Opinion: An historical comparison – the Big Society vs the Great Society

In the late 90s, Tony Blair’s New Deal deliberately adopted the name of US President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s programme to increase public spending, create jobs, and escape the Great Depression.

Thirteen years later, one assumes that David Cameron’s Big Society (that Jeremy Browne praised yesterday) at least partially invokes another significant American liberal reform era: the Great Society of President Johnson in the 60s.

I fear that substituting “big” for “great” represents a lesser moral ambition. The Kennedy-Johnson years in America were self consciously “a call to greatness”. Politicians talked of “new frontiers”, putting an end to war, conquering disease and exploring space. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty”. It was derailed by bloodshed in Vietnam but people were asked to put faith in noble goals, to subordinate self to the interests of all and to let go of fear, especially fear of other racial groups.

It is hard to think of usages of “big” other than in a material sense. Some people have or want a big house, a big car or a big bank balance. “Big” is the natural adjective of the supermarket or bank; a word that day to day English, expressed in our mass media, uses for personal material ambitions. Big is not usually a word appearing in any sentence calling us to the better angels of our nature.

The Great Society program had specific measurable aims: the elimination of economic poverty and racial inequality. The Big Society’s aims are vague. In May, the 10 Downing Street website said the aim of the big society is “to create a climate that empowers local people and communities”. If your aim can only be stated as a metaphor, it is impossible to know when or how far your objective has been achieved.

The means of the Great Society were legislative and fiscal. At his seminal University of Michigan speech, Johnson announced working groups “on the cities, on natural beauty, on the quality of education and on other emerging challenges.” There were 14 working groups set up each with about ten members. Their reports led to legislation: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Clean Air Act. These new laws enabled people (mainly blacks and the poor) to do basic things they could not do before. There was new spending to create jobs and training programmes. The poor were involved in designing specific programmes. Volunteering was a part of numerous government schemes, especially for the young. Government funding in higher education was increased to reduce the cost of going to university.

The Big Society page on the Cabinet Office website gives limited indication of how the empowering climate will be created. Highlighted are “a new strategy to grow social investment, mutual futures and the European Year of Volunteering” but it is impossible to find an overall statement of what the government will actually do. There are no working groups identified. There are no Big Society bills named.

The Big Society may prove in time to be a good thing. Many of us who are involved in volunteering regard it as the most rewarding part of our lives. But the overall aims of the Big Society remain obscure and its proposed methods unspecified.

I reject Jeremy Browne’s assertion that the Big Society is synonymous with liberalism. Liberalism and Liberal government of the past had clear specified aims whose success could be tangibly assessed: how far was the franchise extended, how many children could read, how well were the sick and old were looked after, how long did peace last on the city streets or in Ireland or in Europe.

If the Big Society develops detectable aims beyond “get more people to volunteer” we can assess whether those aims are worthwhile objectives and whether they are liberalism. I hope that happens.

Antony Hook stood for the European Parliament in 2009 and was recently elected to the Interim Peers List.

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16 Comments

  • An explicit aim of the Great Society though was to tackle worklessness, as opposed to work-shy.

    Whilst it remains an ideological article of faith that workshy, as opposed to worklessness is the major problem then it is difficult to see beyond the assertion that this is all a cover for cuts, even if that might be an unfair assertion.

  • Jane MAreMAsh 15th Feb '11 - 12:28pm

    I came to this website to try to get an idea of what LibDems are thinking about the forthcoming privatisation of the NHS and the sell-off of the forests. Nothing here at all except some semi-official statements about non-controversial parts of the Government’s programme. Am I missing something?

  • Antony – so in summary, the Big Society is a rubbish idea being implemented terribly and Jeremy Browne’s support is ill advised?

    I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Ed Maxfield 15th Feb '11 - 1:24pm

    But Anthony, Johnson’s programme was a Big Government response to the problems of post-war America. All well and good if you are looking for a political programme that will deliver us a better 1960s but is it really relevant to the issues facing the UK today?

  • MacK (Labour) 15th Feb '11 - 3:34pm

    The Big society is nothing but a big con dreamed up by the Tory dominated coalition to draw attention from the cuts, and to get workers to work long hours for their measley benefits. Best of all, from the point of view of the parties of capital like the Tories and the Lib Dems who believe that labour costs are evil, it gets people to work for nothing and allows the minimum wage to wither on the vine. Meanwhile, a few people who run the big charities get paid big salaries on the backs of all the volounteers. The Great Society, on the other hand, is one in which volounteers are not needed at all; in which public services are so generously funded that the state is able to do away with all volounteers and in their place create jobs for people who are paid a decent living wage for doing them. Volountarism is inimical to the interests of workers. But we all know why the Tory dominated coalition is doing it: if you talk about the big society you sound like Mother Theresa: if you talk about getting rid of the state to save money you sound like Thatcher’s nasty party all over again. But make no mistake, we’ve rumbled you.

