What will the Big Society look like?

As the UK's new Coalition government launches its 'Big Society' programme, surely the emphasis should be on institutions even if these are not part of the state.
Peter Johnson
23 July 2010

Debating the "Big Society" > Jonathan Rosenberg > Anthony Zacharzewski > This post.

There are various options. Perhaps the 07.53 from Woking will operated by the Rail Users’ Benevolent Association. Or perhaps this kind of signage litter will become unnecessary.

Loo litter

Does it matter which kind of outcome predominates? Well, yes, since rather different understandings of social activity are involved.

The UK government’s ‘Big Society’ policy promises to unleash private initiative to provide public services that the public would not otherwise get, or get at a price government considers affordable. The public as producer does not deliver, to use the commercial buzzword, what the public as consumer wants. The idea is that supply and demand can be matched by removing obstacles to private volunteers, and presumably with a good dose of exhortation. Behind this is, in part, the familiar doctrine of the state as the problem rather than part of the solution. And that in turn falls within the language of pragmatism and markets in which public affairs are generally discussed in the UK. A typical example of this kind of lazy follow-up questions whether people will have the time and energy to give after doing their day job.

But if ‘Big Society’ is to mean anything connected with the word ‘society’, can it be thought about in purely practical terms? Isn’t social consumerism categorically different from the kind of social cohesion that ‘mending our broken society’ surely implies? I say this not to rubbish the initiative. Whereas Anthony Zacharzewski on OurKingdom rightly identifies a political vacuum around ‘Big Society’ (including the massively political assertion that voluntary provision is better than paying taxes), I would say it has to be discussed with reference to institutions. This ought to come naturally to the Conservative Party, but they have largely given up talking about institutions, adopting instead the managerial language perfected (though not invented) by Labour.

Institutions reflect – no, are – social relationships and so express the meaning of the things people do together, shaping behaviour and gradually being shaped by it. They may include explicitly public rituals (religious observances, football matches, PMQs) and countless private rituals (from corporate ‘culture’ to the way families eat or watch TV together). They overlap in infinitely complex patterns. You cannot separate behaviour from institutions and you can’t separate institutions from historical and psychological narrative.

The endlessly hectoring notices we see are not evidence that we need more voluntary cleaners. They are a sign that we need less littering. And this, it seems to me, is the challenge for any policy that focuses on doing rather than relating. The habits or institutions of public order, cleanliness, helpfulness, and such like are mostly about how we relate to others. They are about unwritten institutional arrangements rather than service provision or contracts or penalties.

So ‘Big Society’ is going to have to do a lot more than sponsor a few on-the-ground projects. The Prime Minister will need to explain – and, vitally, show by example – how the institutions that will provide local public services on the largely voluntary basis he seeks will be valued, supported, respected, and integrated into our social fabric. If increasing voluntary provision simply means more something-for-nothing consumerism – with the state rather than the citizen as free-rider – and therefore ends up devaluing the state and voluntary sectors, then everything the policy is meant to foster will be subverted. Talk about society is easy. The hard bit is living the institutions that give it content.

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

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData