, but grounded in a tradition of “compassionate conservatism” whose roots lie in the thought of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke.

2.  The Left were politically quite effective in their attacks on the Big Society

Outside politics, the evident idealism behind the Big Society offered an easy target for commentators and satirists. Within politics, the Left quickly went on the attack. Ed Miliband described it as”‘a return to a nineteenth-century or US-style view of our welfare state”, while others denounced it as vacuous, or merely a cover for budget cuts.

These views were inconsistent: for example, an idea cannot both be vacuous and malign. But inconsistent or not, the left’s attacks on the core idea in 2010-11 were quite effective. Not because the Coalition Government then dropped the idea of the Big Society, but because (with some exceptions) it has allowed it to be pigeonholed as mainly confined to volunteering and philanthropy, rather than the philosophical basis for the whole sweep of what has proven to be an ambitious and successful reforming government.

3.  But one effect of the Big Society has been to split the Left

One important effect of the Big Society has been to split the Left. The long-standing divide between Blairites and Brownites has been intersected by a more interesting disagreement between those seeking a return to the soft state-first Fabianism of before 2008 and a new and small-c conservative “Blue Labour” group located around Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman. The latter have recognised that there is both scope for and importance in a deep reconsideration by Labour of the role of intermediate institutions, and a recovery of its roots among working men and women, something they seek to combine with a new civic nationalism.

Whatever the political results of this Blue Labour work within the Labour party, it is by far the most intellectually interesting development on the left for several decades.

4.  The civil service has struggled to see how to ‘operationalise’ the Big Society, but in fact it remains the best way to understand the work of this Government

For its part, at the outset the civil service struggled to see how it could “operationalise” the Big Society as a series of programmes, both within and outside government. This is hardly surprising, as much of the point of the idea is to constrain state spending, and to make state interventions wiser.

In retrospect it is clear that, instead of allowing the Big Society to be pigeonholed within the Cabinet Office, the Coalition Government could in fact have extended the core idea of the Big Society much further throughout government.

A brief survey of coalition government policy makes the point. The goal of the Government’s reforms of the welfare system has been to empower individuals, reduce dependency and focus resources on those most in need. The goal of its academy and free school policies has been to empower a new generation of relatively free-standing and autonomous educational institutions. The goal of its reforms to local government has been to free up town halls and councils and make them more locally accountable. The Big Society is in fact the best way to understand the overall direction and cast of Coalition Government policy over the past four years.

5.  The Government needs to remake the argument for Big Society principles once again

The Coalition Government’s positive programmes have thus been inspired by a distinct set – and indeed a distinctively conservative set – of ideas. Its leading reforms derive from, and accord with, the key principles of the Big Society.

Given their success, and with a general election in prospect, the time is ripe for the Government to make the argument for these principles once again, both as an explanation of its own philosophy, and as justification for specific policies and priorities after 2015.

The American columnist David Brooks has written:

“We are moving from a world dominated by big cross-class organizations, like public bureaucracies, corporations and unions, toward a world dominated by clusters of networked power. These clusters – Wall Street, Washington, big agriculture, big energy, big universities – are dominated by interlocking elites who create self-serving arrangements for themselves.” [1]

The challenge for Conservatives is to ensure that these networks of influence and information are held to account, and that they remain as open as possible to people from every walk of life. Its counterpart may well be a renewed attack on what I have elsewhere described as ‘crony capitalism’.

In addressing this question, we will need a better understanding of the state itself, and of how to make it leaner, more effective and more resilient. That in turn will inevitably focus on releasing social energy and empowering institutions – the twin poles of the Big Society.

[1] David Brooks, ‘The New Right,’ The New York Times (9 June 2014)

This is an abridged version of an essay first published in The Blue Book of the Voluntary Sector: Civil Society and the Conservative Party after the 2015 Election, published by ACEVO and CAF, edited by Asheem Singh and George Bangham. A second essay will be published on this site tomorrow. The full collection is available online.

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