It was just over a year ago in his lecture in honour of the journalist Hugo Young that David Cameron first introduced the notion of the ‘Big Society’ as an alternative to ‘big government’. He acknowledged that ‘social entrepreneurs and community activists already exist’, but what is needed is ‘the engagement of that significant percentage of the population who have no record of getting involved, or the desire to do so’. Since that lecture was delivered, talk of the Big Society has taken off: there is now a Big Society Cabinet Unit in Number 10; the government employs Big Society advocates and policy-developers; and a Big Society website aims to be the centre of a network of local organisations in our towns and cities.
Yet for all the talk and policy push, the Big Society is still considered by many to be a kind of portmanteau, a word into which all kinds of friendly, warm ideas can be stuffed without too much clarity of meaning or policy direction. Some suggest that the whole idea is based on a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ model of UK village society; others, more critical, dismiss the whole idea as at best idealistic woolly nonsense; and those more hostile still regard it as a cynical cipher to cover up a severe reduction in national and local state-provided services, masked by a cheery demand that volunteers step forward to provide them – for free. From its demands that local people take over the running of their library to an insistence that local authorities substantially cut their provisions, the Big Society seems to have generated a fragmented range of responses that confuse rather than focus the concept in theory and practice.
Welcome, then, is Jesse Norman’s The Big Society: an Anatomy of the New Politics, a considered approach to the whole concept. Jesse Norman is the new Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, an honorary fellow of University College, London and a former executive director of the think tank Policy Exchange, and he brings some academic acumen to the Big Society debate. His previous work as a political philosopher has focused on developing ‘compassionate conservatism’ and he is strong on examining the philosophical roots of the ‘new conservatism’. He devotes some attention to neglected aspects of thinkers such as Aristotle, Hobbes, Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, and includes critical references not only to John Stuart Mill but also more recent thinkers such as Michael Sandal and Amartya Sen. All of his referencing is aimed at a specific target, namely the Fabian society ‘state socialism’ developed early in the twentieth century, which he claims dominated Labour Party thinking and policies right up until their loss of power in 2010.
It is this focused critique of the ‘Big State’ which overrules Norman’s narrative and his defence of a new approach in the form of the Big Society. He sees the ‘growth of state powers’ as ‘undermining how we see ourselves’ (p.158). In contrast,
The new conservatism stresses independent institutions, and horizontal ties, the conversation of many equal voices over the command of one voice, the wisdom of crowds over the fallibility of central control. Its emphasis is not on what the state can do for you or you for the state but on what we can do for each other. (p187)
Notably this contrasts with the old conservative critique of the Labour Party, that it was being run by the trade unions who were not Fabian socialists; and interestingly, trade unions hardly feature among the civic institutions that Norman says should form a key part of the new Big Society. But the idea of ‘what we can do for each other’ is at the hub of his argument, carried through interesting chapters on the economy, which challenge both state socialist and free market capitalist models, and are critical of the banking crisis and any simple ‘cost-benefit’ analysis approach to service provision.
Further still, Norman is dismissive of the ‘happiness’ theories presently creeping into public policy, and despite his great reservations regarding state intervention he is keen to ‘restrain excessive pay’. Yet despite a reference to the Big Society ‘including devolving more power from Whitehall to local government and a relocalisation of public services’, there is surprisingly little about localism in theory or in practice in this work, and rather more on ‘reforming corporate governance’. In other words, Norman’s approach to the Big Society, while it includes some positive proposals for reform, begins and ends with an insightful critique of macro-economics: he does not develop the concept of rebuilding our society from the bottom up. Rather surprisingly for those of us who have for years championed the real development of localism, including the establishment of local cooperatives and credit unions, there is too little in Norman’s work on strengthening the local – emphasising local over central government, for example, or promoting the shift to service provision in and by local communities themselves, and there is not a mention of the ‘participatory budgeting’ techniques already being developed in our cities as well as in mainstream developmental practice abroad.
Some claim that the Big Society approach is ‘applied Catholic Social Teaching’ (as Norman does on p.186). Yet, crucially, Catholic Social Teaching insists that decision-making at the most local levels, or ‘subsidiarity’, is always to be held together with ‘solidarity’, which is not just compassion or general neighbourliness but an insistence that structures and formal institutions ensure justice – that the poor are never left out. In other words, the Big Society cannot be reduced to the world of the ‘secret millionaires’ hand-picking their pet projects. In fairness, Norman’s whole thesis rests on a tripartite relationship between the individual, the state and civic institutions, rather than a simple, dualistic reduction of the state and turn back to the individual. He does present the case for intermediate institutions, which range from fish markets and car boot sales to social enterprises and mutual building societies.
But in terms of Norman’s discussion of Catholic Social Teaching, not only are subsidiarity and solidarity not presented and held tightly together, but despite occasional references to the key concept of the common good, unfortunately Norman’s philosophical allies take him away from any idea of it. Rather he champions those (from Michael Oakeshott to John Rawls) who dismiss the very concept of any ‘common good’ and who argue against ‘any overall project for society’ or ‘designated goal’ (p. 100).This philosophical pragmatism – held up by Norman as key to new conservatism – is a rejection of the ‘common good’ and effectively undermines any real efforts to tackle poverty as a priority, thus it negates that challenging ‘preferential option for the poor’ which is central to Catholic Social Teaching.
Three pillars for the government’s Big Society agenda have been set out: encouraging social action, public service reform, and community empowerment. Engaging these themes with the effects of spending cuts on infrastructures, services and voluntary organisations, and with questions of capacity and job substitution, could form a practical agenda. Jesse Norman’s The Big Society, however, is a work of political economy. It should spark considered and detailed responses from within the worlds of economics, politics and even Catholic Social Teaching, and is especially helpful in encouraging some fundamental rethinking in practice.
The reviewer, John Battle, is former Member of Parliament for Leeds West.