Leader: Bring on the little platoons

The Big Society is the Tories' big idea. As an alternative to the clunking fist of the central state, Mr Cameron and his colleagues envisage a civil society comprised of so many "little platoons", a term they have borrowed from Edmund Burke to describe the voluntary groups and neighbourhood associations that would be integral to a "broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation".

One problem with this invocation of Mr Burke is that, for him, little platoons weren't groups one volunteers to join; they were the social "subdivisions" into which we are born. Hardly the stuff of "progressive conservatism". Furthermore, as Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre point out on page 14, it is not clear what protection such small agglomerations would have offered against the kind of financial storms that have been buffeting the British economy. Better, perhaps, to listen to Mr Burke's contemporary Adam Smith, who understood the need for regulating markets lest a "great part of the capital of the country" fall into the hands of those who are "most likely to waste and destroy it".

This article first appeared in the 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice