A visit to David Cameron’s constituency got me thinking about the Big Society. Residents had set up a stall on the village green to give away apples, harvested from local gardens, which would otherwise go to waste. It struck me that this type of voluntarism taking place in the affluent, rural community where Cameron forms much of his worldview, feels a world away from the experience of many charity activists – particularly those working with vulnerable and marginalised people. Is it possible to shape Cameron’s vision so it becomes relevant to you?
Working as I do with many different charities, I hear a lot of views about the Government. Recently I’ve been struck by the scorn directed towards the Big Society. The consensus seems to be it’s nothing more than a ruse to mask an ideological crusade to replace state provision of public services with an army of volunteers – public services on the cheap. I’ve been surprised by the apparent willingness to jump on the bandwagon of criticism with seemingly little attempt to engage with and shape the agenda.
I take a different view. As someone who makes no secret of her links to the Labour Party (a quick glance at my CV reveals my affiliation, having worked for a minister in the last Government) you might expect me to echo the derision surrounding the Big Society. However, I resist the temptation to dismiss it, and detect an anti-Tory bias that clouds many people’s ability to see its potential.
Where did the Big Society come from? Its genesis was as a piece of political positioning designed to erase the Thatcherite taint from Cameron’s party. “There is such a thing as society”, Cameron said in his first speech as Conservative leader, turning Margaret Thatcher’s famous line on its head, “it’s just not the same thing as the state”. It was an audacious attempt – on a par with Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” appropriation of law and order as a Labour issue – to clothe the Tories in progressive values. The Big Society alludes to an ethos that is more often associated with the left than the right. And therein lies its potential. One year into his term as Prime Minister, Cameron is desperate to make his big idea fly but finds himself surrounded by ministers whose instincts are often at odds with the concept. There is a yawning gap for sector campaigners to step into to shape the Big Society.
Ministers and civil servants find it difficult to articulate what the Big Society is and what it will do. They are crying out for help to define it. The opportunity exists to engage positively with policy makers rather than complain about cuts. Of course, charities face real and significant problems in the current economic climate. By all means, collect evidence of the effects of austerity on services and communities and shout about it in Whitehall and elsewhere. But whingeing alone never got us anywhere – campaigners who offer solutions to problems are the ones who wield influence. Provide examples of how the Big Society can be given wings and you might just find a harassed minister or civil servant biting your hand off to implement some of your solutions.
Cameron expended massive amounts of personal and political capital on the Big Society – a bit like the banks, it is too big to fail. He’s not going to stand by and watch his big idea crash. Instead of moaning from the sidelines, the sector needs to be a critical friend to Government – pointing out where policy is incompatible with the Big Society agenda but engaging positively to propose constructive and viable alternatives.