I am instinctively very supportive of the Big Society. But it is not a new concept and I have another name for it. I call it liberalism.
My liberalism is a belief that power should start at the bottom and feed upwards. It is about personal empowerment, choice and, sometimes, quirky individualism. It is about self-pride, community and, often, a suspicion of authority. It is human in scale and organic in its development.
I have a nervous attentiveness to the need to protect this precious but delicate grassroots liberalism from the steam-roller of the overbearing state. What my liberalism is emphatically not is authoritarian or bleakly conformist. It does not idealise the placing of power at the top in the hands of the mighty and then working downwards. It is instinctively unsettled by orthodoxy and drab uniformity.
Those who are hostile to the Big Society have caricatured it as the abandonment by the state of those most reliant on essential services. They argue that only the top-down, all-knowing, one-size-fits-all centralised state can save us. They are wholly pessimistic about the capacity of people to be creative, independent and generous-spirited. We must, they argue, all be forced into a centrally moulded template for our own good.
But the Big Society is not a rejection of any role for the state; just of the assumption that the state should be the starting point when seeking to resolve any problem. It recognises that an over-weaning state can suffocate individual or community endeavour. Sometimes the state is better suited to being an enabler rather than a direct provider. Nor is it an attempt to ‘claim credit’ for small acts of existing charity. Quite the opposite: it seeks to encourage those acts to multiply.
After the budget has been brought back into balance, the public sector in Britain will still be spending a higher proportion of national income than it was during most of Labour’s time in office. To claim that the Big Society is code for the wholesale dismantling of the state is an unfounded and silly paranoia.
The Big Society can have many manifestations, both big and small. The hospice in my constituency gets less than 20% of its funding from the NHS. It relies on voluntary contributions of time and money. Many people who make that commitment are grateful for the care that their relative received at the hospice. They feel a personal bond with the organisation, as do many in the wider community. What’s wrong with that? The hospice is neither discriminatory in its admissions nor a threat to other health services. Its contribution to the community is no less valid because it is not wholly reliant on state funding or direction. We should celebrate it.
We should go further, looking at how communities can best manage their areas in ways that make them feel safer and happier. And right down to the individual level, rather than looking to the state to always solve difficulties, people can make a positive difference themselves.
Someone recently complained to me that her grandson had to clear the snow from her pathway. But why is that wrong? People have been helping their elderly relatives for thousands of years. It is part of what makes us human. Why should the state be expected to usurp the role of the family, or the kindly neighbour? Of course some isolated or lonely people need additional assistance, and the state is a potential provider of this service, but the essential task of making sure that everyone is looked after should not be confused with the nationalisation of compassion.
What can make liberalism hard to explain is that, unlike most political philosophies, its principal objective is not to do things to people. Instead liberalism aims to empower people to do things for themselves. It is a liberating rather than a prescriptive idea. To be antagonistic towards this notion requires a depressingly pessimistic view of the human condition. Rather than being a cause for resentment or friction, the liberalism of the Big Society should be both unifying and inspiring.