Ask not what the state can do for you


I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a number of people trying to work out how to respond to the idea of the Big Society. As I said yesterday, the report on Monday of the ACEVO Commission on the Big Society is likely to provide plenty of ammunition for those critical of the implementation of the idea, but this conversation was more at the level of principle.

Essentially the Big Society contains two ideas, one which is traditionally associated with the right and one which is more comfortable to the left. The former comprises a critique of the state, the latter a recognition that people should be expected to act in ways which do not simply avoid harming others but contribute to the public good. A problem for the right is that most evidence suggests civil society tends to be stronger in countries which have a relatively generous welfare state. A problem for the left is that in practice the way public services are organised – at least in England - too rarely creates feelings of empowerment among either staff or the public.

Part of the intellectual terrain over the next few years will therefore be a tussle between Conservatives seeking to show how a withdrawing state has created spaces for community initiatives while a left in search of a new narrative will need to demonstrate it has moved beyond the rampant statism of the Brown years and has credible plans for a strong, efficient and enabling public sector.  The interesting thing right now is how weak, and lacking in much more than anecdote, both arguments sound.

But the thing that really stuck me was when someone quoted from the socialist thinker RH Tawney, who said in 1931 of the first Labour Government that ‘it asked too little and promised too much’ (when I checked the quote I found it had been used in a speech last year by David Miliband). 

One of the things that David Cameron’s Government has in common with Margaret Thatcher’s is a message that people need to change. For Mrs Thatcher it was that people needed to be independent and enterprising, from Mr Cameron it is that people need to be more responsible and community-minded. In contrast Labour – whose ideology should have at its heart the idea of social citizenship – lacked any such over-arching exhortation. Instead Labour’s message was 'leave it to us, we will sort it out with policies, plans, targets and tax credits' - interspersed with occasionally delivering a shrill and populist telling off to anti-social youths or the work-shy.

It is not easy to challenge people to be wise and responsible citizens, especially with a 24 hour media constantly on the lookout for an excuse to accuse politicians of pomposity or hypocrisy (witness this excruciating interview with Francis Maude). But it is an essential task of political leadership and will be vital if the Coalition is to have a positive tale to tell through the coming years of austerity or if Labour is to find a way of connecting with people beyond its Northern heartlands.

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