Rarely in human history can an idea have suffered so much opprobrium as the Big Society. On the left, it is seen as a fig leaf for the cuts. On the right, it has been seen as a fluffy add-on. The voluntary sector initially flirted with the idea because they saw money in it, but has since rejected it, feeling that it is a way of having to do more with less. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is “waffle”. Paul Twivy, the founder of the Big Society Network, has admitted that the big society concept is “divisive within the Cabinet” and “loathed by the public”. Following four re-launches of the policy, it is clear that the Big Society is in trouble. According to an NfpSynergy survey, only nine per cent of the public believes it will happen.
Yet, the Big Society is an important idea that speaks to two forces that are central to the human condition: association and participation. This is clear from David Cameron’s definition of a Big Society given in a speech in Liverpool in July 2010:
The Big Society is about a huge culture change where people in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace don’t always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face but instead feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities.
Replace the word “big” with “civil” in that passage, and you have a self-organising society where people associate together and participate in solving problems that matter to them. Such an approach has a long tradition in the UK, and has powerful antecedents both on the right and the left. On the right, the Big Society goes back to Edmund Burke, and the idea that liberty depends on conscience and that if people behave themselves, they do not have to be oppressed by the law or governments. The ideal is that people do things for themselves and that governments should be as limited as possible.
On the left, the idea goes back to the roots of co-operative socialism in which working people organised themselves to develop trade unions and the Labour Party. Recognising as much, Jon Cruddas, the recently appointed head of Labour's policy review, has argued  that his party was wrong to dismiss Cameron's Big Society and that it can learn from the Prime Minister's "pro-social politics".
Much of this organising had roots in the friendly society movement of the 19th century in which people built their own houses, formed burial societies and developed their own savings and loan institutions. At the turn of the last century, Peter Kropotkin championed “mutual aid”, envisioning a society based on voluntary association between workers free from government. Written as a counter to Social Darwinism, Kropotkin's book drew on the scientific analysis of animal behaviour, and concluded that co-operation and mutual aid are the most important factors in the evolution of species and the ability to survive.
Mutual aid was the way that communities used to survive hardship. In “How green was my valley”, Richard Llewellyn describes how people in mining communities in late 19th century Wales supported each other when the going got tough, had a strong moral code based on religion and distrusted the police and the government.
The coming of the welfare state changed all that – and for the better. The post war settlement entailed government stepping in to guarantee that all people would have security as a matter of right. National insurance, free education and health, subsidised housing, and a safety net for all those who needed it, ushered in a new system that would banish the suffering of the 1930s depression forever. As Nye Bevan said, as he introduced the National Health Service, “the flag day is no way to run a hospital”. Nowadays, It is hard to appreciate how frightened earlier generations were by the costs of falling ill and how fortunate working class people felt to have access to secondary education and to free milk at school.
But these gains came at a price. William Beveridge, whose 1942 report designed the welfare state, protested that the implementation of his proposals through state agencies meant that cold bureaucracies would dominate the system. As early as 1948, he wrote about the “damage” that the welfare state was doing to what people do for themselves. He suggested that the government should “encourage voluntary action of all kinds” and “remove difficulties in the way of friendly societies and other forms of mutuality”.
But Beveridge was ignored, and the idea that people should do things for themselves went into decline. Despite the material advances and rising living standards, the system itself was paternalistic and created dependency.
From the 1960s onwards, the welfare state came under attack. This was partly due to the fact that ordinary people had little role in the system except as clients and so felt little ownership of it. On the left, there was frustration about the size, inflexibility, inaccessibility, impersonality and lack of true accountability of the social security apparatus, and people disliked being clients of an unsympathetic system. On the right, there was a cruder and more visceral reaction. People became increasingly unwilling to pay taxes to support social security for those they regarded as “scroungers”.
The response on the left was to try to put ownership back into the system through the idea of “participation”. Learning from the American War on Poverty, the Skeffington Report from the Committee on Public Participation in Planning (1969) advocated ways in which the public might share and assist the planning preparation process from the earliest stage possible. Community development, in which local people play a leading part in the issues that affect them, became part of official policy, and the Social Needs Act 1969 set up a means for funding it through the Urban Programme. These policies were designed to bring ordinary people back into the public domain and to give them a stake in their communities.
