Reports of the death of the Big Society have been exaggerated. The question is whether it can stay alive.
The Telegraph made a great deal the other day of the fact that the Big Society, David Cameron's 'passion' and philosophical driving force, would not be on the main agenda at the Conservative Party conference. The implication was that, 18 months after the first of its many launches, it had been quietly moored in the backwaters of policy.
The enthusiasm displayed in the early days of the coalition government has certainly waned. The Lib Dems have always been wary of the term and tend to avoid using it. Among the Tories, where at one time every policy initiative or press release was accompanied by fulsome quotes about 'Big Society in action', ministerial cheerleading has become surprisingly muted.
Every now and again the Big Society stages a modest comeback. In June the Department of Communities and Local Government celebrated the achievements of the three 'vanguard' councils (there were four, but we don't talk about Liverpool). These included the first brick being laid in a community-run housing development in Cumbria. There is also a 'citizens' university' in Sutton, south London, and a planned 'CareBank' scheme in Windsor and Maidenhead.
These are all worthwhile, but fall short of local government minister Greg Clark's assertion that the vanguards have 'achieved remarkable results in a year'.
The growing ennui over Big Society within government reflects the mood on the streets, where the term is most often used ironically, except among charities and community groups desperately hoping that adopting the lingo will win them friends in the right places.
But while the Big Society has slipped down the agenda, the 'broken society' and 'sick society' certainly haven't. David Cameron used last month's riots as a platform to set out what is described on the 10 Downing Street website as 'the broken society agenda'.
'Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback,' the prime minister said. 'Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?'
The problems were defined as 'Irresponsibility. Selfishness. Behaving as if your choices have no consequences', which is as precise a description of the behaviour of leading bankers, members of Parliament and media barons in recent years as it is of the actions of street criminals. And there lies the problem for the Big Society.
David Cameron says the reason he is in politics is to build a bigger, stronger society. But you don't build a bigger, stronger society by telling people how sick and broken and useless they are. You are more likely to do it by working with the assets and talents and skills and generosity that exist even in the most struggling communities, and by getting alongside and supporting people. It's a process of working with individuals and groups to give them space to explore and articulate their own ambitions, and the support they need to start making them a reality.
Within the early rhetoric of the Big Society, and in some of the awards for community action handed out by Number 10, there was real respect for ordinary people's achievements and ability to address and change horrendous situations.
That is in danger of being lost and replaced with an approach that uses the language of empowerment but sees the people as the problem. If that persists, there is scant chance of such a poorly parented Big Society surviving beyond infancy.
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