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Syed Kamall headshot Syed Kamall is a Conservative MEP for London and Chairman of Progressive Conservatives.

One of the reasons the Conservative Party failed to win an absolute majority at the General Election was that many people did not know what we stood for beyond not being a tired out party, being "not Labour".

We did stand on a clear set of policies but the problem was that they were not understood widely and nor did they really inspire and motivate people to vote enthusiastically for us.

Our so-called "Big society" agenda is a case in point. It was not clearly defined at any stage of the election campaign and so it became a meaningless slogan in which we had to invest our trust without knowing quite what it meant in practice.

To his credit, David Cameron has been keen to put meat on the bones and define what could be a revolutionary project in tackling poverty in this country, and he has managed to turn Nick Clegg into an enthusiastic supporter of the Big Society as well.

The Left repeat ad nauseam Margaret Thatcher's quote that "there is no such thing as society", and use this to try to badge the Conservatives as a party which has no idea what society is.  You never hear anyone on the Left actually completing her quote to put it in its proper context:

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

When you read what she said in its full context it is clear she meant that you should not turn to the state to help people out before first asking what they can do for themselves or what others can do for them. You have to leave a space for self-help or voluntary help, or else the state takes over our lives. If people can look after themselves, they need not look to the state to do so.

David Cameron reiterated this idea said when launching the Big Society project:

"There is such a thing as society. It's just not the same thing as the state".

Society is much more than the state. It is people, families, neighbours, community groups, networks, charities, companies, spontaneous acts of empathy and kindness between strangers even.  If society left everything done by these groups to the state, we would end up living in a pretty cold atmosphere of obedience to the state.

The Left are too quick to assign a role to the state before first assessing what could be the role of individuals and civil society. They conveniently seek to erase from history the role played by civil society, for example, in tackling poverty before the advent of the modern welfare state or in the education of the young.  Victorian Britain had higher standards of literacy than modern Britain but far fewer state-funded schools. And in his 1994 book Recreating Civil Society Dr David Green, now of the think tank Civitas, gives examples of the role friendly and mutual societies played in helping the poor. Unfortunately, many of these societies were crowded out by the advent of the welfare state.

The New Labour project at least recognised the shortcomings of the welfare state – although I suspect Labour will now return to its default position of "the state knows best" under the leadership of Ed Miliband. They tend to view society as a set of distinct communities, valuing the collective interest that they share rather than the individuals that comprise them.  They treat these communities as monolithic with identical needs, aspirations and even behaviours e.g. the gay community, the black community, the banking community etc.

Yet we do not see society as being composed of a set of groups with common characteristics, rather as individuals who cooperate with others to seek a common purpose. The Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises stated that:

"Society is concerted action, cooperation. Society is the outcome of conscious and purposeful behaviour."

In other words, society is the product of intentional individual action; it is not the consequence of social categorisation by socialist government. Society, according to von Mises, is a cohesive entity precisely because it is created by individuals and groups interacting in the pursuit of their own interests:

"Over the centuries an alternative to economic self-sufficiency has evolved to deal with the problem of scarcity. This alternative is social cooperation, the basis of what is called society."

Societies only function well when human beings form groups to involve other human beings in their enterprises. The initiative to form groups cannot be replicated efficiently by the state because the state is not possessed of the knowledge to know what kind of group should be formed and for what beneficial purpose. The state cannot supplant the leadership role of individuals in a well functioning society.  As Von Mises put it:

"A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society. Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings."

A Big Society is one in which individuals take the lead in defining what they want out of life and in determining the mechanism by which we are to achieve them. We recognise, as Adam Smith did, that self-interest, practised by all classes of people, is a powerful motivational force and works to the benefit of society as a whole.  But we also recognise that empathy, philanthropy and kindness are all best practised by individuals or smaller groups of individuals than by a monolithic state.

We have to look beyond the monolithic welfare state to tackle some of the big problems in our broken society by reminding people that social cooperation is a far more effective tool than top-down, taxpayer-funded bureaucracy in tackling social ills.  A Big Society leaves room for social cooperation while seeing a role for the state when other forms of help have not delivered a better social outcome.

It is a pragmatic concept which does not put its faith in one single solution to society's ills.  It manifests itself in practice in the work of the many think tanks and charities which are pioneering more effective social solutions than can be delivered by centralised state. 

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of a number of projects which highlight how we can move towards a smaller state and a Bigger Society:

1. The work of the Centre for Social Justice which celebrates the work of local community-led projects in tackling poverty in deprived areas. As an associate of the CSJ, I have seen examples where the state can sometimes crowd out local community-led projects.

2. Civitas, which goes beyond the traditional think-tank to become a do-tank in starting its own schools for children in areas where the state is providing poor quality education.

3. The work of Professor James Tooley who has demonstrated in his wonderful book The Beautiful Tree how entrepreneurs in poor communities across the world are setting up non-state schools to provide education where state schools do not exist, are too far away or where little teaching goes on. He cites Ghandi's criticism of the role the British played in destroying small private village schools across the country and replacing them with state schools, many of which provide little or no real education.

4. Chris Neal who set up GB Job Clubs as a charity to help groups of individuals to meet on a regular basis to support each other through the job hunting process. The club allows members to expand their network of contacts whilst also acting as a support group. A job club nurtures self-esteem and optimism which are essential for job seekers. Their efforts are strengthened by belonging to a group, rejection is shared, successes celebrated and the search for a job shortened. GB Job Clubs was formed in response to the fact that only 10 per cent of people find employment through Jobcentre Plus. GB Job Clubs believes that 'Who you know' still counts and that Job Clubs enhance individuals' social networks and give them much needed motivation and support during difficult times.

5. The many Conservative Party social action projects up and down the country which show that rather than talking about tackling poverty, Conservatives are rediscovering social cooperation.

This idea of social cooperation need not be the preserve of Conservatives alone: it is far bigger than that – an idea that every political party should embrace.  While many on the Left will continue to denigrate the "Big Society" as a piece of partisan rhetoric, in practice they know they have to embrace social cooperation – because it delivers better social outcomes at less cost. On one of my visits on behalf of the CSJ, I visited a mosque which received a grant from the local Labour council to provide local services at a third of the cost to local people regardless of their faith, more effectively. This was universally recognised as saving local council tax payers money and providing better value for money.

The task for Conservatives over the next five years is to champion the Big Society and to ensure that the public sees the difference between the Big Society and the Big State, between what tends to help people and what crowds out voluntary action and initiative. Social cooperation should be easier to encourage than taxing people and setting up mechanisms to distribute their money, and we should look to social cooperation – not the state – as a first resort.

23 comments for: Syed Kamall MEP: How to embrace the Big Society by rediscovering Mises and social cooperation

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