Over the past few months, I have read an awful lot about people not understanding what the Big Society is; and, to a certain extent, I'm with them. Therefore I thought that I'd try to clarify 1) what I think the Big Society is and 2) what has made it come across so muddled.
The Vision: In my view, the 'Big Society' (or 'strong society', as it might have been better labelled) is Cameron's attempt to invoke the spirit of the pre-war years - before the statist socialists of the post-war Labour governments (backed up by their post-war consensus Tory opposites) castrated the voluntary element of British life. Other people have studied this process (and if this were a researched piece, I'd have gone back and re-read them, but ho-hum)*; but suffice to say, there is a body of opinion that believes that the increase in state intervention that swept the masses off their feet in the mid-twentieth century is either unable or unwilling to set them back down again. In short, the Big Society is an attempt to inject some of the Victorian ethos of community, self-help, volunteering and charity that more than a half-century of statism has eroded.
The Problem: Can you seriously imagine David Cameron espousing 'Victorian Values'? After all the rebranding work he's done? It's so old-school Tory. Contrary to those on the right, I am of the opinion that Cameron is actually a Conservative but, much as it might please the likes of the Telegraph and the Mail, a strategy of 'Victorian Values' isn't viable for a Conservative of Cameron's ilk. It sounds scary and unreformed - the left can gleefully point out that the Victorian era was the age of chimney sweeps, workhouses**, poverty etc. Getting stuck in a pitched battle over which bits of the Victorian age he wanted isn't something Cameron would have wanted on the eve of an election. Instead, we got 'The Big Society'.
Even after the election, the problem with implementation persists. Because liberalism (and I consider small state/strong society to be liberalism, as long as 'society' doesn't trammel individualism) requires being... well, mean. People will only stand on their own two feet if the state stops carrying them. Encouraging volunteering requires slashing state provision; why would you volunteer otherwise? Granting freedom to people should also mean giving them responsibility - and thus the risk of negative consequences. In an era when state help is viewed as an entitlement by many, governments are simply too afraid to give people responsibility.
This is less of a problem for Labour, which values equality over freedom (more or less), but it presents a major problem for the Conservatives. They're all for giving people freedom (social-conservative dinosaurs excepted) - but giving people responsibility invariably elicits howls of "heartless Tories!". It's why Cameron continues the Labour habit of fetishising spending on 'our' NHS rather than results or seriously considering structural reform. Government 'goodness' is measured in the volume of money - other peoples' money - you pump into stuff.
Which is where the problem with the Big Society comes in. The self-help, mutual, community ethos of the Victorian era existed because people thought that if they wanted something done, then the responsibility was theirs to do it. Rich people gave to - and actively participated in - charities to help the disadvantaged. Poor communities banded together to do various things and bonded in doing so. The problem with trying to bring this sort of thing back is that the general view now is that these things are the job of the state. If there's a problem, big or small; or a community, however small that wants something, that is the job of the state - "What we pay our taxes for".
Before the Big Society could be properly implemented, Cameron would first have to tell the nation "No, this is not what you pay your taxes for anymore". He would have to radically redefine the role of the state, creating one with a much smaller purview and much lower tax and spend turnover. Then, having slashed taxes to match, he would have to persuade people that they were capable of helping themselves - and that they should. The leftist orthodoxy that if someone is without the state they are 'alone' would need to be confronted head on. How callous and Thatcherite and evil that could so easily be painted as being; not the image of modern 'compassionate Conservatives' that the Cameroons were aiming for.
These major issues aside, there's no denying that the Coalition has muddied the waters further. Much as I admire it, a coalition that contains Vince Cable and John Redwood is not one equipped to challenge nearly a century of government orthodoxy on such emotive territory at a time of national crisis. I'll admit that watching Vince Cable on Question Time defending things like the Free Schools policy is a treat, but the Conservative's partners need to be handled with caution and respect if the coalition is to work. If Cameron's lucky, he'll somehow manage to absorb the Orange Bookers, making it the third time the Liberal right has joined the Conservatives. But until another election delivers him a majority, he has to keep the SDP on board, and the big society doesn't have much of a hope.
In short, Cameron couldn't sell Victorian Values before the election and he cannot implement them after it. Don't feel too sorry for him - 'Big Society' is still a terrible name.
* Nick Cohen's book "What's Left?" spends some time examining the way that a new breed of 20th Century socialism eroded the culture of self-reliance and self-improvement that had been the working class's in the 19th Century. James Bartholomw's book "The Welfare State We're In" is a key book on this subject and a very engaging read. I've even linked you to the bookshop!
** I'm aware of the irony that towards the end of his reign Gordon Brown actually proposed bringing these back himself, in a shiny modern form.