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I am burdened by the abiding image of David Cameron electioneering in McDonalds and finding himself accidentally asking for  "a big society with fries please".  But seriously folks, if you read the transcript of David Cameron's major speech on the Big Society, it seems to be quite a substantial idea, not just a sound byte,  so it is worthy of close attention, especially for a project that is about strengthening connections at a local level, and (re)building the social capital that Cameron seems to think we currently lack.

I am burdened by the abiding image of David Cameron electioneering in McDonalds and finding himself accidentally asking for  "a big society with fries please".  But seriously folks, if you read the transcript of David Cameron's major speech on the Big Society, it seems to be quite a substantial idea, not just a sound byte,  so it is worthy of close attention, especially for a project that is about strengthening connections at a local level, and (re)building the social capital that Cameron seems to think we currently lack.

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What follows focuses on making sense of the idea, the next blog will examine the idea from the perspective of the three main manifestos, and the following entry will attempt to understand how our project might contribute to making society 'big'.

The idea, based on politically filtered facts,  seems to break down as follows:

State intervention helped to advance the cause of social justice in Britain until the late sixties, but less so thereafter.  The biggest expansion in state involvement has taken place since 1997, but inequality has grown, the incomes of the bottom 10%  fell between 2002-2008, youth unemployment has increased and social mobility has stalled. The state failed to tackle poverty in recent years because those in poverty lacked the education to take advantage of the opportunities of globalisation, and because the state was relatively blind to the social impact of economic reforms, e.g. when benefit structures serve to disincentivise work. The role of the state therefore needs to shift from one that primarily serves to create economic dependence to one that increases personal and social responsibility. As Cameron puts it, "We need to use the state to remake society." He proposes to do so by increasing educational opportunity for all and, at by focusing on social enterprise, community activists, and, here's the rub, everybody else. The fact that everybody needs to become involved in some or all of volunteering, associational life, local politics and service provision is why the vision is a 'big' one.

That is the idea insofar as one paragraph can capture it. The space Cameron wants to make bigger lies between the state and the citizen, which he seems to think is currently too small, and which is actually undermined, he believes, by the existing relationship between state and citizen. He seems to want to increase social, civic and political DIY, and the driving motivation seems to be that he wants people to feel and to be more responsible for their lives. As I have suggested before, in order to be 'responsible', you have to be able to respond, so certain key questions arise. We will return to the nuts and bolts of the idea, but for now here are some key generic issues/questions of a more philosophical nature.

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As Mathew Taylor has already indicated, walking the talk of this idea is not straightforward, and thus far the Conservatives themselves don't seem to have managed it. There are various sources of inertia that make it difficult to change our behaviour, even when we want to.

For instance, building trust at a social or civic level is not easy because as David Halpern has suggested, based on an international study of values, the British as a whole are "unusually afraid of strangers". He also suggested that, relative to other European countries, we don't value social solidarity very highly, and tend to be relatively authoritarian by nature.

How do you pay for it? This critical question was Madeleine Bunting's key concern in The Guardian,  and is obviously very pertinent. If the State is going to 'remake' society it has to pay for this make-over, and has to do so in a way that keeps itself at arms length; both difficult tasks.

The idea relies on a 'big as significant' metaphor, as outlined inMetaphors we live by. Making 'big' society's root metaphor seems curious given that Cameron also suggests that we have a 'broken society'. At the risk of manufacturing a neologism, he seems to be equating size with effectiveness(broken because not big enough), but one of the reasons for the perceived decline in social solidarity is the challenge of social scale, now that most people live in cities after all society often feels every bit as big as it is broken. I am not sure whether this is merely a semantic point, but it is also a fact that insofar as social solidarity depends on size, less is more.

Finally, a growth in the social and civic sphere also creates new forms of social pressure. For instance, Mathew Parris once spoke of this concern about living in a society of 'twitching curtains', and more generally any growth in society creates threats to individual autonomy.

So what do you think? Does the idea of the big society make sense? Is it desirable? Achievable? Does it fill you with optimism or horror? Look forward to hearing from you.

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