It was almost ten years ago, in the early summer of of 2008, when I first became convinced not only that the Conservatives, under David Cameron, would win the next general election, but that they would do so surfing the wave of a zeitgeist.
I had just curated the 2gether08 Festival of Ideas and Possibilities in the newly hip Hoxton. Behind the walled garden of a converted Victorian school — now reinvented as a ‘cool’ arts venue — hundreds of people gathered over two days and nights to listen to talks, watch short films, attend workshops and take part in show ‘n tell sessions. Social entrepreneurs, tech start up founders and myriad ‘creatives’ mixed freely, bright-eyed with optimism. Energised by the potential of new web-enabled social networks, the festival buzzed with talk of building a new sharing economy, of decentralising power and the promise of a new participative culture with altruism its beating heart. This was the first summer of the iPhone that enabled us to send messages to the wider world to remind others what they were missing . Participants breathlessly shared the #2gether08 hashtag as we top-trended over at Twitter on both days.
What was most striking was the only people from ‘formal’ politics participating were Conservatives. Young Tories felt comfortable in this creative space. Indeed, at times it felt as though it was theirs alone to colonise, as Labour friends conceded that their intellectual energy was draining away.
But it didn’t last.
Two months after 2gether08, Lehman Brothers filed for the largest bankruptcy in history. The worst economic crisis in living memory began in earnest. For all the talk about the credit crunch, nobody was really prepared for what happened, not least the Conservative Party. If the calendar of the western world’s economy can be defined by Pre-Lehman and Post-Lehman so, too, can Cameron’s leadership of his party. The sunny days were gone.
Before the crash, George Osborne was delivering rhapsodic speeches about Web 2.0; all Conservative MPs were asked to sponsor local social action projects, and talk of a post-bureaucratic society abounded. After Lehman Brothers’ collapse, there was only one issue that mattered: dealing with the fall out of the economic crisis. All else abruptly appeared whimsical.
However, one person was unprepared to let go of central tenets of the burgeoning Tory modernisation project. In October 2009, I was invited to Cameron’s office to discuss Steve Hilton’s new ‘big idea’.
The Tory leader’s main strategist recoiled at the idea of fighting the forthcoming purely on a platform of fixing the nation’s finances. He was convinced that a Cameron-led campaign must carry a message of hope and possibility. That evening, I was introduced to a young former McKinsey management consultant, Nat Wei, who I was told would be the architect of ‘The Big Society’ – an idea that I was assured would propel Cameron to No 10 six months hence.
A few weeks later, Cameron used his Hugo Young Lecture to talk about the Big Society for the first time, extolling the contribution of community activists and social entrepreneurs, talking about turning civil servants into ‘civic’ servants and announcing plans to launch a National Citizen’s Service.
On March 2010, five weeks before the election, the Big Society was launched to the world in a community centre in Southwark. Every member of the Shadow Cabinet was corralled to talk about how its principles would guide them in Government: for many of them, it was both the first and last time they referenced the concept in public. Afterwards, I hosted a glittering party at the Oxo Tower for business and celebrity supporters of a newly launched Big Society Network. It was the closest Cameron ever came to his own Cool Britannia moment.
The rhetoric underpinning the Big Society was often dismissed as fluff, but the project was fundamentally about disruption. For it to work, it needed to disrupt how the civil service operated and how charities were funded – but, most of all, it had to rouse people from a somnolent attitude to civic participation. It needed to be driven Government-wide, it required bold policies and it had to deliver in the context of the seminal task: the new Government faced, dealing with the deficit.
Ultimately, it failed on all these fronts. There was no cross-Government strategy; no one was responsible for driving it forward, and for every act of devolution — for example the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners — there were other policy areas (such as probation)— where civil society partners were driven out in favour of centrally contracted private sector providers, and no meaningful reforms of the civil service were undertaken.
But, ultimately, it was the approach adopted to austerity that denied the Big Society any chance of succeeding — particularly the spending scaleback in local government, and the follow-on impact on the delivery of non-statutory local services.
Dealing with the deficit was always going to be the defining work of the Conservative-led coalition government but it was how austerity was implemented that undermined the Big Society’s promise of social renewal and revivification of civic life.
Had Osborne adopted the approach to deficit reduction pioneered by Jean Chrétien’s Canadian Government during the 1990s, it is possible that Cameron may have delivered on both fiscal recovery and the Big Society. Fundamental to Chrétien’s success was his Programme Review, which rejected the concept of across the board cuts or the view that a sizeable deficit could be eliminated through cutting bureaucracy.
Instead, it posited that no alternative existed other than to evaluate the relative importance of all government programmes and services within the overall fiscal framework. Once these choices were made, his Government could consider the relative efficiency of various policy options. This exercise was less about ‘what to cut’ and more about ‘what to preserve’; less of a fiscal exercise and more of ‘un projet de société’ undertaken under severe fiscal constraints. None of this can be said for Osborne’s approach.
Early in 2011 — I was by now the Chief Executive of the Big Society Network — I met with Hilton to discuss how best to raise public awareness of new affordances created by the forthcoming Localism Act. He described it ‘as the most important piece of legislation’ that the Government would pass.
In preparing a response I consulted with people across the country. They considered the new rights and powers for communities and individuals contained in the Act to be risible when considered against the backdrop of the loss of local services. I was regaled with tales of cuts bring implemented which were closing libraries, drug treatment services, youth clubs, rape crisis centres and day care centres. New powers to allow community groups to take over such services without financial support — a key part of the Act — were treated with contempt. Trying to convince local groups that the Government wanted to empower them when their community facilities were being closed down was near impossible.
Puny policies, a lack of any strategic focus but mostly a ‘what to cut’ not a ‘what to preserve’ approach to austerity left the promise of building a Big Society in tatters.
For me, the final straw was the summer of 2012, when the biggest mobilisation of volunteering since the Second World War helped to deliver the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London. There was just a possibility that we could have created a legacy built upon civic participation. But no such desire existed, and perfunctory policies prevailed over more audacious ones . Shortly afterwards, Hilton left Number Ten. Cameron never much mentioned the Big Society again.
In the end, austerity trumped the great social renewal aspirations of Cameron, but the focus on communal affinity, social bonds, and civic participation should not be lost. As we proceed — as we must — once more to remake the case for free markets and economic liberalism, we need to recognise that we are doing so in a time of economic uncertainty and deepening and for many unsettling — technological disruption. The need for social repair has not receded , and indeed may rise, so we must keep asking: ‘what’s the right level to pursue it?’
The nation is too large; the individual is too small. The community remains the right level, and we need Conservatives to recognise and act upon this immemorial truth.