Liberalism, empowerment, responsibility, redistributing power so that people in their everyday lives don’t turn to officials or central government for help, but instead help themselves and their own communities – finally, we’ve got Cameron’s definition of the Big Society and it’s a clear and important one. But how we get there is as muddled as ever.
Cameron is arguing for something desperately needed – a revolution in the tired approach to public services which has sucked the life out of many communities, broken the connections between people and encouraged us to think there is no need for us to take responsibility for ourselves, let alone for those around us. Yet it is hard to see how he makes the leap from his visionary starting point of enabling people to the conclusion that the main way to improve this situation is for the state to take more responsibility. David Cameron’s primary commitment seems to be that the government will give people the tools to realise their vision for their local communities.
The precise point of civil society is that the tools people need to realise their visions cannot be given by central government. If enabling people to live a good life was a question just of public money or central organisation then with public spending at 52% of GDP things should be looking a whole lot better than they are.
People help themselves and those around them when they see the necessity of doing so. They understand their local problems and issues; they have flexibility to adapt and to meet need in a messy and diverse way. Cameron fears that if government pulls back, people won’t be there to take up the slack. He suggests that it is up to the government to build the Big Society. But government cannot build the Big Society; a Big Society will only develop by government pulling back and leaving room for people and communities.
A radical reduction in the size of the state is required if philanthropy, community building and personal responsibility are to flourish. This means reducing the number of functions perceived as the responsibility of government rather than individuals, with a corresponding cut in taxes, regulation and bureaucracy. Cameron seems to understand this with his approach of devolving more financial freedom to local communities to decide how their local budget is spent and with ideas such as helping local groups to overcome red tape, but he needs to apply this same principle to other areas.