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“…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.


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