Chris White writes: Big Society’s meatless bones

‘Little by little, and like a virus, the Big Society idea has lodged itself insidiously in my mind; so that now, everywhere I go, I start to see small things that actually could be done closer to the ground, by and for the people who know about them and need them’.

So wrote Matthew Parris in the Spectator last August, a passage approvingly quoted by Jesse Norman, the Big Society philosopher-in-chief in his book of the same name.

Parris’s summary tells us that the concept has gained a grip – and not only on the Right. Some Liberal Democrats are also talking about it as if it were a Liberal agenda. And Labour is attacking it as a smokescreen for cuts.

At first sight, as described by Parris, it is indeed a Liberal philosophy: close enough to devolution and community politics as to be part of our daily business.

But is there any more to it? Norman’s book is a discursive romp through the limitations of economics (he condemns the fact that reality is seen ‘through the spectacles of formal economic models’), laced with ferocious attacks on Labour’s legacy, as well as some alarming non-sequiturs:

‘It may seem fanciful to connect such things as the recent rise in drug abuse and knife crime with the social acceptance of a standard economic worldview,’ Norman declares. Yes: it is fanciful, but thank you for admitting it.

He also critiques Layard’s ‘Happiness’ and, while at first seeming to be a Thatcherite apologist (she ‘reduced the pervasiveness of the state’) he ends by condemning her use of North Sea Oil revenues to prop up Government revenue spending.

Plato, meanwhile, is unsound compared with Aristotle, who recognised man as a social animal (thus neatly retiring Thatcher’s claim that there is no such thing as society).

The core is what Norman terms ‘I-C-E’: Institutions, Competition, Entrepreneurship.

The Big Society needs independent institutions, encompassing rules, customs or traditions as well as concrete ideas like ‘fish markets and car boot sales’.

Competition has its normal meaning, although he recognises the need for market regulation in some cases (eg mortgages where people can mistake what is in their best interest).

The definition of entrepreneurship is so wide that it might ‘seem meaningless’. It includes not only an inventor or an importer but also the ‘house-husband [nice touch] who stretches a limited budget’. Linked to this is praise of mutualism and co-operatives.

So what is the Big Society? There are elements of volunteering, mutualism, localism and letting people get on with it.

My street runs a street party every year and sings carols on Christmas Eve. The necessary arrangements just happen – without council or government intervention.

But the comfortable conventions of self-confident middle class households cannot be seen as a template for what may be needed in run down estates.

The good news is that the Big Society is not Thatcherism.

The bad news is that it is probably not very much at all.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I really think that the Big Society is the product of the imaginations of a particular set of people who don’t realise how partial their experience and knowledge of the world is.

    In the Cameronite view of the world, there are large numbers of stay at home mums whose main occupation during the day is to ferry their offspring to and from expensive private schools in 4X4s. What he is really looking for is a modern remake of old style jam making and good works by armies of yummy mummies.

    He doesn’t realise that in most families where both partners go out to work, they get home knackered after long, stressful days and have their hands full looking after their offspring. Just enough time to watch telly, deal with a mortgage application, get the kids to bed and then lights out.

    Unless they are superhuman, they are not going to have the time or energy to start new schools, look after the vulnerable and the elderly and generally save society at large from the worst effects of rampaging market capitalism.

    Basically we are being sold a lie, just as New Labour sold a lie, namely that we can have a safe, caring society with good levels of provision for the young, sick and elderly without paying substantially more tax than the 36-38% we are used to paying. That is the fundamental problem. We want a continental European type society (shiny hospitals, well resourced schools, nice homes for the elderly) while still keeping all the consumer goodies that we are used to having. As with all lies, this one will be found out.

  • Robert you are absoluely right. This Big Society idea is so 19th century, echoes of Samuel Smiles ‘self help’ ethos, Charity and Mr Scrooge persuaded to do good works. The volunteers , if they find anyone, will tend to come from Cameron’s ‘caring middle classes’,more of the ‘Great and the Good’ . If we truly want a ‘Great Society’ we need European stye taxes and ensure every one pays.

  • The crucial bit missing from the ‘Big Society’ are surely a) the liberal guarantees we expect and b) most importantly: democracy. Otherwise it just becomes a power game over which ‘big society’ and ‘little society’ and individual can win.

