The Big Society: the answer’s in the book

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.

The Big Society by Jesse Norman - book coverIn 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.

You can buy The Big Society by Jesse Norman from Amazon here.

Read more by or more about , , , , , or .
This entry was posted in Books and Op-eds.
Bookmark the web address for this page or use the short url http://ldv.org.uk/23935 for Twitter and emails.
Advert

2 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 1st May '11 - 11:35pm

    It is worth reading in order to realise what garbage it all is! (I have just done so as part of my continuing enquiry into just what the Big Society is or is not – now I am about to start on Red Tory by Philip Blond, a man who did not impress me when I met him at the Liverpool conference).

    “short, clear and well-written book “? Hm. It’s short. Clear? I thought “clear as mud”. Lots of cod philosophy and a lot of discursive Tory discussion and rebuttals of attacks on the Big Society, What it is not is a clear explanation of what the BS actually is. (Except that it is the same as Compassionate Conservatism – as defined by Norman).

    Community politics it certainly is not. However I kept asking myself what my reaction to it would be if I was a mainstream Tory – and I think the answer is “utterly bewildered”. If Cameron thinks this stuff is what will define his premiership, it’s going to be a Big Flop. That may be a consolation.

    Tony Greaves

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • User AvatarMichael BG 19th Apr - 1:47am
    I only recently posted a comment on this site saying “It is far too late for us to point out that we modified the Tories...
  • User AvatarMichael BG 19th Apr - 12:44am
    @ Philip Thomas I am not sure I was talking about what the government defines as a British Citizen but one we could all agree...
  • User AvatarPete Salmond 19th Apr - 12:35am
    @Peter Watson - "The NUS could argue that this campaign is an idealist one" I anticipated you may say this. It's almost true, and yes...
  • User AvatarMichael BG 19th Apr - 12:19am
    @ Paul Walter “Theakes: “I submit if you had followed our recommendations over the past 12 months we would at least be in 3rd place...
  • User AvatarEddie Sammon 18th Apr - 11:46pm
    Also, the Guardian has temporarily suspended high journalism standards in order to become a Labour Party vassal. Apparently the Conservatives unfunded promises are a "reinvention...
  • User AvatarEddie Sammon 18th Apr - 11:19pm
    Labour's budget responsibility lock is a sham and all parties need to go to town on it. Clegg is right that it means nothing without...
Sat 25th Apr 2015