One of the curios of some library campaigners extolling the virtues of books whilst also mocking the Big Society for supposedly being incomprehensible or non-existent is that there is a short, clear and well-written book which lays out just what it is. Conservative MP Jesse Norman’s book, The Big Society, is certainly not uncontroversial, but it makes a sufficiently strong and clear case to have received favourable comments from across the political spectrum on its publication last autumn, including from Labour MP Jon Cruddas.
At times the book seems to have two, almost contradictory, purposes – to persuade traditional Conservatives that the Big Society is a Conservative idea they should be comfortable with, but also to persuade non-Conservatives that the Big Society is an idea that reaches out beyond the bounds of traditional Conservative ideology and so should also appeal to them. As a result, The Big Society ends up skating close to trying to be all things to all people. All people, that is, except for Fabians who are routinely criticised throughout the book for their historic love of centralisation and top-down control.
The other main weakness of Jesse Norman’s book is the lack of consideration of where we start from. Jesse Norman emphasises the benefits of giving people the opportunities to make their own choices – both because it makes for a more free society and because, he argues, giving people more control over their job and their organisation makes for more efficient (public) services and a more successful economy. However, we do not all start from an equal place, and those questions of inherited wealth, privilege and opportunity get little attention from him.
In Norman’s wide-ranging book (which is worth the read simply for the overview it gives of many political and economic debates, whether or not you agree with his conclusions), he repeatedly stresses two themes that he says both free marketers and Fabians have neglected – that humans are sociable beings and that institutions matters. In other words, neither the free market emphasis on the interactions of fully autonomous individuals nor the Fabian-style preference for top down control fully appreciate the way humans interact with each other, relying on and prospering from the existence of a large range of intermediary institutions.
To a Liberal Democrat ear, some of this sounds very similar to community politics (and much of the criticism of traditional economics and the failings of markets, alongside calls for restrain on excessive corporate pay, will sound familiar to more left-wing ears too).
Norman’s own conclusions are that the central state should be smaller, but that it should not simply be rolled back and all left to individuals. Instead, there needs to be a growing and healthy mix of other institutions, whether it is mutuals that provide public services, local groups that give a voice to community concerns or simply organisations that bring people together to enjoy shared interests. At the same time, rather than trying to target outcomes – an approach Jesse Norman says ends up in failure under New Labour with ever-more draconian central control and target setting – government should target capabilities, giving people power and skills and then letting them get on with whatever they wish. There is an echo there of Nick Clegg’s own preference for talking of social mobility rather than about outcomes.
But despite the echoes of views held by those in other parties, this is clearly a book from a Conservative MP laying out a prescription for a Conservative Party. Nonetheless, it is well worth a read by a wider audience.