Fourth time lucky for David Cameron’s “big society”?

The Prime Minister relaunches his flagship policy yet again – but does not offer anything new to rev

David Cameron is set to relaunch his flagship "big society" idea yet again today, reiterating the message that his government has bigger goals than just cutting the deficit.

For months, many in his cabinet have felt that the idea – which has repeatedly failed to catch on with the public – should be quietly dropped. At the weekend, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister who runs the project, became the latest member of government to admit that the idea has not been communicated well.

Speaking to Radio 4's The World This Weekend, he said: "We may have failed to articulate it clearly and we'll carry on explaining as best as we can. I think people understand what is meant when we explain it and think that it is all a good idea."

Indeed, the Big Society Commission found that 78 per cent of UK adults are confused about what the phrase means.

Today, Cameron will say that "the big society is not some fluffy add-on to more gritty and important subjects". But does this latest incarnation offer anything new, or does it repeat the same mistakes?

Let's remind ourselves of the three previous launches and relaunches of what some ministers uncharitably refer to as "BS".

1. 13 April 2010

The idea was first set out at the launch of the Tory manifesto, which boiled down Cameron's pitch for power to a choice between Labour's "big government" and the Conservative "big society", which would allow people to live their everyday lives free of state control.

It is worth nothing that this is a false dichotomy, as 40 per cent of the £35bn voluntary sector receives state support.

2. 19 July 2010

As we know, the "big society" failed to catch the public's imagination. But Cameron was undeterred. After forming a government, he relaunched the idea (though Downing Street denied it was a relaunch at all) in terms remarkably similar to those of today's speech. He said then, as now, that although reducing the deficit was his "duty", giving more control to individuals and communities was his "passion" and underpinned his whole philosophy.

Cameron declared in July: "There are the things you do because it's your passion. Things that fire you up in the morning, that drive you, that you truly believe will make a real difference to the country you love, and my great passion is building the big society."

This diction is echoed directly in today's speech: "It holds the key to transforming our economy, our society, our country's future, and that's why I will keep on championing it and keep on building it every day that I lead this country. These are the things I'm most passionate about in public life. This is what is in my heart. It's what fires me up in the morning."

3. 13 February 2011

Just a few months ago, Cameron relaunched the idea for a third time in a speech in London stressing that he was "100 per cent committed" to the project. He also said that the "big society" has a "moral" purpose that runs through the entire government – from education to NHS reform.

Once again he said that – you guessed it – the "big society" is what he is "really passionate about" (and that cutting the deficit is his "duty").

 

It is clear that Cameron does care about the project (he also used his speech at the Conservative party conference in October to plead for support). But this much we already knew. We also know that the Prime Minister's passion is not enough.

The latest relaunch attempts to address the criticism that the idea of the "big society" is too vague by including some concrete measures – but these (allowing charitable giving from cash machines, and one day a year of volunteering by ministers) are not particularly inspiring.

A ComRes/Independent on Sunday poll in February showed that 41 per cent of the public thought the "big society" was a cover for spending cuts. The close concordance between this speech and past launches and relaunches shows that the latest intervention probably will do nothing to reverse this perception and save the project from failure.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496