Big Society or Just a Good Community?

Posted on July 7, 2012

The idea behind Big Society is sound, but it’s been executed very poorly.

I’ve always been a fan of the idea of Big Society but, despite the rhetoric, the government hasn’t done a very convincing job of implementing it in a meaningful way. The principles that underpin it have existed for years under the careful and compassionate stewardship of the thousands of people in this country who care about our local communities and civil society as a whole.

Big Society has faced criticism almost from the moment it was presented as a central part of the Tory election campaign in 2010. It was always going to get a rough ride, as would be expected of any community focused initiative by the Tories at election time, but the party didn’t help itself with two substantial prima facie errors evident right from the start. The first mistake was to brand something (and therefore imply that it was their idea) that clearly already existed in many of our local communities and, in so doing, patronise and alienate a huge number of civic-minded people – the very ones upon whom Big Society depends. The second mistake was a choice of name that is a sitting duck for cynics and joke makers everywhere. What were they thinking? Did the party forget the words of its most feted leader that ‘there is no such thing as society’ just 20 years earlier? And what exactly is big about it? Surely it’s the exact opposite? Small communities are the glue that hold the entire concept together.

The negative impact of these two completely avoidable mistakes has been to provide a permanent noose for Big Society to hang itself with and create a distraction from the many positive developments associated with the programme. In a world in which political opportunism can derail even the most well intentioned policies, these are schoolboy errors that have made successful implementation even more difficult than it needs to be.

This matters because the ideas that underpin Big Society are beyond politics. They have to be. Take away the political point scoring and Big Society could and should be a vehicle for social cohesion and a call to arms to rediscover and nurture the diversity of our communities rather than subscribe to the soulless one size fits all mentality peddled to us by successive governments. I’m not so naive to suggest that a different name is more important than the policies themselves but I do believe that a more considered nomenclature and positioning would have made a massive difference. I’m also willing to offer an alternative name derived from my experience of working with local councils, charities and social enterprises – the exact people upon whom Big Society depends. It is, simply, ‘the good community’ – words that need no explanation, do not require any edicts from central government to encourage their application and have no ambiguity.

Now that, barring a government collapse, there will no general election until May 2015, I’d like to see the rhetoric and posturing of Big Society abandoned and replaced by a grass roots movement driven by innate rather than enforced localism. I don’t believe that enough people either understand or are engaged with Big Society to make this happen. By contrast, I think that a subtle shift towards a more generic goal of building a better country through locally driven initiatives that celebrate diversity ¬†and encourage participation, will help attain what should be our ultimate objective – a good community for all.

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