  • david clayton 23rd Feb '11 - 11:07am

    What utter nonsense Big Society is a piece of PR smoke and mirrors to disguise the fact the state is being slashed. I am sure you Nineteenth Century Liberals are quite happy about this but you didn’t have the bottle to say it in the election and you certainly have no mandate to do it now. The post war consensus on the role of the state appeared for a reason and the destruction of many aspects of it by this ideologically free market coalition is going to produce a very different and divided society. Not the right time to cut police numbers, in my opinion you are going to need them. Or are you planning to use the army when the riots come in the summer?

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Feb '11 - 3:19pm

    I agree with most of these comments. The problem with the Big Society is that it varies completely from one advocate to the next. There seem to me to be at least three themes:

    (1) Voluntarism – people providing services for free (or cheaply) instead of by people paid by the state (or indeed anyone else). Run your local library. Nothing wrong with this on a small scale (in my ward residents look after small Council-owned garden plots at the end of their street). Council run allotments are often run by a voluntary Allotments Association. But it won’t work for motorways (or even libraries).

    (2) Services run by charities (including community groups) instead of the Council or NHS or whatever. This may be contracting out services on the basis of service agreements etc in which case it is just a more benign form of contracting out to the private sector (in which case it may or may not result in a better or cheaper service but it doesn’t necessarily change the relationship with service users or the community). Or it may mean handing it over without and letting the charity do it without constraints (and presumably without funding) – type (1) Big Society on a larger scale.

    (3) Wholesale fragmentation and privatisation of public services of the kind Cameron now seems to be talking about, with any charity involvement and any remaining public sector provision operating within a common market. Presumably the ideological basis of this is that individuals will as far as exercise power in the market by buying services, where necessary by the use of vouchers or entitlements provided and funded by the state. The forthcoming Open Public Services white paper is said to include this kind of proposal.

    Obviously all systems can overlap (as they do now) and the three views of Big Society are being confused by a lot of sloppy thinking within the slogan – not surprisingly since the slogan preceded a lot of the thinking!

    What is very clear is that the Big Society does not include the concept of people working and organising for political ends (community politics). The forestry campaigns were wonderful but not part of the Big Society! You can volunteer to help in your library but not campaign to stop the Council closing down. Councils and political parties are not to be involved because they too are political. The Big Society does not therefore feature local democracy and democratic accountability highly in its schemes – though these are of course central to Liberal/Democrat thought.

    The BIg Society is at once intensely ideological and completely anti-political. In general it is, it seems, a Bad Thing.

    Tony Greaves

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Feb '11 - 5:16pm

    “Big Society” sounds good if you are a clueless millionaire. If you are a clueless millionaire, the world is good to you. You have your wealth and contacts to fall back on. This country and the world have largely been run in your favour for decades. Competition seems exciting, you’re never going to be in absolute poverty and misery if you lose out. You’re never going to know what it’s like to work until you drop just to keep yourself warm and fed. You haven’t seen all the structures that used to support the way you lived smashed to pieces in the name of “modernisation”.

    The sort of society where people get together and do things on a voluntary basis relied on there being a lot of stability. You can volunteer if you feel your life is safe, you have a house and a job that aren’t going to disappear, you live in a close knit community where everyone knows everyone else. Well, that describes life now for clueless millionaires. It does not describe life for the rest of us.

    This society the clueless millionaires have built up with their dog-eat-dog mentality has smashed up what once might have been the basis for “Big Society” run by ordinary people. They have poured scorn on many of the remaining voluntary organisations – the political parties, the trade unions, that if more robust could have been a part of it. They have allowed huge corporations to build up and get a strangehold on everyone, sapping the ability to organise independently. They are incapable of seeing any sort of organisation except the sort they know – based on wealth and influence. And then they have the cheek, the damned cheek, to lecture the rest of us on this their new big idea. Which is essentially “Why can’t you oiks be like us?”. To which the answer is “Because we aren’t millionaires like you”.

  • Emsworthian 23rd Feb '11 - 6:32pm

    The Big Socieity is straight out of the Institute of Publc Relations whose most famous son is no less than Dave himself. Almost anything like a better society, greener society, fairer society would more meaningful than this Cameron Crap. I trust this not another Tory notion we’re supposed to go along with under the coalition agreement.

  • David Allen 23rd Feb '11 - 7:10pm

    I agree with most of what Tony Greaves says. I’m going to cavil at one paragraph, where Tony talks about “the concept of people working and organising for political ends (community politics).”

