Big Society Dilemmas: a challenge for Tories as well as Labour

The Burkean appeal to the organic 'little platoon' implicit in the Big Society idea rests uneasily with the Coalition's aims even if it undermines Labour's claims to represent communities
Michael Kenny
11 November 2010

 Why is it that the idea of the Big Society worked so well for the Conservatives in opposition (at least until the heat of the General Election campaign), but has proved so difficult to operationalise in government?

Perhaps this is due to the change in economic weather between its conception before the crash and today as Anthony Barnett suggested or because of the varying ways in which the term has been approached across Whitehall and interpreted by different Ministers as observed by Matthew Taylor of the RSA.  

But there may also be an explanation which relates to the tradition from which David Cameron emanates. The advantage of the Big Society idea was that it enabled the Conservatives to speak across the partisan political divide to the many progressives who were put off by the dirigisme and tactical obsessions of the Brown regime. And, simultaneously, it nodded towards a long-established conservative commitment to the virtues of civil society.   However, the Big Society may well be much more effective in the first of these roles - as a vehicle for conveying progressively minded intentions - than it is for the second.

The terminology of the Big Society does not easily capture the sense of affiliation and belonging that links many people to the places and communities they inhabit, nor the kinds of small-scale civic activism, the disposition to help out families, friends and neighbours, and the fabric of social relationships (what David Halpern calls the ‘hidden wealth of nations’) that undergird communal life. These different facets were  evocatively and authentically captured for earlier generations of conservatives by Edmund Burke’s idea of the ‘little platoons’.  

Nor is this just a matter of linguistic presentation. Something more fundamental may be at stake. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who came closer than any other single thinker to distilling the DNA of British liberal-conservative thought in the twentieth century, proposed a distinction between ‘civil’ and ‘enterprise’ associations.  Civil associations were forms of collective endeavour that revolved around their intrinsic purpose – the co-operative society or allotment association, for instance.

Enterprise ones were established in order to pursue externally directed instrumental goals – the NGO, business association, or political campaign would all be examples. While both kinds of association were bound to co-exist in a free society, Oakeshott argued for the particular importance in Britain of the many spontaneous and localised forms of civil association, regarding these as an important bulwark against the inclination of the social-engineering state to meddle in people’s lives in its pursuit of ‘rational’ goals like social justice or progress. His important critique of the expanding post-war state stemmed from his belief that it was increasingly acting in the spirit of an enterprise association, rather than behaving as an umpire upholding the rules and supplying the social goods that enabled people to sustain their own forms of civic life.

Imperfect as it may be, the distinction he drew between different forms of association still resonates in British culture. It helps explain why people across the voluntary sector have often been ambivalent about Labour’s well-intentioned efforts to involve faith groups or charities in delivering services. Winning a contract to deliver a community service for many groups means giving up the ethos of civil association for the burdens and reduced autonomy that go with being an enterprise-based one. Indeed the very idea of the state harnessing the good works and civic impulses of individuals and communities is in some respects alien territory for conservatives (of both small-c and big-C varieties).

This does not mean that the Big Society is doomed to irrelevance on the political right. But it does suggest that its key propositions need to be fleshed out with greater sensitivity to established patterns of thinking. In policy terms, this implies a clearer connection with the localism that the Coalition also champions. And it requires more signs that government is aware of the challenges associated with the greater involvement of voluntary sector and community organisations in service delivery. These include the issues of how to protect the rights of individuals supplied with services by such organisations, and how to ensure that it is not only the largest, most professional organisations in this sector, that scoop up the bulk of available contracts.

Overall, the real danger for Cameron is not that the Big Society comes to be seen as a front for hacking away at public provision. His worry should be that it turns into one more government-sponsored mantra that meets a wall of indifference because it does not chime with the everyday forms of reasoning through which people make sense of their own, and others’, civic impulses and actions.

And what of the left and the Big Society? Labour may well be tempted to respond to all this by reminding voters of its own record at promoting capacity in the third sector and ensuring the greater involvement of voluntary organisations in service provision. This is the approach many take in OurKingdom's thread on 'The Big Society Challenge'. But, important as this history is, falling back upon it will not be enough.

Labour needs to grasp that it has acquired some highly damaging connotations in the public mind, and these have to be actively and publicly challenged. They include the widespread belief that in government it reached too readily and unthinkingly for the levers of the central state, and was overly bureaucratic and rule-bound in its method of governance. Responses such as ‘we did this better than the Tories’, or calling the Big Society a gimmick, do not begin to address this deeper question of identity and reputation.

Just as the Conservatives found themselves after 1997 saddled in the popular mind with deeply held associations formed after a long period of government that ended in acrimony, so Labour will need to work very hard to show that it truly understands the limits and downsides of the excessive centralism it showed in office.

It should start by gathering together the different strands of its thinking that operate on the territory of the Big Society and work out how these might be turned into a narrative for government, society and communities that works for tomorrow. Mutuals and co-operatives should play an important part in this thinking. But they form only one part of the repertoire that Labour will need in this area.

A serious review of its policies means posing  new questions. In what areas does Labour believe it appropriate to devolve more responsibility to individuals, neighbourhoods and communities – in areas such as education, health and law and order? And, what changes are needed to the structures and cultures of central and local government, if the kinds of decentralised and citizen-centred forms of governance which the Big Society promises, are to be achieved?  


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