The response on the right was different. Rather than looking for solutions in the community, it sought solutions in the economy. An “enterprise culture” should replace a “dependency culture”. Policy should favour tax cuts, privatisation of government services, and deregulation of industry and the environment, as well as cuts in government spending. This would raise the status of business, growth, moneymaking and profit, and reduce wasteful social spending. The individual, not the community, was the main unit of analysis. A key text was Charles Murray’s “Losing Ground”.
In the past thirty years, the desire for economic betterment has been the dominant force, and community development failed to gain traction. Economic growth has led to a massive rise in prosperity for the country with median incomes having increased by 60 per cent in real terms between 1979 and 2010. The cost has been a growth in inequality such that growth in incomes at the top end of the distribution has been much greater than those at the bottom. We are increasingly divided not only in wealth, but also in our social attitudes. Penny Young, who oversaw the 2011 Social Attitudes Survey, commented: “In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year's report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?”
So here’s the rub. Our civil society is in a mess. The decline in mutual aid that began in the 1940s has continued ever since so that we are now a selfish society in which people generally care little about people outside their friends and immediate family circle, particularly if they are poorer than themselves or different from themselves. The culture of citizenship has been weakened by the top-down nature of the institutions of the welfare state, where people are classed as clients, and the materialist culture of capitalism, where people are classed as consumers.
Without a sense of solidarity, it is a short step to conflict and disorder – we need to look no further than Northern Ireland for this, but there are many other examples, including the riots that started in Tottenham last year and spread like wildfire across the country. There is an urgent need to reweave the fabric of the threads that bind people together. The Big Society, with its emphasis on the value of citizenship, could be a good way to do this. We need a sustained commitment to civil society.
This takes us into the practicalities of how to do it, and this is the terrain where the Big Society is weak. Prime Ministerial edict can’t do it. Governments can’t do it either. People have to do it themselves.
There are essentially three conditions that need to be fulfilled if this is to happen. The first is that we have to recognise that ordinary people, including those on low incomes, are competent to run their own affairs. At present, our thinking is conditioned by two fallacies that E.P. Thompson identified in The Making of the English Working Class some 50 years ago. One is what he called the "the Fabian orthodoxy”, in which “the great majority of working people are seen as passive victims of laissez faire”. The other is the “orthodoxy of the empirical economic historians”, in which working people are seen as “a labour force, as migrants, or as the data for statistical series”. We have to recognise that people have power and agency.
The second condition is that there is significant reallocation of resources to community organisations, rather than professional organisations that act on behalf of people or treat them as clients. Over the past fifty years, government programmes fostering community involvement have been run by agencies and structures that are impenetrable for local people. The Neighbourhood Renewal Programme, for example, which ran from 2001 to 2007 and was designed to close the gap between the poorest places and the rest, set up complex partnerships of professional agencies with tokenistic participation of people from the community. Similarly, much of the voluntary sector contributes little to civil society because it is highly professionalised, possessing few connections to local people other than through the delivery of services. Resources should instead go to organisations like London Citizens that is composed of citizens themselves and enables them to build their own power. They mobilise thousands of people across religious, ethnic and racial divides. London Citizens thrives in the poorest areas because it works on issues such as the “living wage” that are central to the survival of families in such areas. We can also learn from international organisations like the Global Fund for Community Foundations, which helps citizens’ groups to build their own asset base so that they can be free from the persistent “projects” demanded by official aid agencies.
The third condition is that it is imperative to develop a new social contract. It is clear that Big Society, plus austerity, plus cuts to public services does not add up to a good society. What is needed is a clear agreement on the role of the state and the role of civil society. Beatrice Webb suggested an “extension ladder” model. Under this, the role of the state is “to secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes”, by which she meant “sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged”. Civil society should provide an “extension ladder” that is placed “firmly on the foundation of an enforced minimum” raising standards of life “to finer shades of physical and moral and spiritual perfection”. On this model, civil society should not substitute for the state but be additional to it.
These three suggestions would lead to profound ways in the way that society organises itself and get us to a point where we regain our civic pride. The Webb Memorial Trust is working on these issues as part of its “Rethinking Poverty” Programme. This will investigate what a good society without poverty looks like and how we can get it. Unlike many studies, it will include the participation of all kinds of people and will not be restricted to the policy elites.