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.