David Cameron may have performed U-turns on issues including sport in schools, free milk, Bookstart and, most recently, forest sales, but the “big society” is here to stay. In a speech this morning in London, the Prime Minister will describe the project as his “mission in politics”. He will add: “It is going to get every bit of my passion and attention over our five years in government.”
The Conservative leader has had countless opportunities to abandon or at least downgrade the project. Few would have complained if it had been sidelined in the wake of the Tories’ poor election campaign (not least those Conservative MPs fond of describing the project as “BS”).
But Cameron chose to make it the defining theme of his first address to the Tory conference as Prime Minister. Today’s speech has been widely previewed by the media as the first “relaunch” of the big society but, by my count, it’s the third.
In his Observer article at the weekend, Cameron belatedly acknowledged that “what I’m talking about is not entirely new”. The truth is that Britain had a thriving voluntary sector long before he entered office, with 13.5 million people volunteering at least once a month. But, owing to the coalition’s doctrinaire spending cuts, it may not have one when he leaves
The false dichotomy drawn between “big government” and “big society” ignores that no less than 40 per cent of the £35bn voluntary sector receives state support. Cameron’s apparent ignorance of this fact is one reason why, in the words of Paul Twivy, the former chief executive of the Big Society Network, the big society is “increasingly loathed” by the public.
At the weekend, the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, one of those charged with bringing the “big society” to life, made the risible claim that the project had been a “communications success”. But, as the latest ComRes/Independent on Sunday poll shows, 50 per cent agree that the idea is largely “a gimmick” (just 14 per cent disagree), 41 per cent believe it is “merely a cover for spending cuts” (21 per cent disagree) and only 17 per cent believe it will “succeed in fostering a culture of volunteerism”.
The big society reflects Cameron’s enduring search for a project greater than deficit reduction. But the public remains unenthused and local councils are about to suffer the largest spending cuts since 1945. Having raised even greater expectations today, Cameron has all but guaranteed that the project will be a disappointment.