Can big ideas succeed in politics?


Some of you may remember Dennis Norden used to have a steady flow of ‘being old means…’ aphorisms, as in 'being old is when you realise your get up and go has got up and gone’. I suspect they have gone a bit of out fashion now that so many middle aged people continue to try to behave like twenty somethings. Perhaps a new one might be ‘being old is when you look back and find Dennis Norden aphorisms poignant and amusing’. Anyway, my own is additon to the canon is ‘being old is noticing that the point in the week when you think ‘I’ve had enough of this - it’s time for the weekend’ is getting closer and closer to Monday morning’.  

Such meanderings are by way of providing half of a reason for posting twice in one day. At lunchtime I wrote a piece for Reform to go alongside a conference they are holding on the Big Society. As sometimes happens when I am dog tired, I managed to sit still for a full 15 minutes and bash out the whole piece in one go. So I am sharing it.

The other reason is that my earlier defence of IDS is already causing lots of nice progressive people to go crazy with me, so I am hoping to distract them by being a little bit snide about the Big Society.

Here is the Reform mini-article starting with the title they gave me.

' Can big ideas succeed in politics? I guess the answer to this question lies in part in what we mean by a big idea and what we mean by success. ‘Cool Britannia’ was a big idea which referred to something real; the success of the UK in the creative and cultural industries. But as no one who is cool calls themselves cool, the phrase came across as silly and hubristic.

New Labour’s Third Way was also a big and timely idea; namely that social democracy had to adapt to modernity and in particular the rise of consumerism and the impact of globalisation. But it was a rotten brand. Not only had there been other, discredited, third ways in the past but the idea smacked of tactical realignment rather than a deeper progressive project. At a Labour Party conference in the late 90s John Prescott was told of an opinion poll that revealed that people were more likely to the think the Third Way was a chocolate bar than a political programme: ‘that’s funny’ he said ‘ I always thought it was a fudge’.

But what of today's grand idea; the Big Society. It has inevitably been the subject of sardonic humour. At a recent RSA event a speaker got a good laugh when he said “ the Big Society or, as my grandmother used to refer to it, ‘society’. More damaging has been the consistent complaint that the concept is vague or that it is merely a cover for cuts. 

So if David Cameron and Steve Hilton had hoped the Big Society would be greeted with popular acclaim they must be disappointed. If, however, their objective was to get the idea into the bloodstream of public discourse and (if I can mix my metaphors) try to create a new political battleground they have more reason to be pleased.

Literally not a day of mine goes by without receiving an invitation to attend or speak at a Big Society themed event. However much the commentariat, the Opposition and the grandees of the third sector claim to despise the idea they can’t seem to stop talking about it.

I have no need to disguise my enthusiasm for the concept. After all, my first annual lecture for the RSA – back in 2007 – was on the topic of what I inelegantly called ‘the social aspiration gap’. I argued that if ‘we are to be the people we have to be to create the future we say we want’ we need a population which is, in aggregate, more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social. This is, by the way, my answer to the question ‘what is the idea behind the Big Society?’.

My problem is not the idea but its implementation. The Reform conference is a valuable opportunity to discuss this. But let me end with a quotation from Tory Council leader, Sir Merrick Cockell: ‘in the end Government cannot build the Big Society. It can prepare the ground and get out of the way’. Right on Sir Merrick, but if you know how to prepare the ground while cutting deep into community sector budgets you have answered a question still baffling the rest of us.”

And if you’ve got through that, here’s your reward; perhaps my favourite getting-old one liner, from Bob Hope:            

' I don't feel old. I don't feel anything until noon. Then it's time for my nap. “

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