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Jesse Norman is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Transport, and MP for Hereford.  He is author of Edmund Burke.  His new book on Adam Smith will be published by Penguin in July.  He is also author of Big Society.

“Whatever happened to the Big Society?”  Having written a book on the subject a few years ago, I am sometimes asked that question.  It reminds me of that moment in Sunset Boulevard when the journalist says to Norma Desmond (the magnificent Gloria Swanson) “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big,” only to receive the withering response “I AM big.  It’s the pictures that got small.”

In some ways, the same thing happened to the Big Society.  It’s a big, bold and brilliant political idea, and conservative to its core.  But, like Norma Desmond, it fell victim to being framed in ever-smaller ways. So: what happened, and why does it matter?

It’s sometimes said that the phrase “The Big Society” was coined by Samantha Cameron.  It was first introduced into the public realm by David Cameron in his Hugo Young lecture of 2009, a speech still well worth re-reading.  He cast it as a response to an overgrown state that was “now inhibiting, not advancing, the progressive aims of reducing poverty, fighting inequality and increasing general well-being.” Vast sums had been spent under Tony Blair, he pointed out, yet inequality was at a record high, while the poorest in society were getting not richer, but poorer and more numerous.

Instead, Cameron had something very different and more radical in mind.  He said: “Our alternative to big government is not no government—some reheated version of ideological laissez faire.  Nor is it just smarter government.  Our alternative to big government is the Big Society.”  He saw the Big Society as going beyond the efforts of social entrepreneurs and community activists to liberate a vast swathe of social energy, creating “a national life expanded with meaning and mutual responsibility.  We will feel it in the strength of our relationships—the civility and courtesy we show to each other.”  He imagined widespread decentralisation, institutional innovation, and collective efforts to shift social norms in a more positive direction.

Over the next few years, however, the re-framing began.  First, the original Cameronian vision was presented as if it was only ever about social entrepreneurship, rather than simply starting from that point.  Much good work was done even so, including support for new mutuals and employee-owned businesses and the creation of Big Society Capital and, in particular, of National Citizen Service.  Secondly, as spending controls—largely cross-party in their early scale, let us recall—were imposed after 2010, the public narrative shifted towards arguments over “austerity”, as though the Big Society was an attack on the state as such, rather than the “thoughtful re-imagination” and wider vision Cameron had called for.  And thirdly, there was a lack of clarity at the official level across Whitehall as to what the Big Society amounted to, and how it could be implemented.  Cameron himself stopped using the phrase, and it did not feature heavily in the 2015 Conservative election manifesto.

In retrospect, however, the ironies are manifest.  For in fact the original vision of the Big Society ranged far wider than was ever credited.  It was quite compatible with the reductions needed to curb government spending, since its point was precisely that latent resources existed in British society vastly greater than the state could ever muster.  And in policy terms it was the unacknowledged thread that tied whole swathes of government action together, from the creation of free schools and academies to attempts to reinvigorate local government to metro mayors to welfare reforms.  For what these policies at their best had in common was the effort to empower people and encourage the development of independent institutions.

Moreover, Labour never really worked out how to deal with the political threat posed by the Big Society.  Rather, it veered around between claims that the idea was empty or vague, or – contradicting this – only about volunteering and philanthropy, or – contradicting that too – merely Thatcherism in disguise.  All of which sat oddly with the evident attractions that the Big Society had for “Blue Labour” politicians and voters.

But Labour’s befuddlement is also not surprising.  There is a very specific reason why that party, or indeed any party, might struggle to attack the Big Society.  That is because it is an idea that cuts across party lines, and sits at the very heart of British history and British political thought.

To see why, as I describe in my book The Big Society, we need to go back to philosophical bedrock, and the publication in 1651 of Thomas Hobbes’s masterpiece, Leviathan.  In it Hobbes argued that human government owed its legitimacy to a contract by which individuals voluntarily traded autonomy for security.

Without government, people would subsist in a state of nature in which their lives were, famously, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.  The social contract is simply a rational response, by which individuals cede some freedoms on a once-and-for-all basis to a sovereign authority which, by guaranteeing civil order and secure borders, gives them the legal and physical protection to associate freely with each other.

This has been an astonishingly influential picture, so much so that we have been blinded to its effects.  For Hobbes makes three crucial omissions.  First, he deliberately ignores the astonishing richness and diversity of human emotions, aspirations, interests and goals.  Secondly, in his extreme individualism, in seeking to rule out any such thing as the “common will” over and above actual individuals themselves, he deliberately ignores all intermediate institutions between the individual and the state.  And finally, he builds in a moral presumption in favour of the state and against the individual.  For, the argument goes, we have freely empowered the sovereign, and if it acts contrary to our interests, then tough luck.  There can in general be no conscientious objection or civil disobedience in Hobbes’s state.

Writing more than a hundred years later Edmund Burke, in effect the founding father of the Big Society, attacks this view at its deepest point.  For Burke, as for Aristotle, man is a social animal.  There can thus be no explanatory value to considering a state of nature in which man is understood independently of society:  man’s natural state is to be in civil society.

Where Hobbes deliberately ignores trust, culture and tradition, Burke treats them as constitutive of our humanity.  Where Hobbes stresses the primacy of the individual will, Burke stresses the natural reciprocity of rights and duties which occurs within human society.  Where Hobbes sees freedom as negative, as the absence of constraint, Burke lays the ground for freedom as a positive value, as a capacity afforded by society for an individual to flourish.  For Burke it is in the institutions of an ordered society themselves, in the “little platoons”, that freedom is to be found.

We can thus think of the Big Society as a deliberate Burkean counterblast to Hobbes, restoring all the three elements which Hobbes omits: a focus on human beings not as economic atoms, but as bundles of capability; a focus on intermediate institutions between the individual and the state; and a focus on society and individual rights as such, rather than as mediated by the state.  Thus it has proven.

So: when David Cameron spoke of the Big Society, he was giving voice to centuries of belief embedded deep in the British body politic.  The words will change, but that belief remains; and is a deeply conservative one.  In a world of social media, a world of connectivity which can spawn a thousand new institutions in an instant, but which seems so often dominated instead by negativity and grievance, we need to renew that belief, that self-belief, and that optimism—about people, about society, about freedom and about human life—more than ever.

41 comments for: Whatever happened to the Big Society? 2) Jesse Norman: What it is – and why it matters

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