PM Cameron: There is Such a Thing as Big Society

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 10/07/2010 12:01:00 AM
The place of society in the wider public sphere is one of the key battlegrounds of political economy as The Commanding Heights usefully points out. Back in 1987, Margaret Thatcher crystallized the ethos of the age by stating "there is no such thing as society":
I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand "I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.
After thirteen years in the wilderness, the Conservatives have returned to government in tandem with some Liberal Democratic colleagues. While disowning some of the more right-leaning extremes of Thatcherite ideology, the idea that government needs to be rolled back has a new emphasis. The point of rolling back the frontiers of the state is not mainly because there are so many sponging on the state (see above), but because there are many in the private and third sectors who are more able to deliver social services. It's a neat cop-out on the states-markets debate.

Voila! The "Big Society" idea--long bandied about in Conservative manifestos--has now emerged on centre stage during the Tory conference in Birmingham. Before turning to that, a recent publication lays out its main idea--sharing and caring without massive government expenditures:
We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

Building this Big Society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.
Hence Cameron's new tagline, "Your Country Needs You" which echoes WWII-era rhetoric. Mostly shorn of Hayekian elements, here are the key elements of his new speech on the "Big Society Spirit":
It's the spirit that I saw in a group of NHS maternity nurses in my own constituency, increasingly frustrated by the way they were managed and handled, who wanted to set up a co-op to use their own expertise, their ideas, their contacts to provide a better serice for the mums in their area.

It's the spirit you see just down the road from this conference in Balsall Heath, where local residents' were fed up with the pimps and the prostitutes and the gangs and the drug dealers. So they set up street patrols to clear them out of the area and turn what was a no-go zone into a desirable place to live

It's the spirit that just today, has seen some of our leading social organisations come together to set up a new Citizen's University, to help give people the skills they need to play a bigger part in our society. It's the spirit of activism, dynamism, people taking the initiative, working together to get things done.

It's the spirit that has inspired the conference this week as you've heard from teachers and counsellors with a passion for what you do. Seeing our activists building community centres down the road in Allan Rock or on the other side of the world in Rwanda, it's the social activism that spirit that drives our country today...

But what I'm talking about, the spirit that we need, is the big society spirit - and here's why I think its time has come. All over the world, governments are wrestling with the same challenges. Not just building prosperous, competitive economies, providing good public services, paying for pensions but creating strong societies, improving quality of life, ensuring everyone feels that they belong.

The countries that succeed will be those that find new ways of doing things, new ways of harnessing the common good, better alternatives to the old-fashioned state and we're on the right side of that argument.

Here at home, at this year's election, the result may not have been clear-cut when it came to the political parties. But it was clear cut enough when it came to political ideas. The old way of doing things: the high-spending, all-controlling, heavy-handed state, those ideas were defeated. Statism lost...society won [my emphasis].

That is what happened at the last election and that is the change I believe we can lead. From state power to people power. From unchecked individualism to national unity and purpose. From big government to the big society. The big society is not about creating cover for cuts. I was going on about it years before the cuts.

It's not about government abdicating its role, it is about government changing its role. It's about government helping to build a nation of doers and go-getters, where people step forward not sit back, where people come together to make life better...

We can build a country defined not by the selfishness of the Labour years but by the values of mutual responsibility that this party holds dear. A country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say: I am not alone. I will play my part. I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.
To be honest, the United Kingdom is in pretty sorry shape. I will of course attribute this condition to following the US example rather slavishly in Anglo-Saxon mimesis. So fat, so inequitable, so full of debt and financial folly, so prone to waylaying you into ill-planned military misadventures. Among other things, the Birmingham conference featured a 2015 termination date for the UK's Afghanistan involvement. Hopefully, the "Big Society" idea if nothing else will mean the UK establishing a worthwhile identity for itself instead of copying such a sad, bad example. American whingeing sickens us all.