Where art thou, "big society"?

Why Cameron's pet project has disappeared down the back of the political sofa.

Has anyone seen Dave's "big society"? It's an odd loss, because according to many, this was the closest thing Cameron had to a political philosophy. This was his pet project, and despite the mockery (the big society minister Francis Maude "didn't have time to volunteer"), few political sound bites have gained as many reams of news coverage. So why has it disappeared down the back of the political sofa and, importantly, what does it say about Cameron's leadership?

The big society's own guru, the "Red Tory" Phillip Blond, offers a pretty cutting explanation:

He (Cameron) was radical, but he risks retreating into orthodoxy and pragmatism.... A new approach to the state, business and society (call it the big or the good society) still lacks a politician of genius and vision to broker its future.

All the big players in the movement have now left. Blonde was distanced well before the controversy over his tax affairs. Steve Hilton - the "architect" behind the term - grew so frustrated he finally put on his shoes and moved to California and the movement's key adviser Nat Wei was dropped like a stone.

So why the retreat? David Cameron is a natural Shire Tory who believes in village greens and stable communities. The big society was his way of bringing his Oxfordshire values to the more economically liberal Tory MPs in Westminster. Sure it was useful for detoxifying the Conservative brand, but it was also meant to be a unifying vision of action beyond the state. But he didn't pull it off. The liberals remained skeptical, and those who did share his values thought it was pretty disingenuous given the cuts. As Max Wind-Cowie from Demos puts it:

Reaction from Tory backbenchers ranged from raised eyebrows and quiet disdain to outright anger. Some felt they would have had a majority if they hadn't banged on about the Big Society... pre 2009 it was fine to talk about it, but they should have dropped it when they started talking about austerity.... it looked like a cover for slashing away at the state. That made them look like liars and that was difficult.

And there we have our second reason for failure - trying to install the big society in austerity Britain. For the left, the big society was always the Jekyll to the Hyde of state slashing. But even Conservative feathers were ruffled when they realised it wasn't just bureaucrats facing the axe, but swathes of libraries, charities and voluntary organisations.

The third reason for failure was the absence of alternative institutions and ownership models to support big society initiatives in place of the state. It would be a mistake to say there were none - Chris White's Bill on social values opened the door to smaller providers winning government contracts, Neighbourhood Forums were given some backing and Big Society Capital is set to provide some £600m worth of funding, but these initiatives were not nearly deep or radical enough.

"There was a relentless focus on individuals going out and doing great things," says Wind-Cowie." Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond are talking about intermediary institutions and structures rather than the isn't-it great-when-everyone-picks-up-litter approach."

If anything, the government has gone the other way. By cutting out local authority involvement from schools and hospitals, services have become centralised. If something goes wrong, the only place to take the problem is the desk of the secretary of state.

Another big problem for Cameron is his unwillingness to challenge the market. Zero hour contracts and on-your-bike politics don't give people muchspace or stability to pursue the big society vision, and corporate monopolies don't either. As Blond rather astutely puts it:

Cameron subscribes to the rhetoric of a new settlement but he doesn't think through the political economy that requires. You can't subscribe to Thatcherite ideas and then not expect a Thatcherite outcome. If you pursue the same policies as the 1980s, you should expect 1980s outcomes.

The prime minister's final problem was his failure to take the public with him. Research shows that British people love to volunteer and are proud to be active citizens, but this is not a party political thing. When their proud reputation is seen to be used for political advantage, it undermines it. To thrive, the big society needs to be owned and built from people's experiences. It needs leaders and champions; it needs some roots behind the brand. The fact that David Cameron failed to pull this off may well say something about his leadership.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

David Cameron makes a speech on the "big society". Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
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On the important issues, Louise Casey all too often has little to say

Far from moving the debate on, this new report on integration adds little to the report I commissioned in 2001. 

For 15 years, “numerous government reports on community cohesion and integration have not been implemented with enough force or consistency” concludes Louise Casey’s review of  integration.  The government’s lukewarm response suggests their effort will be as “diluted and muddled” as all the rest.

There’s a deeper reason why governments shy away from the measures that are needed. The report's wealth of data sets out a stark if sometimes contestable picture of a divided society.  But no amount of data can really bring the lives of our fellow citizens to life. As the Brexit vote underlined, this is now a nation divided by class, geography, education, wealth, opportunity and race. Those divisions colour the way we live our lives, the way we see problems in society, the relations we have with others, and our political choices. The report, like many before it, stops short of setting out that reality. It’s easier to pretend that most of us pretty much agree on most things; but just few people don’t agree and they must be the problem. Predictably, much of the early coverage has focussed on the Muslim community and new migrants. If only it were so easy.

According to Casey “in this country, we take poverty, social exclusion, social justice and social mobility seriously” and we do it “across political divides”. Apparently “creating a fair, just society where everyone can prosper and get on” is a cornerstone of British values. Yet for page after page the report chronicles the serial failure of this benign consensus to tackle educational under-performance, and economic and racial disadvantage. If we all agree, how come we haven't done anything about it?

These problems are not certainly easy to solve, but more lip service is paid to tackling them than effort. The practical material issues documented here need addressing, but punches are pulled when hard answers are needed. Given the dramatic impact of mass migration on cohesion, is integration possible while current rates of immigration persist? Can we find the political will to tackle poverty and disadvantage when those who might benefit from the effort are divided against each other by suspicion, race, geography and values? After all, rather than progressive policies producing a cohesive society, social unity is the precondition for the introduction of progressive policies.

We don't actually actually agree on what our “fundamental values” mean in practice. We can all sign up to democracy and the rule of law, but as soon as those are put into practice – see the court case on Article 50 – we are divided. When judges are popularly seen as “enemies of the people” and a vote in an elected parliament as a threat to democracy, in what sense are law and democracy fundamental?

Casey usefully highlights how treating homeless families equally, irrespective of ethnicity and length of residence can create the perception that minorities are being favoured over long standing residents. Our differing views on what is “just” and how “fairness” are defined can tear us apart. Is it fair to favour the newcomer over the indigenous? Is it just to put length of time on the waiting list above housing need? We often don't even acknowledge the legitimacy of other points of view, let alone try to find common ground.

The continual invocation of Britain and British values lends an air of unreality to the report.  Most people in England include British in their identity, but Englishness and English interests are of growing importance. In a worrying development, some areas of England  may be polarising between a white Englishness and an ethnic minority Britishness. Integration won't happen without a shared national story that combines a unifying national identity with the acceptance that we all have more than one identity that matters to us. Ignoring the reality of complex and multiple identities closes off one essential way forward.

None of this means that the criticism of some reactionary and occasionally dangerous ideas and practices in the Muslim community should be ignored and not confronted. But in a country where the established church opposes homosexual relationships and praise for Vladimir Putin's Russia is now mainstream politics it is hard to believe that all our problems can be reduced to the behaviour of a minority of a minority community.

John Denham was a Labour MP from 1992 to 2015, and a Secretary of State 2007 to 2010. He is Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University