The Small Society blog - RSA

The Dawn of the 'Small Society'

Blog 2 Comments

  • Picture of Charlotte Alldritt
    Charlotte Alldritt
    Director of Public Services and Communities, RSA
  • Communities
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Spirituality

“…let's do something, that is about public service, about building self esteem, self respect, for the good of our country and the good of our communities.”

So said David Cameron as he set out his vision for Britain as newly elected leader of the Conservative Party. Invoking traditional Tory values of individual rights and responsibilities, Cameron argued, “There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state.” This clever line was more than an attempt to rebrand the ‘nasty party’ and imbue it with husky- and hoodie- hugging ‘compassionate conservatism’. It was the beginnings of a theme that would fail to bite into public consciousness, but would otherwise be a sustained feature social policy under the David Cameron’s leadership as Prime Minister – the Big Society.

The Big Society has its origins in the philosophy of Edmund Burke, who emphasised the spirit of man as a social being. As Jesse Norman MP (Conservative) explains, Burke sought “a focus on human beings not as economic atoms, but as bundles of capability”. This notion resonates firmly in the RSA, our ambition for the Power to Create, and recognition of a need to move into a ‘post policy’ world where, as Matthew Taylor has blogged, “evidence of Government’s value lying not in its capacity to achieve its goals but in the degree to which it is able to mobilise social power towards aims to which citizens explicitly aspire.”

However, while the ideas behind the Big Society are relevant, important and offer the key to how the state ‘does’ welfare and public services in the face of rising demand, costs and complexity, they still lie within an old policy paradigm.

Initiatives such as the National Citizen Service – despite creating fantastic opportunities for young people – are of the Big State, organised top down. Mutuals are encouraged and supported by a unit in in the Cabinet Office on Whitehall. The Office for Civil Society attempts to corral and expedite similar activity and strategising, including open public services and open policy making. All with good intentions, but to what effect? Public consultation has gone from being a reluctant tick box exercise to having – or being – its own central government policy apparatus.

The notion of ‘being’ is something I’ve been reflecting on since reading ‘Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges’. There Jonathan Rowson explains how we need the spiritual – our understanding of who we are and how we understand ourselves to be – to play a greater role in our “political economy and all the educational, commercial, civic and media institutions related to it; all of which, of course, have human beings inside them.” All too frequently public policy is devoid of this. Quoting Claire Foster-Gilbert, director of the Westminster Abbey Institute, Parliament Square is described as being like “a brittle sponge that is so desperate for water…it’s obvious in the people, the institutions, it’s in the air, this huge longing for depth.

The values of the Big Society are deep, but we have to dig much deeper than national initiatives and the traditional policy levers of Whitehall to find them. In an embarrassed admission of the quiet dropping the Prime Minister’s plan for a ‘Big Society Day’, Nick Hurd, then minister for the Office for Civil Society, was onto something when he said, “Arguably, every day is a big society day." And in the RSA Public Services and Communities team, we’re eager to see and support how NHS England, under Simon Steven’s leadership, is starting to think beyond itself, redefining the old boundaries of ‘The System’ and the NHS to unlock the capacity of citizens, communities and the workforce in a profoundly different way.

The Five Year Forward View asks each of us to change how we perceive ourselves in relation to a radically different notion of ‘healthcare’. This is about health, wellness, prevention and how these play out in every aspect of our lives – at work, home, with family and amongst our ‘communities’, where our social norms impact on how we feel about our bodies, our capability and responsibility for self-care and the caring of others. To be human is to know ourselves through our relationships with others. Whether or not one applies the language of spirituality, this is a principle for public policy that is ‘of’ its intended audiences, not ‘to’ them.

But language is important. As Iain McGilchrist put it in his talk on the soul at the RSA in March last year, “If it’s true, as Wittgenstein said, that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by language, making something disappear by language could bewitch us into thinking it didn’t exist.” Does this mean that as the Big Society has been dropped as a political catch phrase, it no longer exists – if it ever did?

