The language of the Big Society
On it rolls, the debate about what the Big Society is, without any end in sight. For many on the Left it is a smokescreen, behind which Thatcherite Neoliberalism lurks. For some on the Right it is an idealistic utopia. Many of the fiercest criticisms are founded in opposition to, or cynicism about, the growth in volunteerism that the Big Society is perceived to rely upon. Either we are told that people will not, or can not, volunteer more than they already do or we are warned about the inequalities and the divisions that may arise when people are left to do things for themselves.
Both of these fears are reasonable. The truth – that Britain already volunteers a great deal – is both reassuring and worrying. British people clearly want to work in their communities and to do so for free but are we already utilising their capacity? And what of those who have not the time, nor the skills, to contribute? Will they be shut out of the Big Society, making it small in terms of the human resource it engages?
Much of this fear, though, springs from misperception and misapplication. If the Big Society were only about volunteering it would indeed be a farcical agenda for Government – little more than a grand recruitment drive dressed up as policy. But, of course, that is not the be all and end all of the Big Society. It is about a broader refashioning of the relationship between the state and its citizens, volunteering is merely an attractive and visible example of the way in which that new relationship should work.
The truth about the Big Society can be found in two words – trust and service. It is freeing up public agencies and it is re-empowering local democracy – that is why the Government has abolished the Audit Commission and why it is pressing ahead with elected, accountable Police Chiefs.
It is doing this because progressive conservatives believe in trusting public servants to serve. Additionally, the Big Society expects its citizens, like its agencies and local bodies, to respond to the trust they are given responsibly and to remember the value and necessity of service themselves. Yes, much of that service will be structured and come through volunteering. But much of it will be far more ad-hoc: participating in a town-hall meeting, helping out on your child’s school-trip without being made to feel like a criminal. Trust breeds service: allowing it the space to grow and treating people like responsible, social adults.
It is through these two words – trust and service – that we should view the social and political reforms of the Big Society and measure their success. Not merely the numbers, or diversity, of volunteers signing up to lend their labour.