Big government and the ‘Big Society’ are not partners – they are competitors

The government’s catchphrase ‘Big Society’ has often been criticised for its vagueness. Critics claim that the phrase means everything and nothing, an attempt to conceal the government’s lack of vision.

Personally, I think the phrase is rather good. It neatly summarises the notion that the counter model to ‘Big Government’ is not an atomistic (non-)society of lone fighters, the old straw man argument of those for whom government can never be big enough. It is a plea for a strong, autonomous civic society, where the issues we care about are run by a tapestry of multiple organisations with diverse philosophies, approaches and organisational models.

Of course, the danger of the Big Society project is that politicians will turn it into an activist political agenda. Analogous to an active industrial policy where the state attempts to ‘foster’ successful enterprises and industries, new state bureaucracies would attempt to ‘foster’ successful civic organisations.

And indeed, this seems to be the mindset behind the remarks of Dame Elizabeth Hoodless, head of Community Service Volunteers, who argues that budget cuts threaten the Big Society project. She argues for a much more proactive approach, with the government working towards ‘volunteer targets’.

But can a Big Society really be ‘built’ by the government? Is that not a contradiction in terms? A look at data from the World Values Survey on international variations in the extent of volunteering suggests that it is. The table below compares six selected countries by the share of the population who are active members in charitable, humanitarian, religious, recreational, artistic, musical, educational, environmental, professional, labour union or other voluntary organisations. People who are active in more than one organisation are counted more than once, so the figure can, of course, exceed 100%.





Great Britain








We can see the following loose pattern: the USA and especially Switzerland, where the state has historically occupied a subsidiary role, display high levels of civic activism. They come close to being ‘Big Societies’ already. France and Germany, traditional homelands of Big Government, come out with much lower levels of activity – remarkable insofar as they clearly have the organisational infrastructure for Big Societies in place. Britain, on this measure, comes out in between. And finally in Russia, historically one of the most state-dominated places on earth, an autonomous civil society has never been able to develop.

In the longer run, Big Government and the Big Society are not partners. They are competitors. And rather fierce ones, at that.

I remember when the government ran something called the TOPS scheme, intended to help finance students on short courses. It turned out that students on the Cranfield MBA Programme were eligible, as our course lasted just under one year (which was the cut-off point) -- though it hadn't originally been intended for students on degree programmes. Previously, our Cranfield MBA students had either financed themselves out of savings or borrowed privately to pay for the course. But as a result of the new arrangement, over the next year or two, most of our UK students came to be financed by the TOPS scheme. Guess what happened. After a few years, the government changed the system and, at very short notice, withdrew all the TOPS money. Luckily the Cranfield MBA Programme was robust and attracted highly motivated students who were able to finance themselves -- and they went back to doing so. But the government action might almost have been designed to destroy our course. First they crowd out alternative methods of financing, then they abandon their scheme at short notice. We (and taxpayers!) would have been far better off not being 'supported by the government at all. "How can we help you?" governments might ask. "Don't interfere: just keep out of the way", would be my answer.
The government have either: i) failed to understand the conflict or (ii) genuinely believe that civil society or 'Big Society' can be promoted by the actions of the government itself or (iii) are trying to manage an unpopular policy whilst maintaining electoral support, as the public have manifestly failed to understand this concept and what it entails. I suspect all three are in play at any one point. Apparently, most of the public simply see the 'big society' agenda as a smokescreen for fiscal consolidation a.k.a. 'cuts', which they dislike, or at least where it affects their special interests. As we know, the special inerests are concentrated whilst the general interest is distributed, so special interests - in combination with statists - are always likely to win. What the government needs to be doing is standing out of the way. Even if this were the government's agenda (I'll leave that as an open question) it would still have to tread a fine line between this and alientating enough special interests to damage its electoral chances - so we see each group protesting in turn over scientists, the police, student fees, libraries, forests. Even the Supreme Court was having a go the other day, sorry to digress! This shows one of the many problems of expanding the state so far - it is very hard to withdraw it because of the endowment effect and vested interests. There was an interesting and closely related article by Camilla Cavendish in the Times today. She pointed out that 50% or so of charity funding now comes from government, and that this rise in government funding for charities has co-incided with a fall, or at least a stagnation, in private donations. This is surely a situation worth investigating - it offers some evidence that government is crowding out charitable giving. (Further, government is 'picking winners' or rather, picking anyone who can fill out a form properly - or pay one of the consultants that charities now pay to do it for them, which shows how government has created a new and very inefficient way of diverting activity away from what it should actually be achieving!)

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