Let me just say a couple of things. I mean, normally in politics the difficulty is getting people to talk about your ideas.
You make a speech, you come up with something, and actually it falls stillborn on to the floor and no one refers to it again.
That is not the problem we have with this, so that’s a good start.
People have got very many questions about it, and I’m going to try and answer some of those even before taking yours.
Is it too vague? Is it going to be made impossible by cuts? Is it a cover for cuts?
And all of those questions. I want to take on some of those questions, but first of all, I just want to say why this is so important to me.
What is the Big Society all about?
I know full well that the first task that my government has got to carry out is sorting out the deficit and the debt and an economic recovery.
That is, if you like, our duty.
I really believe in duty in politics.
I find myself as Prime Minister at a time when we have this appalling budget deficit, bigger than almost anywhere else in Europe – we have to sort it out.
I know that is the major task facing the government, and we’ve got to do it.
That is our duty, but if you like, what is my mission?
What is it I am really passionate about?
It is actually social recovery as well as economic recovery.
I think we need a social recovery, because, as I have said lots of times in the past, there are too many parts of our society that are broken, whether it is broken families or whether it is some communities breaking down; whether it is the level of crime, the level of gang membership; whether it’s problems of people stuck on welfare, unable to work; whether it’s the sense that some of our public services don’t work for us – we do need a social recovery to mend the broken society.
To me, that’s what the Big Society is all about.
To me, there’s one word at the heart of all this, and that is responsibility.
We need people to take more responsibility.
We need people to act more responsibly, because if you take any problem in our country and you just think: “Well, what can the government do to sort it out?”, that is only ever going to be half of the answer.
Take crime: yes, government’s got a huge role.
We’ve got to put the police on the streets, we’ve got to make sure the sentences are there, and we’ve got to make sure that prison places are available – that is our job.
But actually, we will never crack crime unless parents bring up their children properly, unless businesses stop selling alcohol to underage people, unless we all decide that these are our streets and our communities, and we have a role to help make sure they are safe.
So, responsibility is the absolute key.
If you ask yourself the question, “Can I take more responsibility, can I do more?”, very often, the answer is no.
How easy is it, if you are not satisfied with education, to club together and start up a new school?
It’s incredibly difficult.
How easy is it to try and take over the closing down pub in your village to keep it running?
It’s incredibly difficult.
How easy is it to volunteer if you want to take part and do more, with all the rules in the past about vetting and barring and criminal records?
It’s extremely difficult.
So, what this is all about is giving people more power and control to improve their lives and their communities.
That, in a nutshell, is what it is all about.
Is the Big Society too vague an idea?
Now, what about those key criticisms?
Some people say it is too vague.
Well, if they mean by that there isn’t one single policy that is being sort of rolled out across the country, then yes, I accept that, because actually what we are talking about here is a whole stream of things that need to be done.
First of all, we have got to devolve more power to local government, and beyond local government, so people can actually do more and take more power.
Secondly, we have got to open up public services, make them less monolithic, say to people: if you want to start up new schools, you can; if you want to set up a co-op or a mutual within the health service, if you’re part of the health service, you can; say to organisations like the Big Issue: if you want to expand and replicate yourself across the country, we want you to.
The third part, but it is only a part, is yes, I think it would be good if we had more philanthropic giving, more charitable giving and more volunteering in our country, so that all of those three things need to happen.
But then people will say: “OK, maybe it’s not so vague – I can see you’ve got the three parts to it – but this is just a cover for cuts, isn’t it?”
It is not a cover for anything.
It is a good thing to try and build a bigger and stronger society, whatever is happening to public spending.
But I would make this argument: whoever was standing here right now as Prime Minister would be having to make cuts in public spending, and isn’t it better, if we are having to make cuts in public spending, to try and encourage a bigger and stronger society at the same time?
If there are facilities that the state can’t afford to keep open, shouldn’t we be trying to encourage communities who want to come forward and help them and run them?
Then there are the people who say, “Maybe it is not a cover for cuts, but the cuts will make building a bigger society much more difficult.”
What I would say to that is: of course, there is no area that can be really immune from the public spending problems that we face, but if you actually look at what central government is doing, you look at the part that I am responsible for, we are actually doing things to try and make a bigger society more possible.
We are setting up a Big Society Bank, and we are putting £200m into it from the banks this week.
We are setting up a transitional fund so we can actually help organisations that need funding in this difficult environment.
We are going to be announcing this week how we train another 5,000 community organisers to help build the Big Society, because there is no naïveté here.
I don’t believe that you just sort of roll back the state and the Big Society springs up miraculously.
There are amazing people in our country, who are establishing great community organisations and social enterprises, but we, the government, should also be catalysing and agitating and trying to help build the Big Society.
I think the last question I want to answer before opening it all up is [from] those people who say, “OK, it’s not a cover for cuts. You’re trying to make cuts in a way that doesn’t damage the Big Society, and I accept it’s not vague, but there are lots of different bits to it.”
Some people say, “This is nothing new. This is what happens already. You’re just trying to take credit for the very good work that people already do.”
Now, to that I would say: yes, this is not entirely new.
The idea of communities taking more control, of more volunteerism, more charitable giving, of social enterprises taking on a bigger role, of people establishing public services themselves – all of these things are happening in our country.
All of these things have happened in our country for years.
My question is: should we try and do more of it?
How do we encourage more of it?
How do we replicate it across the country?
How do we make this country a really brilliant place for setting up a new charity, a new social enterprise, for opening up the provision of public services?
So, yes, this is not entirely new – of course it isn’t – but it is a new approach in government to say: instead of thinking we in Whitehall have got all the answers, what are the things we can do to help you to do more to build a stronger society.
Passion for a different way of governing
As I say, this is my absolute passion.
I think it is a different way of governing, a different way of going about trying to change our country for the better, and it’s going to get every bit of my passion and attention over the five years of this government.
But above all, it’s going to depend on many of the people in this room, because it’s actually enterprise, it’s entrepreneurship that is going to make this agenda work.