I haven't given 'the Big Society' much thought for a few months, but it seems it has retained its status as a fledgling proto-idea that commentators love to mock, perhaps because it is clear that the public are not yet warming to the notion, or even understanding it. Rather than properly develop the previous blog series I'll inch it along by referring you to the following paragraph from an article by Timothy Garton Ash in today's Guardian, which I found particularly amusing:
"Take David Cameron's slogan of the "big society", for example. In his speech presenting it this summer, he said: "You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the 'big society'." In its evangelical incoherence, this is a passage worthy of Tony Blair. Liberalism, empowerment, freedom and responsibility are all good things, but they are not the same thing – and none of them are the same as "big society". So this is like saying: "You can call it milk. You can call it cheese. You can call it socks. You can call it internal combustion. I call it baked beans."
Somewhat harsh, I suppose. To be charitable, we can assume Cameron was just being pragmatic, suggesting that the conceptual proof of the big society pudding is in the practical eating (baked beans or otherwise). That said, when you launch a new idea into the world, it is incumbent on you to distinguish it from existing ideas. An idea needs a place to stand, with just enough wiggle room to flirt with other ideas, but not so much that it collapses and loses its shape.
They say that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. The end of slavery, the march of civil rights, the spread of female emancipation, Glasnost. All these ideas had theoretical parameters, historical context and practical implications. The Big Society has that potential too, but not if its proponents allow it to be completely protean.
The Big Society is a flag that needs to be ironed out in certain ways before it can fly in any way. Our Connected Communities report tried to do this with the following line: "Social capital is the currency of the Big Society and social networks hold the reserves of that currency." This may not be right, but at least it is clear enough to be wrong.