Not long ago I got an email from a friend who had come to the RSA debate earlier this month. He works in the public sector and liked the idea that our understanding of community needs to be broadened. But he came away from the debate wanting to know more about the next step. In other words, what can policy-makers take from Together?
Ideas from the RSA debate, Part 2
‘The Good Society vs. The Big Society’ last night, a debate in a House of Commons Committee Room organized by Compass. Jesse Norman MP was the token Tory, or ‘sacrificial lamb’, as he put it, alongside Stella Creasy MP, the soon-to-be-Lord Glasman and others.
Several things stood out:
Surprisingly few people saying they just didn’t understand what the Big Society was.
Everyone wanted to claim small independent groups as their own, politically speaking. They were made out to have impeccable left-wing credentials, to be the bedrock of Fabianism or to be the little platoons of the right.
There were parts of The Big Society
by Jesse Norman, that I thought were excellent. I enjoyed the way he positioned the Big Society within a Conservative tradition that stretches back to the 17th c., and his analysis of what has gone wrong over the last thirteen years was sound.
Yet when it came to the nitty-gritty of how to turn this set of principles, critiques and attitudes into a present-day reality, annoyingly, the book had little to say. I wanted more examples, a chapter or two of prosaic accounts of the Big Society in action. There was room to explore both the possibilities of this project as well as its limitations.
One other problem. In terms of what I’ve been writing about over the last few years, I wasn’t mad about his definition of ‘institutions’. I agree that these have become the missing link in the way we think about society. They are, as Robert Nisbet put it, ‘the greatest single barrier to the conversion of democracy from its liberal form to its totalitarian form’. But when you include in your definition of these institutions a local rugby club, a WI, and ‘the market, the nation state and the city; and, more abstractly still, […] the family, marriage, and the rule of law’, then your point becomes diluted.
That aside, The Big Society is an important read and an ideal introduction to the concept of the Big Society.