‘What on earth is the Big Society? Do you know anyone (outside politics) who has the faintest idea what Cameron’s Big Idea is all about?’ That was Janet Street-Porter not long ago in the Daily Mail.
Even if there are now plenty of people who understand roughly what the Big Society is about, generally it has been received with confusion, suspicion or apathy. Before you click away, this is not yet another attempt to define the Big Society. Rather, it is this reaction to ‘Cameron’s Big Idea’ that I’m interested in because of what it says about us.
The biggest problem faced by those trying to promote the Big Society is that it looks and sounds like a ‘Big Idea’. In Britain we have a spectacularly bad track record of coming together behind big ideas. What gets us going instead is an injustice or a threat to the status quo. For the Big Society to become the popular nationwide movement envisaged by its creators it needs to be reshaped accordingly.
Over the weekend hundreds of thousands of people marched through London in protest at the government’s proposed cuts, along with other grievances. Either you read about this, you saw it on the news, perhaps you were there. Over the last year there has been a spate of spirited protests against the government’s cuts to libraries, the proposed sale of public forests, the removal of the educational maintenance allowance and the income surtax on the next generation of university graduates.
Each demonstration was a great example of the kind of civic participation that is, on paper at least, at the heart of what the Big Society is about. None of these protests could have happened without countless hours of voluntary effort from people bound together in small groups who care about the future of society.
Yet none of these people were rallying behind a big idea. Indeed, for some this is the problem with such demonstrations. What people were marching for was restoration and protection. They wanted to keep things as they were. They saw the government’s proposed cuts, sales and taxes as unjust and it was this as much as anything else that got them out onto the streets.
You see the same thing throughout British history. Had Janet Street-Porter been around in the late 18th century she would have scoffed at ‘Robespierre’s Big Idea’ in the wake of the French Revolution, as did many at the time. Though this big idea sent the rest of the Europe into an intellectual and political spin, in Britain it did little more than inspire a string of patriotic ‘King and Country’ riots in support of the status quo.
Beyond that, think of the Abolitionist movement, Chartism, the work of Anti-Corn Law League, or large-scale demonstrations like the Anti-war march of 2003, the Aldermaston CND marches, the Poll Tax Riots, the Countryside Alliance march of 2002, the ‘Monster Petition’ delivered to Lord Melbourne in 1834 demanding the release of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Those 60,000 men, women and children who gathered in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester were not rallying behind a big idea. They were protesting against specific political injustices.
George Orwell once referred to ‘that un-English thing, an idea’. That is too strong. It is not ideas we fail to get excited about so much as big ideas. Our response to these has been (and remains) to ignore them or to pull them apart. We are rebels not revolutionaries. Our patron saint was famous not for introducing a radical new idea but for seeing off a dragon.
There’s nothing unique about this. There are many other nations for whom popular civic participation on a nationwide scale tends to be in resistance to change rather than solidarity behind new political ideas. But it is important that we see this as a key strand in the fabric of our past. Inasmuch as a national identity implies a set of values and predispositions, the experience of growing up in Britain seems to leave many of us primed to resist big ideas, whether it’s Blair’s Third Way, Cameron’s Big Society or Major’s Back to Basics. Of these it was Major’s big idea that was met with less confusion (if plenty of derision) only because it suggested a restoration of values rather than the introduction of new ones. In other words, it went with the grain.
If a fraction of the social energy unleashed onto the streets of London over the weekend could be harnessed to the Big Society, the project would be considered a success. This might yet happen. But if the Big Society is to really capture our imagination it needs to look and sound less like a big idea and more like a movement driven by resistance and necessity.
Henry Hemming is the author of Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, published by John Murray. See Henry Hemming's website for more.