    The 1970s concept of community politics, revolving around Liberal Focus, was that councils were being run by the baddies – unrepresentative Tory business interests, unrepresentative Labour unionists. This should give way to councils being run by the goodies – ordinary guys and gals free from vested interests and from all walks of life , who were naturally the Liberals. In those days, the Liberal and later Alliance self-image as knights in shining armour did to a fair extent have the ring of truth. The old parties were fighting a sterile class war, and we genuinely stood for something new and different.

    Fast forward to 2011, and politics is not the same. The class war has changed its character, and “we are all middle class now”. We have won a lot of councils, only to find that, with capping and bureaucracy and central government interference, we cannot revolutionise their performance. We retained a litle bit of the magic as iconoclastic outsiders and real humans in politics right up to the Kennedy era, but we have lost it now, and not solely because of the coalition. We are just another contender in the ring. We may have more to offer than the others, but that won’t always be the case, and we have to prove our worth against popular scepticism, just like our opponents have to do.

    So, to suggest that we should campaign for big community projects or for visible changes in the way councils do things, and that this should all be centred on Lib Dem Focus and branded with the Lib Dem brand, will now be widely viewed as at best questionable, at worst obnoxious. Increasingly, it is non-politicians who are doing the real campaigning (like 38 Degrees on forests), and making the effective things happen on the ground. In my neck of the woods, we have local independent Parish councillors who are busy, for example, with innovative allotment schemes. To suggest to them that this should all be done for the greater glory of one political party would be to invite derision.

    This does not mean that we should discard community politics. On the contrary, we should look to its continuing strengths. The idea is to mobilise not just rich individual volunteers, but a wider community with a voice it can find. The idea is not to rely on massive donations of unpaid working time, but to give local people more say in how public money is spent. The idea is not just a Trojan horse to bring ourselves into control of councils, it is a way to support councilllors of all parties and of none who can get things done. The idea is not to claim the credit for things which non-politicians are doing already. It is not to take them over and stultify them with council bureaucracy. But, it may be to point out the real advantages that councils can have in providing continuity and stability (what happens when the first flush of keen volunteers fade away, and the community is left with things like allotments and skateboard parks that need upkeep?), when they truly work with the community.

    It isn’t the “Big Society”. Updated to avoid a too partisan party political approach, it can be something far better.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Feb '11 - 8:35pm

    I agree with most of what Tony Greaves says. I’m going to cavil at one paragraph, where Tony talks about “the concept of people working and organising for political ends (community politics).”

    I don’t think you are disagreeing with me at all. I was using the word “politics” in a general sense as “people working and organising for political ends” not party political ends specifically. Though parties will often be involved.

    If you are challenging what authorities are doing – either questioning their legitimacy or just challenging certain actions – that is a political act. Which is why the Tories don’t include it in the Big Society and why Labour did not include it in all their attempts at “community empowerment” and “stakeholder engagement” and all the rest of the crap.

    Tony Greaves

  • Ed The Snapper 23rd Feb '11 - 9:21pm

    A sensible article and some sensible comments. The Big Society is a means of undermining minimum wage legislation. It should be resisted.

  • RobertC nails the issue on public services, if we want better we should pay more tax.

    David Cameron’s big society is starting to sound more and like the big private sector nose in the trough fest, short term idealism that will leave long term damage.

    We already have volunteers, people helping neighbours, people doing their own part, good grief plenty of us recycle our rubbish into an ever expanding number of containers, it’s not like people all sit there waiting for the council to do everything.

  • Tony,

    Thanks for the clarification. Yes, there is a hard political edge involved in campaigns such as saving our forests or saving local libraries. These days, community campaigning seems to gain more credibility if it is kept largely separate from party politics. There are also debates to be had on just how much to make of the hard-edged confrontational aspect. Certainly out in deepest Rushcliffe where I come from, talking about helping active citizens to get more involved in local decisions is going to gain more support than radical smash-the-system rhetoric – and if that can achieve much the same ends, I won’t knock it!

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Feb '11 - 9:57am


    The idea that “community politics” meant just “Liberal Focus” is wrong. Tony Greaves will know more about this than I, since I joined the Liberal Party in the 1970s inspired by what it was already doing with “community politics” while Tony was around when the whole thing got started off.

