At the Heart of the Big Society

David Cameron should enlist everybody up to the Queen to rebuild Britain’s moral foundations

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.

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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. 

For some this will be profoundly problematic. After a decade of what one of Tony Blair’s advisers once called “deliverology”, this is entirely understandable. But the turn from an overwhelming centralisation must not be diluted by an inadvertent and uncritical re-adoption of the Blairite mantra of “what works”. A consistent ethic rooted in “what matters” need not undermine extraordinary civic variety but would ground the development of stronger societies more enduringly. Indeed, it could unleash and affirm a spirit of social and civic innovation and a moral crusade to protect human rights abroad where they are at their most fragile. For this opportunity to work, the Big Society needs soon to cease being the vision of the government alone, to move beyond a primarily domestic social policy focus, and mutate at speed into the kernel of a new social and civic settlement for our times. 

Outside the public-sector trade unions, the exhaustion of the idea of the traditional Keynesian hierarchical welfare state should be assumed to be a self-evident truth. Talk with activists and councillors of all parties and charities, though, and that assumption is not entirely automatic. Charities complain that they “do not want to do the State’s job” by lifting volunteering levels, as though State and market duties are these days entirely clear. The inherent difficulty of this view could be illustrated, were one to describe cooking a hamburger at home, as doing “McDonalds’s job”. Even among scholars of British voluntary action, the weight of the UK research tradition has been centred on defining “the sectors” of State, charity and market, their proper — and inalienable? — spheres of activity, rather than on developing habits that inspire and sustain true civic health in a vibrant civil society. Rather as Chinese leaders are reported sometimes to forget their communism and revert to seeing China through the lenses of great stories of former days told by their parents, so even modern civic leaders, and many of us citizens, are hardwired to lean back to bureaucracy. Keynesianism may be dead in theory but it lingers on powerfully and tenaciously in our cultural reflexes and conversation.

A first priority for accelerating a new social settlement, then, is to be entirely clear that the Big Society represents a considerable break with the recent past. If it is to gain depth and widespread societal “buy-in”, it needs to affirm that at its core is an aspiration that citizens will reclaim from bureaucracies a raft of rights and duties stolen from them. Consequently, while currently planned initiatives are laudable, they will take on greater long-term significance if accompanied by an additional effort to transform the language with which we talk about civic change. There is a gauntlet to be thrown down here that challenges the UK voluntary sector and businesses to think beyond a dependency on the State and towards a robust independence. That challenge could equally be made to international non-governmental organisations whose regular claims to “ethical” status need to be tested further against both their own possible bureaucratisation by multinational funding streams and their ability consistently to enhance human rights. Just as small businesses have had to emerge from the ashes of industries no longer sustainable on British soil, so new social institutions must be founded to carve out a fresh charitable landscape. And a new “Venture State” could lend a hand. 

For starters, every government department should have “innovators in residence”, their remit being to spin out functions, knowledge and insights of state into new businesses and social enterprise, rather as universities such as Cambridge and Southampton have excelled in commercialising their activities. The Treasury could accelerate this process by linking some resource allocations, even beyond the Comprehensive Review settlement, to the speed with which chunks of bureaucracies are returned to civic control. This would not be a “plan” to change but a competition.

While new technologies will assist in this process, an inspiring vision of a new welfare consensus that goes beyond bureaucracy would greatly increase the chance of providing a compelling and convincing civic settlement. Indeed, it is notable that the government’s hopes for a national social action day, larger social enterprise banks and networks of community organisers to provoke new volunteering have sometimes, elsewhere in the world, been achieved without state funding but through intensely creative partnership between business and charities. How could a new language facilitate equivalent initiatives in every locality here? How might new civic energy be unlocked? In addition to building new institutions, we will almost certainly have to bring others in from the cold who in recent times have felt shunned, especially by the media.

For example, British churches and rural and military charities have in recent years often felt under siege. In fact, one consequence of state efforts to force a civic conversation with minority religions since 9/11 was the creation of a level playing field between unequal institutions. Rather as Nike does not belong in the same trade association as a local sports shop, the Christian churches, with close to £1 billion in unrestricted cash flows, and more members than political parties and trade unions combined, should not be spoken of in the same breath as Wiccans and humanists. Likewise, with a war in Iraq and a high media profile, we might turn understandably and instinctively to a charity such as Help for Heroes and in doing so miss the huge mentoring networks gathered around retired servicemen. That the former Captain of HMS Invincible, Admiral Michael Gretton, upon retirement from the Navy, increased the number of Britons taking the Duke of Edinburgh Award to 300,000, should in future make him, and those like him, automatic sources of wisdom for government.

The real opportunity for the Big Society is not the policy options that smart advisers will pluck from innovation workshops to develop a social policy agenda on the home front. It is in linking it to the potential of a paradigm shift in thinking and ethics. 

A sustainable social legacy will emerge for David Cameron when civil servants, local government and trade unions, the voluntary sector and businesses — all these groups learn to think, speak and act differently. To disembody and contain the powerful beliefs and passions that the Prime Minister has set before us would be a tragedy. However, to secure future success they will need to grow and run beyond him. But what might this look like?

First, all party leaders could launch a foundation to work alongside their party whose aim would be to identify and train a new generation of political leaders who have had a civic and business life before entering the Westminster fray. If our future politicians could be prepared for civic times they would be less likely in the future to default to statism. These foundations could also be charged with supporting those institutions globally that are resisting tyranny. They would learn from the insights of pioneers in this field, such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, and have a brief to be entrepreneurial in culture. Second, bishops and business leaders should petition the Queen to call a civic consultation. Gathering religions, entrepreneurs, the party leaders and entertainers in private, the Queen might urge them to launch a public campaign to mark her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. If such a coalition persuaded the people of this country to give just one per cent of their incomes to charity in honour of Her Majesty’s lifetime of service, this would unlock a “Diamond Dividend” of around an extra £4 billion in donations. Third, the Foreign Office might now consider going even further than William Hague’s recent announcement that he would focus on human rights. Building bigger societies could be mainstreamed as a priority habit in every embassy. Finally, the Big Society idea needs developing in ministerial and government language — but also beyond — as a cause of national and international significance for the decades to come and not only as a feature of the coalition’s life. While this list is not exhaustive, no institution or enterprise should be let off the hook.

Indeed, in the crystal clear moments as I sat in that putative embassy in Zagreb, and as we awarded that jury’s prize to our isolated lawyer in Serbia two decades later, the need to refashion the moral foundations of our social and civic fabric, both abroad and at home, seemed crushingly obvious. Just as it did when, on hearing David Cameron announce his intention to build a Big Society, I could not help but be thrilled. 

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