  • “Volountarism is inimical to the interests of workers. ”

    Are you seriously saying that all the Youth Groups, scouts, sports teams, craft groups etc run by volunteers should be paid positions?

    What happened to “From each according to their ability to each according to their needs”?

  • Antony Hook 15th Feb '11 - 5:25pm

    Mack, I’m afraid I don’t agree with you.

    Voluntary programmes were a huge part of the Great Society (eg the Peace Corps and VISTA).

    I think the difference is that Johnson identified clear aims. I can’t see that the BS has any tangible aims.

    Ed, I think the GS was more than money thrown at the problem. It was also the drawing together of experts for new ideas and the involvement of the grassroots in decisions about the programmes. In fairness, the BS suggests that too but I’m not aware of expert panels and the aims are entirely vague.

  • Maybe we should stop flogging the dead horse now…. I think David Cameron has ruined volunteering for many people because whereas before they were doing it/considering it for altruistic reasons, they’ll actually just be supporting the Tories and their ‘big idea’.

    Plus the fact that neither he, Francis Maude or the rest of the party want to volunteer. Oh sorry, that is unless you count running secret dinners (the press were expressly exluded by Cameron himself) where your rich chums buy hedgefund internships for their children counting as volunteering.

  • Hmmmm, perhaps we could talk about selling off our forests and privatising the NHS????

    The majority social liberal side of the party has been told that they don’t understand what the government are doing so perhaps one of the neo-liberal ministers should come on and tell us. Just an idea – talk about the important issues rather than devoting all our time Cameron’s patronising ‘ideas’.

  • MacK (labour) 15th Feb '11 - 7:09pm

    @ Tabman

    “Are you seriously saying that all the Youth Groups, scouts, sports teams, craft groups etc run by volunteers should be paid positions?”

    YES — just think what effect that would have on the unemployment figures! And they should all be given at least the minimum wage!

    “What happened to “From each according to their ability to each according to their needs”?”

    When the bankers sign up to communism so will I!

  • Antony Hook 15th Feb '11 - 7:21pm

    What! Mack, according to you I should stop volunteering to do pro bono legal work?

  • MacK (labour) 15th Feb '11 - 8:12pm

    @ Anthony Hook

    “What! Mack, according to you I should stop volunteering to do pro bono legal work?”

    Of course not. People are free to do whatever they wish with their leisure time. But I am opposed to this government’s exploitation of people’s good natures and using such altruism as a justification for the dismantling of our public services and the welfare state!

  • I think David Cameron has ruined volunteering for many people because whereas before they were doing it/considering it for altruistic reasons, they’ll actually just be supporting the Tories and their ‘big idea’.

    Frank, it appears to me that you seriously believe that the country contains many people who think “I would like to e.g. make life better for handicapped children, but I refuse to do so JUST TO SPITE DAVID CAMERON”.

    That is quite an astounding belief.

  • @Chris

    But then you get people who vote for Mayor Quimby.

  • mark Wilson 21st Feb '11 - 8:15am

    Matthew Huntbach points to Jeremy Browne’s article on this subject has hit the nail on the head with his comments though i do not necessarily share his analysis. I tried to write an article for publication on this subject for LD Voice, but I appreciate that the great and the good within the party will be given priority for publication on this subject. However my article was a different perspective on this issue.
    In my article I tried to argue that on the Big Society there should be a separate Lib Dem perspective on this issue. This is where i may part company with Lib Dem MP’s that are part of the Coalition and those MP’s and others that are not. I think it is important on this very important issue for Lib Dems, that contrary arguments that may form part of Lib Dem Policy should be publicly aired especially if they have something constructive to say but which does not presently support the Coalition Agreement on this issue. The Coalition must be willing to accept constructive criticism from its own ranks if the Coalition is going to make mistakes to the detriment of the country.
    Therefore following on from Matthew Huntbach’s points to Jeremy Browne’s article I hope LD Voice will be kind enough to publish an article I wish to have aired. I wanted to title my article “What kind of Liberal am I ?”

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