The “big society”: new doubts emerge

Cameron’s “big society bank” may begin with reserves of as little as £60m.

David Cameron's "big society" wasn't much of a hit with the voters or the Tory party (one MP memorably described it as "complete crap"), but today's the day when he finally launches the project, promising "the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power" ever seen.

Four "vanguard communities" (and what a peculiarly Leninist phrase that is) will be given the power and the money to run transport services, take over local assets such as pubs and set up broadband internet networks.

All of this will be financed through the creation of a "big society bank", using money raised from dormant bank and building society accounts. Alone among the press, the FT raises a sceptical eyebrow:

The British Banking Association has estimated there is probably £400m sitting in dormant bank accounts, which Mr Cameron wants to use for the bank's reserves. However, his advisers say a combination of foot-dragging by high street banks and the need to track down owners of dormant accounts means only a fraction of that sum will find its way into the new bank's coffers in time for its launch.

The bank is now expected to begin with reserves of as little as £60m, hardly enough to enable the voluntary sector to replace the "dead hand of the state".

On the Labour side, Ed Milband (who has just managed to raise £8,000 in 24 hours after an Obama-style appeal) has attacked the "big society" as a fig leaf for savage spending cuts. "People in the voluntary sector know that, for all the talk of a big society, what is actually on the way is cuts and the abandonment of community projects across Britain," he said. That may be the case, but the most persuasive critique remains a pragmatic one: in this ever more hectic age, who has time for the "big society"?

Cameron's hope that the "big society" will replace Big Government is reminiscent of the old Marxist belief that the state will "wither away" as a result of victorious socialism. We all know how that turned out. Cameron has a long way to go to convince us that his vision is any less utopian.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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