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The Left and the Big Society IV: Matthew Taylor

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), gives his view.
Matthew Taylor
23 September 2010

How will the left respond to the clear challenge of the Conservatives' Big Society project? Niki Seth Smith is asking the leading people and institutions on the left how they view the idea, as part of OK's debate on the Challenge of the Big Society. We've had Sunder Katwala, Neal Lawson and Will Straw. Today, Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), gives his view. 

Matthew Taylor

What is your take on the philosophy behind the Big Society, and do you believe this philosophy is in tune with the practical reality that we are seeing unfold?

I think the Big Society starts from something that is demonstrably true and something that is a powerful philosophical belief. The thing that is demonstrably true is that we will need an enhanced model of citizenship if we are to create a better future to which we aspire. We need a model that is not just about government but about the responsibilities of citizens. Philosophically, it contains the idea that to live a full life means giving something back and being a full member of society, not just existing as a self-interested atomistic individual. I find it very easy to enthusiastically sign up to those ideas.

The question then is, how do you enable people to be these sorts of citizens, and what resources do you need to make available? And this is where, in practice, ideas start to diverge. I would argue that, for the Big Society to become real, it needs to be mainstreamed in policy. At the moment, I fear that, while there are plenty of interesting ideas around the Big Society, some people are using it as a kind of whitewash for policies that are driven by other kinds of motivations - not necessarily bad motivations, but by other motivations. Also, any Big Society strategy has to be redistributive, because among our most disadvantaged communities - although they have more assets than we sometimes realise - it’s unrealistic to pull back the state and expect a civic Renaissance to occur. So I believe in Big Society analysis; I believe in Big Society philosophy; but I believe that Big Society practice needs to be radical and influence the core wiring of what the state does, and it also needs to recognise social realities.

The RSA's report 'Connected Communities...' suggests that the Big Society use social network research to understand the specificity of different communities, and to promote participative behaviour. How far is the coalition taking this approach?

We believe that the fundamental objective of public services is social productivity; in other words, the degree to which public services enhance people's own sense of engagement and resourcefulness - their own desire to give something back to society. If we take that seriously, we need to apply that idea to public services in a mainstream way. If you look across Whitehall, the application of the core ideas of the Big Society is patchy. It's a work in progress.

Do you think the government is taking proper account of reports on how best to promote community cohesion and social wealth, such as the RSAs?

I think the government is very open-minded. I believe that David Cameron and some of the people around him have genuine enthusiasm for these ideas, and a real desire to take them forward. Other areas of Whitehall are less enthusiastic. I think the critical challenge for no. 10 in the period to come is to create an alliance of the right, left and centre that is enthusiastic about Big Society ideas - with perhaps different interpretations of them, but who can drive this discourse through society, and these ideas through Whitehall. In a way, David Cameron's enemies are not so much people on the left who have an interest in the Big Society but have a different take on it, because there can be common conversation among us. I think his biggest problem is within Whitehall, where there are people who aren't particularly interested in the Big Society and who are focused on a much narrower efficiency agenda.

Next: Tessa Jowell 

You can read more of OurKingdom's Big Society debate here.

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