The Big Society has Labour reeling. It’s the most significant political coup since Blair captured the Tories’ ‘tough on crime’ mantle peddling CCTV and controversial anti-terrorism measures. Now – and you really couldn’t make this up – a team of old Etonians spearheading a party who brazenly declared there to be no such thing as society 23 years ago have infiltrated and occupied the Red heartland of social policy so ruthlessly that there’s no room for anyone else. It’s quite brilliant. Reduced to whimpering sentiments that amount to little more than admissions of political defeat (‘it’s not the Big Society, it’s the Good Society’ or one of my favourite Ed-isms so far: ‘We have got to take that term 'Big Society' back off David Cameron’) Labour are just waking up to the fact that they’ve been, well, outclassed.
Despite this, though, there remains a group of eye-rolling Conservatives who wince every time the words ‘big’ and ‘society’ are used in conjunction. At the moment that’s every five seconds, which can’t be doing their crows’ feet any favours. Why is it, then, that some Tories won’t back this political winner? It can’t simply be that the phrase won’t abbreviate to anything other than B.S. – unfortunate, admittedly.
The most common objection is that the Big Society’s pie-in-the-sky inspecificities are alien to traditional, concrete Conservatism. ‘We’re the party of workable, pragmatic solutions, not empty social rhetoric,’ one MP told me.
There’s some mileage in this, but I don’t understand how it could be seen as a deal breaker. It’s true that the aims of the Big Society read more like a philosophy than the statistic driven manifesto statements we’ve become accustomed to. It’s also true that if it’s going to get off the ground it will need more fleshing out.
But so what? Arguing that our political aspirations are only worth something if they can be reduced to empirical targets seems to me an objection more proper to a big government jobsworth than someone who really wants to engender a healthy sense of civic autonomy in their constituents.
You’d be hard pressed to come up with a better way of thwarting the reinvigoration of civil society than imposing from the centre a fully elaborated corpus of Big Society policy initiatives. That expanding state provision hasn’t made us any happier or more functional as a society should be evidence enough for this. The old centralised approach robs the grass roots of any sense of political ownership which is a precondition for social responsibility, and where citizens feel a lack of responsibility to their local and national communities, social fragmentation and all that flows from it won’t be far behind.
Counter-intuitive as it may seem to policymakers and some Parliamentarians, the lack of fine detail here is a strength. It’s precisely the ‘wiggle room’ that allows for a shift in the balance of power, enabling local communities to fill in the gaps.
Even so, it’s not just the supposed lack of policy substance that bothers these Tory dissenters. The political methods, too, are irksome. All this talk of a ‘new politics’ is just a little too reminiscent of the ‘Third Way’ for comfort: a directionless, centrist talking shop that’s good for nothing bar giving journalists something to write about and civil servants a reason to speak jargon at each other at conferences. Far from being a radical vision for social reorientation, the Big Society is merely Cameron’s attempt to hijack the ‘change’ zeitgeist like Obama, Blair and JFK before him re-jigged a little and couched in Labouresque, obscurantist platitudes.
Fair enough. But these cynical criticisms only stand if you take for granted that the whole idea is just a clever political veneer. To the contrary, Cameron protests that the Big Society is the reason he gets up in the morning. His Government, we are told, breathes Big Society branded oxygen; it is the ideological underpinning of everything they are trying to do.
Six months on, it’s becoming more and more difficult to disagree. The high rhetoric is beginning to give way to practical initiatives: contracts are tendering; consultations are going out; task forces are in place; monies from dormant bank accounts are being collected; civil servants across all departments are working hard to order their activities towards new Big Society aims; and so on and so on. These are not the hallmarks of a mere vote-raker, they’re signs that the Government really mean it.
Still, though, some refuse to (or simply can’t) process this. There’s something about the old-school Conservative mindset that won’t permit progression beyond an individual-versus-society dichotomy that is as crude as it is retrograde. It’s as if by emphasising the importance of one, you always end up subjugating of the other; that by putting social issues at the centre of Tory policy – where the economy should be – you somehow betray the sacrosanct meritocratic natural order. Add to this mentality an ideological odium for anything that smacks of socialism and what results is latent suspicion of ‘faddish’ social policies like the Big Society.
This is at the heart of every Tory argument against the Idea I have encountered. There’s no real substance. It’s just that the centre of gravity of the Party appears to have shifted, and some conservative (small ‘c’) Members can’t stomach it. It makes no difference that it is arguably the best and truest statement of Tory ideology for generations. For the ‘natural Party of government’ crowd – mired in the affectations of a bygone age; embracing the dim and unclear social memories that they thought defined Conservatism but never really did – the Big Society just isn’t cricket. Or should that be ‘wall-game’?