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.