    The original idea of “Focus” was just as a demonstration that people can get together and change things through political action. It was meant to counter the sort of anti-politics attitude that has become even more widespread since then, that “politics is irrelevant, there’s no point bothering getting involved, it’s not for little people like us, things will always be the same, so stay at home watching your television, let those who run things continue to run things and treat you like rubbish, that’s life”.

    One of the telling things was that in the 1970s it wasn’t “Liberal Focus”, it was just “Focus”. There was a conscious effort to distance it from party politics, for it NOT to be just about electing Liberal Party councillors. The real idea of it was to get people to think about the world around them, and to see that they did not have to accept it as it was. It focused on local council issue because that was a good way to get people who thought “politics is nothing to do with us” to start thinking about political issues. The idea was to start with things immediately around them and move outwards. You could do this best by NOT flagging it up as “This is politics”, so instead it was done through a homely community newsletter, written by ordinary people just like you. It was important that the newsletter has an amateurish look, that it didn’t look like conventional party political material. It was, however, an excellent use of what was then new technology – cheap low scale offset litho.

    The election of a Liberal councillor on the back of a Focus campaign was meant to be just a demonstration of the power of people through getting together and thinking and acting politically. It wasn’t necessarily that the Liberals were the “good guys”, it was to show that politics and elections weren’t just rituals, that you could actually change things that way, that you did not have to accept things as they always were. It was particularly powerful in that respect when done in places which people just assumed were “safe Labour” or “true blue Conservative”. It simply oiled up the democratic machinery to stop it rusting away. In those days, the election of a Liberal councillor had a more powerful impact, because politics then much more than know was seen as being just Labour v. Conservative. So a Liberal councillor in a place where there had been none of them for years would have been a very exotic thing, finding one being put in place through the community action of “Focus” was a powerful demonstration that people can change things through mechanisms such as the ballot box, and by getting together producing little community newsletters and the like.

    Part of the problem with this was that it was too successful – it turned out that you could very easily get Liberal councillors elected that way. So long as you had the time and energy to do it, you could, it was a simple formula you could follow. As a result, the original idea that the election of the Liberal councillor would just be a demonstration of people power was forgotten. There was talk of how this community politics could be taken forward to do other and greater things, but complacency set in as it gradually turned into just an election technique. Also, and I know your background, but I am sorry, it has to be said – the foundation of the SDP and all that involved killed the original intentions of community politics. The SDP was all about top-down politics, a political party that was all about its leaders in Westminster with a very tight control from on top, and the idea that politics could be changed by a professional centralised new political party, producing glossy professional literature, who would show those “sleepy” Liberals how to do it.

    The SDP was therefore the very opposite of what we were trying to do with community politics. But it did attract many new idealistic people into politics. These people were entranced by the idealism of the SDP founders, and saw the Liberal as just standing in their way. Liberals in turn were frustrated because these new SDP people, just couldn’t see how localist decentralised politics actually was working and doing something different and so “breaking the mould”. So much of the interaction between the SDP and Liberals at local level then was people who agreed with each other on much furiously misunderstanding each other. It was muddied by the politics at the top of both parties, and the fact that the SDP had a lot of media backing whereas the Liberals had none.

    The result of this was that Liberals stomped off muttering “we’ll show them we know what we’re doing” and that we did. We churned out the Focuses and we churned out the Liberal councillors. We all turned up in Bermondsey to elect Simon Hughes as a Liberal to show we could do better doing it our way than the SDP could do with Dick Taverne in Peckham. Then we used our techniques to elect an ungrateful Rosie Barnes in Greenwich who never realised how much her election was down to Liberals doing what Liberals had learnt to do. However, this “mindless activism” to show we meant business and we could achieve worked to push “Focus” towards “Liberal Focus” and even more to get what had started off as “community politics” with much radical idealism stuck in the rut of being just an election-fighting technique.

  • David Allen 24th Feb '11 - 5:47pm

    Thanks Matthew. So, the SDP got some things wrong, and the Liberals also got some things wrong – and we’d have done better had we paid more attention to each other’s strengths, and less to each other’s weaknesses. So, at any rate, I argued, when I piloted against much scepticism one of the first SDP Focuses in my area (then Southampton). I can’t remember worrying much about whether it was an idealistic better way to do politics or just a cynical marketing tool. In those days, there didn’t seem to be too much conflict between sticking to your principles and winning elections.

