In Zagreb in the early 1990s, I can remember squeezing into the interim office of the then freshly-appointed British Ambassador to Croatia. A fracturing Yugoslavian bureaucracy had been captured by Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian military allies and among the disastrous outcomes were the death camps for Bosnia's Muslims. Even while British citizens rallied round with gifts of time, money and advocacy, the Foreign Office looked unable to respond to the disaster. Twenty years later, as a judge on an international prize for civil society, it was with mixed feelings of joy and sadness that I supported a special jury award given to a human-rights lawyer offering the only independent legal advice in Serbian regions still loyal to Milosevic's memory. With the image of this lawyer — who had foregone so many privileges to sustain freedom — fresh in my mind, it was with delight that within a few months I heard of David Cameron's passion to build a "Big Society". Here, it seemed, was an opportunity to develop a consistent ethic of government and so form not only a domestic social policy but also a robust global civic sphere that would enhance human flourishing and resist tyranny. The opportunity is still enormous.
During his leadership campaign, Cameron extolled the virtues of social action. At least two years before polling day he published a book of speeches affirming civic service and "responsibility". During the general election, he returned to the theme only to have doorstep campaigners complain that the concept of a Big Society was "fluffy". Since entering Downing Street, he has had to deal with Labour frontbenchers complaining that the Big Society was merely cover for cuts and a domestic voluntary sector lamenting the forecasted demise of mega-contracts and centralised grants so prevalent in recent years. Perhaps more frustrating still, some have tried to corral Prime Ministerial ambitions into "business as usual" or by reference to historical debates. How might the Big Society survive the modern fear and uncertainty that will inevitably arise once the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review are announced?
On the one hand, there are pointers: in July, Cameron went to Liverpool — scene of so much earlier local government failure — to stake out his civic terrain. The Big Society should, he said, be grounded on three areas of activity: on public sector reform (what the State can do for us); on community empowerment (what we can do together); and on philanthropic action (what we can do for others). For Cameron, these three "principles" should be underpinned by a trinity of "methods": decentralisation (a new localism); transparency (new information); and social investment (fresh models and means of funding). To these were added previous announcements that there would be 5,000 new community organisers, a new Big Society bank to lend to charities and an eight-week national citizens' service for youngsters.
Bridging gaps: Young people on the Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme could be part of the Big Society initiative (Getty Images)
Despite this articulation of these principles and methods by the Prime Minister, the agenda seems at a distance to be so new that charities are still worrying about the full meaning of his words and are seeking to make sense of them at the local level. However, as Departments of State begin to elucidate their plans, a further opportunity emerges, namely not to restrict the Big Society to a policy initiative for five years but rather to develop it as a sustainable moral project for the longer term.
To make such an observation is not to criticise any work undertaken, or words uttered, to date. Neither is it to default towards the archetypal neo-liberalism that held such sway in the Eighties. While a strong private sector can often be a powerful means by which to protect freedom, open markets are not of themselves guarantors of liberty. The speed with which "market-socialist" China is gobbling up African land into its firms' balance sheets is a case in point. The compromises grasped by high-margin oil companies in Burma may be another, not to mention the pragmatic business approach being taken towards engagement with Sudan's criminal rulers. As shareholder value has increased, human rights have often rotted. The Foreign Secretary William Hague has wisely announced that he wants future ambassadors to have business experience and to help British exports to grow. However, such an approach could also be strongly meshed with the Prime Minister's wider civic concerns. Indeed, the opportunity is for something deeper to emerge that moves the development of bigger and stronger societies to the centre stage of all the government's work. In the process, it would also leave behind the distraction of Left-Right counterblasts. Such an approach will require an increasingly radical direction in domestic civic renewal and must also anchor itself in a rich vision that is understood across the globe.
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