Opinion Articles

Revisiting the ‘Big Society’

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Following the first televised Prime Ministerial Debate last week, Conservative party strategists have adopted an increasingly negative campaign focused on the potential dangers of a hung parliament. The reason for this negativity might be more complex than a simple reaction to liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's success in seizing the mantle of 'change'. Indeed, the Conservatives appear to have suffered a severe crisis of confidence, with senior spokespeople raising the spectre of IMF intervention rather than offering an alternative vision of a 'new' Britain. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Party's retreat from 'big society', a concept David Cameron previously argued was crucial for 'social renewal' and formed the backbone of their Invitation to Join the Government of Britain. With senior Conservatives apparently now questioning the practicalities of a 're-imagined state' and struggling to sell the concept to sceptical voters, it is pertinent to note that this is not the first time in modern British history that a concept of 'big society' has been invoked, nor the first time it has foundered.

Like his call for a 'bonfire' of quangos and depiction of Britain facing a choice between two distinct 'paths', David Cameron's paternalistic vision of a 'big society' in which government would 'actively help' people to take control of their lives, invokes the rhetoric of the post-war period. After 1945, the reforming Labour government was keen to mix economic planning with 'democracy' whilst the Conservative Opposition stressed the need for greater decentralisation. Importantly, both parties wanted their visions to be 'active', but fretted about an apparently apathetic public and struggled to sell their ideas to the electorate. The level of political engagement during the late 1940s and early 1950s has been a matter of historical debate but it is possible to make a number of tentative conclusions which raise important questions about the Conservative party's current election campaign.

Firstly, as a number of shadow ministers have identified, the voting public tend to prefer practical policy to political philosophy. Throughout the period 1945-55, the British electorate was preoccupied with everyday issues like housing and food, whilst overt partisanship and ideology was judged disparagingly. This was well recognised by Churchill's Conservatives, who emphasised a common sense approach and were keen to distance themselves from the utopianism of 'the Socialists'. By combining their more abstract arguments about individual and market freedoms with everyday concerns such as food shortages and controls, the post-war Tories were able to appear moderate and practical. This offered a potent dual strategy so far absent in today's campaign.

More fundamentally, the experience of the post-war years seems to suggest that any attempt to create a 'big society' will face numerous challenges. In 1947, the pioneering social, economic and political research unit, Political and Economic Planning (PEP), published a number of short reports on 'active democracy' within its monthly periodical. Like other investigations (for example, those conducted by Mass Observation, the Government's Social Survey and the Conservative party), it reported 'a substantial degree of political apathy'. For PEP, this could primarily be traced to a feeling of 'theyness' or, more simply, the fact that politicians appeared to be a class apart. Moreover, the same feelings could be discerned when the investigators examined civic and associational, rather than political, life. As the author recalled, 'big society' might be faced with 'the same dangers of bureaucracy as the local or central government department' whilst those most involved might be seen as a 'clique' or 'deterrent' from participation.

Quite apart from the critique that Cameron's vision does little more than mask a Thatcherite policy of rolling back the state, whilst the charity sector is already overworked and undervalued, these issues raise important questions both for him and the Conservative party. PEP recognised that a 'big society' could provide the 'nurseries of a democratic life' but was left puzzled as to why, given the number of opportunities for engagement, 'so few apparently take part in them'? The conclusion reached was simple: a flourishing active democracy depended on the 'humanisation of government'. Yet, Cameron's plan for a latter-day 'big society' continues to rely heavily on governmental action and the feeling of 'theyness' remains. Without a fundamental overhaul of the relationship between party, state and society, the Conservatives may struggle to sell their vision to an already jaded electorate.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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