To the long list of flagship ideas and slogans that have failed to catch on (which includes Tony Blair’s Stakeholder Society and Gordon Brown’s British Jobs for British Workers) David Cameron has added the Big Society. The shoeless bicycling guru who convinced the Prime Minister to put it at the centre of his bid for power is frustrated with life in government and is departing for California. As far as most Conservatives are concerned, Steve Hilton can take the Big Society with him and keep it.
But, before it is dispatched, the failure of the concept should be properly understood. It was not, contrary to how it is usually presented, purely a piece of marketing which obscured an absence of ideas. It was the reverse. It was a very good idea, appallingly badly marketed.
Cameron thinks the state has too much power. He wanted all sorts of other groups and individuals — volunteers, churches etc — to be liberated from the grip of big government, to provide services that evolve organically rather than according to the diktat of the distant bureaucrat. It is a Victorian impulse, and I mean that as a compliment.
When the Tory leader said, “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state,” he infuriated Thatcherites who perceived it as an attack.
But Cameron and Margaret Thatcher were not, in this regard, a million miles apart. Mrs Thatcher put more emphasis on the role of the individual, which was hardly surprising considering the context in which her thinking developed. She had seen the postwar state grow to crowd out individual initiative. Cameron, reflecting his upbringing in an English village, looks more to community and to volunteering. Essentially, both were saying that the big state is not the answer and that personal responsibility is.
Cameron’s and Hilton’s error was to talk patronisingly, in a way which suggested they were the first to discover these truths. The pitch should have been more modest and, yes, conservative: how can we encourage more of what is already being done? All over Britain are people who help out. It might involve assisting in the running of their son’s or daughter’s sports club, or volunteering for a local charity. They think of this as life, not the Big Society.
Steve Hilton will be back in some form, probably to help with the general election campaign, but it is unlikely he will ever occupy a position of power equivalent to the one he has enjoyed at Cameron’s side for the last six years. The Big Society will not be back.