The Big Society - Angus McCabe


The Big Society already exists – beyond government

Angus McCabe, Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Applied Social Studies

The 'Big Society’ has become a key element of the new coalition Government. Whilst the term itself is new, and accompanied by the ‘new language’ of social action, there are continuities between current policy objectives and those of the previous Government.

Let’s be clear here, this isn’t a brand new idea just look at the similarities to New Labour: the devolution of powers and budget decisions to the local level, the reconfiguration of services and promotion of community engagement, empowerment and active citizenship. The proposed Big Society Bank bears more than a passing resemblance to New Labour’s Social Investment Bank and the community development finance initiatives from earlier in the last decade.

However, there are significant differences and challenges ahead.

What’s more interesting is whether the 'Big Society' is a policy objective in its own right – or simply a convenient solution to bridging the 25% savings and resource gap between government and communities?

Under New Labour, and indeed previous Conservative administrations, the voluntary sector grew – at least in part through contracting and an increase in government funding. But even New Labour was committed to unspecified budget reductions and it’s too early to tell what the impact of ‘Big Society’ and proposed cuts – or “deficit reductions” will be on the voluntary and community sector.

Where community action has been extremely successful is when it has angered people for example the establishment of the Countryside Alliance and the campaign against the banning of fox hunting and the anti-Iraq war demonstrations and anti-globilisation actions at the G8 and G20 Summits. At the local level there are numerous examples of communities taking action on environmental and again, anger is a key motivator. So how will the 'Big Society' move away from anger derived community action?

Beyond the media, there have been some criticisms that the 'Big Society’ is not ambitious enough and that the types of initiatives used as examples are always small scale like delivering better local broadband, community ownership of pubs and post offices etc.

And yet, so far, the public response has been broadly, if cautiously, welcoming.

David Cameron said that the Conservative Manifesto was 'an invitation to join the Government of Britain'. But will community trust in politics really be restored if the 'Big Society' is seen as simply a solution to 'deficit reduction', the delivery of services 'on the cheap' and the rolling back of the welfare state to a residual role?