The Government reportedly feels that its Big Society programme has stalled. It is not surprising. The coalition’s idea of the Big Society often seems to involve no more than getting a few people round a table to discuss how the Government can design the Big Society. Philip Blond comes up with some interesting and radical ideas, but he is too suspicious of the free economy which is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for a Big Society.
The Big Society section of Number 10’s website talks about the importance of transferring power from Whitehall to individuals but the concrete action points send a different message. Key programmes involve the government establishing a “Big Society Bank”, a “National Citizens’ Service”, and government funding for relevant initiatives. The Big Society will only come into being when the government stops trying to create it and starts to roll back the state. The Big Society in welfare flourished when the state was not responsible for welfare. The Big Society in finance – mutualism and so on – thrived when the government did not guarantee and regulate the financial system. Unfortunately, Blond, Hilton and so on lack the sense of history that is necessary for them to appreciate this.
There seems to be a fear that if the Government leaves things entirely to the people not enough will be done. On the contrary, it is the case that if the Government insists on trying to manage the creation of the Big Society, nothing will happen. Whilst I do not expect the Government to liberalise the financial sector or roll back the welfare state any time soon, it can do one thing. It can create the conditions in which philanthropy can thrive. The Government should resist the calls to fund the Big Society by giving more grants to charities – this will just make charities clients of the state, but it should strip away the regulations that surround charities and encourage charitable giving.
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