To big up – to exaggerate, to ‘puff’, to praise or recommend something highly. Society is terribly popular; but what makes it big? My suspicion is that one of the reasons David Cameron welcomed the coalition so fulsomely was that it brought into government a group of people – the LibDems – who were far more interested in ‘the big society’ than the majority of his own party. There certainly seems to plenty in the Conservative Party who are only interested in Big Society if it provides useful cover for the Thatcherite (or more precisely ‘neo-liberal’) holy grail of small government.

But I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I’ve just finished reading Phillip Blond’s Red Tory, which includes one of the best denunciations of neo-liberalism I’ve come across. His prescriptions for a new (conservative) order involve a new valuing of local society and its strengths, against either the statism of the left or the marketism of the right.

I think I’m right there with that critique, if not necessarily with Phillip Blond’s remedies. Someone asked me a while ago if I would describe myself as a socialist, and i realised it was a difficult question to answer. I’m certainly not pro-capitalist, and definitely aspire to a society in which people are rewarded less for their place in society or ability to grasp the levers of power, and more for their intrinsic worth as human beings. But I’ve never been that impressed by the socialist tendency to believe that this vision could be realised through state action. Institutions by their nature are not the natural instruments to deliver a just society. I feel much more at home with Blond’s idea of co-operative ventures, small scale mutual enterprises and so on.

The Big Society Network says:

People have interpreted the ideas and vision in different ways, but we see the core of the big society as three principles:

  • Empowering individuals and communities: Decentralising and redistributing power not just from Whitehall to local government, but also directly to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals
  • Encouraging social responsibility: Encouraging organisations and individuals to get involved in social action, whether small neighbourly activities like hosting a Big Lunch to large collective actions like saving the local post office
  • Creating an enabling and accountable state: Transforming government action from top-down micromanagement and one-size-fits-all solutions to a flexible approach defined by transparency, payment by results, and support for social enterprise and cooperatives

What’s not to like? Well, apart from the suspicion that it might be used as a smokescreen for neo-liberalism, the question in my mind, is what about those who aren’t just waiting for the opportunity to be free of governmental interference? What about the genuinely weak? How does the Big Society enable a community into which the poorest have been pushed, out of sight and out of mind? Where there’s no community organiser waiting to get people together?

The questions are not rhetorical. Jon Cruddas MP spoke warmly of the ‘big society’ language at a gathering last week for churches to consider how they might respond. If a distinctly left wing member of the Labour Party is interested, then I am too, and I want to find out the answers to those questions. I know I share Phillip Blond’s dislike of bureaucratic solutions which rarely fit any given individual case; but I also want to know there’s something better on the horizon before I support the dissolution of the bureaucracy.