    If the SDP were too dismissive of Liberal capabilities on the ground, the Liberals were equally too dismissive of SDP strengths at the centre. Professionalism, a credible alternative economic policy, and leaders who could clearly run a government did make a powerful appeal to the public. The Alliance got 26% of the vote in 1983 despite the Falklands, a high-water mark that has not been matched since. While Roy Jenkins sought to convince the public that he would be the leader best able to turn round the British economy, it did seem a little incongruous when some Liberals only wanted to talk to the nation about mending potholes.

    Well, that’s history. It’s a lesson about tribalism, and the unnecessary conflict betwen the two halves of the Alliance, which in the end did for both of its halves. For years, I recall, a very small minority of us SDP-ers called for merger with the Liberals, and were pilloried for doing so. Attitudes turned around almost farcically quickly when the SDP picked itself off the floor after the1987 election and realised with a shock just how badly Owen had made a pig’s ear of it!

    It would, of course, be possible to regain the strengths of the best of the old Alliance parties. We’d just have to throw out the hedge-fund guys and Orange Bookers. We could return to Charles Kennedy’s position, that Britain has two large conservative parties run by powerful vested interests, and that we are their opponents who speak for the ordinary people. Maybe one day…

  • Tony Greaves 24th Feb '11 - 5:52pm

    These days, community campaigning seems to gain more credibility if it is kept largely separate from party politics

    My point, Dave, is that community campaigning to achieve something (build a new library, stop the closure of a library, whatever) is political. Whether or not parties are involved in involves activity aimed at influence within the broad administrative/political system. It is therefore inherently political.

    It seems that the Big Society is to exclude anything that is political, in this sense or any other.

    Tony Greaves

    (PS This is a fascinating thread).

  • David Allen 24th Feb '11 - 6:46pm


    I’m not missing your point (or at least in don’t think I am!) Yes, you know and I know that politics matters.

    Way back when, politics was cool. Politics meant young people determined not to go off and fight in the jungles of Vietnam. Politics meant the social revolution of the sixties and seventies, with celebrities like John Lennon choosing to mix politics with music because he knew the combination would play well with his listeners.

    Right now, politics is deeply uncool. Especially party politics. Celebrities largely steer clear, or else endorse non-party campaigns. This creates difficulties for us. Having a clear idea where one stands is, of course, good. Boasting to the voters about the strengths of your political beliefs and ideologies may be less good!

    I don’t like the Big Society, partly because it’s vacuous, partly because it’s a smokescreen for cuts, and partly because, as I think you imply, it tries to skate over and suppress the idea that conflict can be a good and necessary thing. The BS idea is that if a load of well-meaning people chip in some volunteer effort, all our problems will notionally be vanquished, and we won’t need to worry about the libraries we are closing, the benefits we are cutting, the peoblem of rising inequality, etcetera.

    I do like community politics, but, I guess my point is that we should not go to the opposite extreme, and rub the political in people’s faces when we advocate it. Otherwise it just won’t sell. Bad marketing techniques include being too party partisan, acting like the Judean Peoples Front, or blaming the innocent. It used to be reasonable to say that a council could always concede a public demand for new facilities by raising local taxes. Then came capping, and then came cutbacks. In these conditions, campaigns like Save-Our-Post-Office (which everybody knows will be on a loser) tend to fall flat. Campaigning against council secrecy, for genuine participation, or for initiatives that came from the public rather than from ourselves, should stand a better chance.

  • Ed The Snapper 24th Feb '11 - 7:03pm

    Tom Papworth @ “The Big Society is a means of undermining minimum wage legislation.”
    This is a new one! Can you explain, please, Ed?

    The Big Society is a means of ensuring that jobs that are currently done by lowly-paid public sector workers (who are protected by minimum wage legislation) are replace. These “volunteers” will in addition have to continue do their normal paid jobs (if employed) in order to pay their living expenses A female friend of mine also thinks that the Big Society is ameans of undermining equal pay legislation because the Big Society mostly involves making primarily women to do unpaid work as carers, librarians etc. All in all, Big Society is a dreadful idea. I speak as a regular volunteer who is just on his way to a meeting of the committee of my local football club….

  • Ed The Snapper 24th Feb '11 - 7:06pm

    The first sentence of my last posting should have read “The Big Society is a means of ensuring that jobs that are currently done by lowly-paid public sector workers (who are protected by minimum wage legislation) are replaced by unpaid volunteers.”

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