There is such a thing as society. It is essence of our spiritual being and the only bedrock upon which effective public policy can rest. But society operates at the small: our connectedness with the world is made meaningful by our connectedness with one another. The Big Society grasps for the right ideas, but falls back on old school methods to realise them. Let’s hope the Small Society emerges from its ashes.

Charlotte Alldritt is Director of the RSA's Public Services and Communities programme. She tweets at @calldritt.

Join the discussion


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

  • Some very good points here. As an Enlightenment creation, the RSA must pay due regard to Burke  - but perhaps more to his notion of the 'little platoons' than to much else. It is about those critically important basic, local, building blocks of society, those allegiances, identities and mutual tenets that live in neighbourhoods and communities and that together build the larger nation. As Charlotte writes, the process is bottom-up, not top-down. The health and vigour of those little platoons should be foremost in our consideration.

    Zac Goldsmith reminded us last week how decayed those assets have become. The parties have haemorrhaged members since the 1950s; fewer than one in a hundred voters is now a member of a political party. He might also have mentioned that his own party lost over a million members between 1979 and 1997 - at a period when it was in power. The reason for this is not hard to discover - a centralising government removing powers and imposing obligations on local government structures. Many Conservative councillors, disempowered and disillusioned, called it a day. The assault on local government continued with the 2000 LGA that restricted decision making by law to just ten councillors; intended as a managerial measure to improve productivity, it instead effectively disenfranchised swathes of voters and their most local representatives. The road to the Hell of anomie and disengagement is indeed paved with good intentions.

    And yes, the spiritual and above all the moral dimensions must have room to grow and the power to influence. Our founding fathers of the first and second enlightenments progressed beyond a restricting religiosity but by no means abandoned either spirituality or morality. The aims of the RSA are profoundly moral, and based squarely on a series of unequivocal moral assumptions. The founders certainly did not believe in a moral relativism that gives equal weight to doctrines of greed as to doctrines of mutual interest, or equal weight to doctrines that deny social justice as to doctrines that promote it. And here it may be apposite to mention another enlightenment figure - Adam Smith. The 'invisible hand' did not operate because of greed, but because of self-interest, and the distinction is crucial. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker didn't sell their goods via 'Amazon' or 'eBay', didn't have a supermarket supply contract and didn't run a mail order business. Their economic success and well-being depended on the economic health of their immediate communities, their neighbourhoods. They had a keen self-interest in promoting and securing economic advantage locally, and in the health of those 'little platoons'. They depended absolutely on local customers with enough money to buy their beef and their bread.

    The 'Small Society' is perhaps a paradox in an age of globalism and the internet and in which the entirety of humanity is connected. Yet it exists - and has the potential to profoundly change our lives in the 21st century. Not only Schumacher has remarked on the potential.

  • Excellent article covering deep, meaningful and thoughtful social issues resonating with so many. The 'Big Society' with all its much needed high values, commendable ethos and transparent civic & social moral engagement will truly exits when both the private & the public fully come together in a drive of mutual trust and reciprocated benefits. Where one does not get overlooked, abused, suffocated or trampled by the other. Where the growth, success, wealth and prosperity of one does not come at the exclusion, alienation, poverty and segregation of the other. A Great Society needs Great People to run social affairs like a cherished, heartfelt, loved and well guarded private business, with its vested interests and its expanding and growing returns on investments (ROI) lie in greater efforts made by every citizen pledging responsibility to better understanding the diverse communities his or her nation represents, along the intricate make up of each part of its own communities. Learning to have an open mind to recognise great potential in others, many possibly unlike us, but nonetheless, equal citizens of one nation. Many more advanced than others. Many less capable, perhaps stuck, yet not necessarily less deserving to reach greatness too. These are indeed changing times, crying for many to make a true leap and a great shift towards a change of heart & mind, to face realities, realise the obvious, and provide for a better future. These are very much needed in order to be able to better establish common grounds for bonding as a unified nation, in a common passionate search for Greatness. Where each community, no matter how differing its social ideologies from the others are, can always find Common Greatness in all, and raise the flag of The United Kingdom of Great Britain together as a whole Great Nation it truly is.