I liked this piece ‘The Big Society or A Big Society’ by Charlie Mansell – thoughtful and almost funny in its own search for definitions while recognising that definition-hunting is procrastination.
The problem on the ground (IMHO) is the same as it ever was – lost in translation. Back in 2001 when the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal emerged after an extensive research phase which brought parts of government into contact with lots of practitioners, I thought it was superb. The ideas of ‘bending the mainstream’ (ie using all the big public money rather than the funny money associated with regeneration programmes) to ‘close the gap’ (ie make it so people in Deptford didn’t die younger than people in Blackheath) were fresh and clever and sound, but they became clichés so quickly. Why? The story I tell is of a Job Centre manager who said to us (a local active citizenship charity) “The Government doesn’t want your sort to exist any more, they’re going to mainstream everything.” That was the beginning of the end for ‘mainstreaming’ in my lexicon!
As Charlie Mansell hints, the NOTION of Big Society rather than a Big Society policy of any description, is opening up those debates again but to achieve that potential it would have to be protected from those who see it as the header on a funding bid, a cynical cuts cover-up, or a stick that someone’s going to beat them with.
This is not a question of renaming – politicians can argue over whether to call it ‘Good Society’, ‘Fair Society’ etc – the point is that civil society has been brought to political prominence to an extent unseen in peacetime since the Victorians. And there is potentially everything to play for. Unfortunately, it’s not a clean game; it’s contaminated with party politics, petty rivalries, entrenched and emerging interests… indeed, the Big Society is about power (this is, at least in theory, a power grab by civil society, which is why ‘big’ is more descriptive than ‘good).
An observation on ‘the’ or ‘a’: as a publisher why did I choose the following sub-titles ‘Turning the Tide: the history of Everyday Deptford’ and ‘Longest Journey: a Black History of Lewisham’? I’ve ruminated on this a lot but come to no useful conclusion. So perhaps it’s best to drop the article – definite or indefinite – and instead keep on calling it ‘Big Society’ in opposition to ‘Big Government’ (after all we don’t talk about ‘A Big Government’ or ‘The Big Government’). I’d be very happy to insist on Good Government or Fair Government (in fact, it would be great if politicians thought about what those would mean and left civil society to get on with reinventing itself)