Coffee House

The Big Society conundrum

10 November 2010

The children’s minister Tim Loughton is in danger of having
‘gaffe-prone’ become his suffix. After rather putting his foot in it at conference by suggesting that the policy George Osborne had just announced on child benefit could be revisited,
he has now suggested that not even ministers know what Cameron’s big idea, the ‘Big Society’ actually is. He told a dinner last night: "The trouble is that most people don’t know what the Big
Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it.”

A friend of Loughton tells me that this was meant as a joke. But the problem is that it cuts far too close to the bone: Cameron still can’t really communicate what he means by the ‘Big
Society’ despite having talked about it for years.

To a certain extent, this problem will be solved with time. As the Big Society emerges, the Tories will be able to show people what it is rather than just trying to tell them. They’ll be able
to point to the new free schools, the prisoner rehabilitation groups being paid by results and the public service mutuals to show what they mean when they talk about it. But there is a real
question as to whether the phrase is now obscuring more than it reveals. 

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Show comments
  • JaneS

    It is nonsense that profits are an essential feature of the Big Society;there plenty of us out here already doing it for free and understanding exactly what the Big Society is.It is not lack of funds but stifling Health and Safety and Safeguarding legislation which may inhibit the growth of the Big Society.

  • normanc

    The Big Society will only work if government gets out of the way, cuts our taxes to leave more money in our pockets, and (here comes the nasty part – any Cameroons stop reading here and keep dreaming of fluffy little clouds) allows for profit entities to fill the gap.

    They needn’t make huge profits, or be large conglomerates, but enough to make it worth the effort, be it expenses only for an ad-hoc committee or a more organised body for large projects.

    The idea of legions of volunteers doing everything for free is appealing but it’s not going to happen.

    The choice is either lots of little government funded quango’s or private enterprises.

    I know which I’d rather have.

  • Praxis Juncture

    BIg society is a simple concept, its perplexing that Tories don’t get it. It means tackling social problems using a DIY approach. Don’t like the fact that grass on the common is long, hire a lawnmower and give it a trim. Need to change the bulbs in your street lamps, here, have a ladder. Etc.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    If it is a cliche then it cannot be said to be beyond people’s understanding. A cliche means that everyone understands it and therefore it is trivial.

    It is your opinion that it is vacuous. It is not my opinion. I think that a great many people do aspire to living in a Big Society. We have forgotten what that means in practice, but constant carping from the sidelines is not conservatism.

    Conservatism DOES believe in society.

  • Commentator

    The Big Society: a vacuous cliche drafted on the back of a bus ticket by Steve Hilton and Oliver Letwin – the Bertie Wooster of British politics.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Tanuki, unless you are living on an uninhabited island then you must either be the submissive slave of a Big State, or a participant in a Big Society. Just because the idea has been vocalised by a politican doesn’t mean it is a political idea.

    And Rhoda, I understand your point, and it is true. But I think that time must be given to roll back the state, and I will be happy to see it begin with the ability to set up schools.

  • Verity

    TGI UKIP – Yup.

  • Tanuki

    I don’t want a Big State *or* a Big Society. Like most people, I just want to be left alone to get on with my life without the continual intrusion of meddlesome government or ‘third sector’ outfits.


    Of course Loughton could have gone the whole hog and told the truth that with its 5,000 busybody community organisers (controllers?) The Big Society demonstrates perfectly just who and what Cameron and Hilton really are.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    P of M, many of us wonder whether there can be any big society initiative if the state will not first get out of way in whatever activity is involved. The problem is that those involved in state-run activity may act as gatekeepers to make sure ‘amateurs’ can’t get in.

    An example was nursery schooling. This was once handled by private enterprise. Once primary schools were given the responsibility to provide cover, it became very difficult to compete with them, they had resources and they had the regulators on their side, raising the bar of requirements so that private nurseries could not compete. Cameron has announced no plan to get rid of the gatekeepers. While that is the case, it may be unrealistic to expect too much. Meanwhile plans for a wholesale scrapping of excessive regulations in all areas have faded into the background. While there may be a corps of willing volunteers to teach kids or pick up rubbish or whatever, there is nobody that keen on being investigated for a criminal record or told they need a million quids worth of insurance and a 200page risk assessment.

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Vulture, why does the Big Society mean nothing? It may mean nothing to you but I think it resonates with the aspirations of many people. I am hoping that next year I can help start a Free School. I can’t wait to see how this idea, and many others which rebalance the powers of state and society work out.

  • Rabyrover

    Big Society. Big state. Sound the same to me.

  • Vulture

    Tiny Tim really is the boy who tells Emperor Dave that he’s got no clothes isn’t he?

    The ‘Big Society’ is just a phrase borrowed from some dead American Marxist that baldie Hilton told Dave would sound good as an election slogan. The advantage being – as Loughton freely admits – that it means absolutely nothing.

    Par for Dave’s vacuous course really. Meanwhile he’s in Beijing with Govey, Vince and the lads giving advice to China on how to run a country. if it weren’t so tragic I’d have to larf.

  • Colin

    You can’t have a big society if you retain a massive state. If we really want a big society then we have to choke of the life support of the state and that means cutting taxes. It’s not rocket science.

    Significant tax cuts will force the state to re-balance and cut its cloth accordingly. Anything else is just bullshit.

  • justathought

    I thought JFK put it well when he said “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”

  • Peter From Maidstone

    Is it really that difficult to articulate the conceptual basis of the Big Society, or is it just something that journalists like to rely on for an easy story?

    Big Society is the opposite of Big State. We have experienced the growing influence of the State, a damaging dependence on the State, and the increasing intrusion of the State. We all know what Big State is like.

    Big Society rebalances the political and social arenas so that the activity and organisation of people apart from the State is allowed to dominate, or at least have much more scope than at present.

    It means that there is a freedom for groups and organisations within our Society to provide functions which the State had arrogated to itself. The Big Society does not DEMAND that these functions be repatriated but it provides the space for this to take place.

    I don’t think it is that hard to understand, or to support in general.

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