NEWS
06/07/2011 03:31 BST | Updated 04/09/2011 06:12 BST

David Cameron's Big Society Plan Stumbles Out of the Gate

In late May, Britain's Prime Minister and Conservative party leader David Cameron delivered his fourth major address in little over a year on the Big Society -- his signature plan to hand power back to the people, reform public services and promote civic involvement through volunteerism and charitable giving.

"It's about how we as a government help people come together in their communities and how we remove the barriers that get in their way," Cameron said. "The basic premise is that if everyone gives a little of themselves, the benefits for the whole of society can be enormous."

That Cameron chose to revisit the Big Society yet again was itself somewhat remarkable. By most accounts, the policy is in shambles, having fallen flat with voters and conservative activists alike while provoking relentless attacks from both the opposition Labour Party and by disgruntled allies within his own party.

Many have complained that the concept was too broad and ill-defined; others grumbled that the plan was merely empty rhetoric designed to distract voters from savage cuts to public services enacted by Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, cuts intended to rein in the country's spiraling deficit, one of the worst in Europe.

"I don't think it's caught peoples' imagination," said Charles Pattie, a professor of political science at the University of Sheffield, and author of a study on the Big Society. "It's not a phrase that pops up on the commuter buses or in the village pub very often, except as a jokey reference."

Cameron's attempts to clarify his vision over the past year have not fully succeeded, Pattie said. "I'm not convinced that it's any clearer than it was during the election a year ago," he said.

Adding to Cameron's woes, the roll-out of the plan has been plagued with missteps and embarrassing reversals. Just a day after his speech in May, Lord Nat Wei, the activist and philanthropist appointed by Cameron to put the Big Society plan into action, abruptly resigned his post. No replacement was named.

Two months earlier, Liverpool, chosen as one of four pilot cities for Big Society projects, had withdrawn from the scheme, protesting deep cuts by the state to local charitable and volunteer organizations. Weeks before that, a series of town hall meetings designed to solicit ideas from the public on the plan was scrapped after presenters at the first gathering were shouted down by citizens enraged over budget cuts.

Perhaps most embarrassingly, a scheme by Cameron's environment secretary to raise state funds by selling off historic government-owned forests to private charity groups -- a plan touted under the Big Society banner -- was abandoned in February after bitter criticism and widespread protest.

Tessa Jowell, a former Labour Party minister for the Cabinet Office and one of the most trenchant critics of the Big Society program, has argued that the policy suffers from a "fatal flaw": the failure of the Cameron government to develop a worked-out plan to put it into action. In its current form, she says, the policy is no more than a smokescreen to obscure savage cuts to public services.

"The reason the Big Society is imploding is because it is little more than an advertising slogan," Jowell wrote in the Guardian earlier this year.

Yet despite the critiques assailing it from right and left, many of the key ideas underpinning the Big Society in fact owe their origins to decades and even centuries of cherished western political thought.

In the broadest sense, the idea that society can be enriched through community involvement in civic matters can be traced back to the 18th century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke, who famously stated that it is the "little platoons" of family and neighborhood that act as the true foundational matter of civilization -- and serve as bulwarks against tyranny.

The French writer Alexis De Tocqueville, meanwhile, observed during his travels through the United States in the 1830s that the myriad community organizations formed by Americans of all classes and backgrounds contributed mightily to the strength of the fledgling democracy.

The Big Society's explicit call to "support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises" (from a strategy paper distributed by the Cameron government) recalls the post World War II origins of Britain's modern welfare state, built on the foundation laid by mutual-aid societies and worker's cooperatives of the Victorian era.

And Cameron's call to reform public services and relax the heavy hand of the central government on individuals and localities owes a more recent debt to Tony Blair, who proposed many (but enacted few) of the same reforms in the late 1990s.

The Big Society has also embraced contemporary social research with a diverse political pedigree.

Central to Cameron's plan is the concept, popularized by the urban theorist Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, that the health of communities depends in large part on its stores of "social capital," the stocks of trust and support among families, friends and neighbors that can be drawn upon to solve common problems.

More recently, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has lamented the decline of social capital in the U.S., as traditional community associations -- from sewing circles to bowling leagues -- fade away.

Social capital is formed in society, the "third sector" between the government and the marketplace, Cameron has said.

"In the past, the left focused on the state and the right focused on the market," he said in May. "We're harnessing the space in between -- society -- the 'hidden wealth' of our nation."

Many experts still feel Cameron's policy foundation is sound and deserves a fair hearing.

Among those who defend the ideas of the Big Society -- if not the execution -- is Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist best known for his lectures and writings on justice.

In an email exchange, Sandel called the Big Society a "promising alternative to laissez-faire, Thatcherite conservatism."

"Private charity will never be an adequate alternative to the welfare state," Sandel said. "But the idea of supporting and nurturing public spaces and forms of community that lie between the individual and the state is an idea worth developing."

"The Labour Party would do well to embrace this idea -- of strengthening citizenship, community and civic life -- and offer its own vision of it," he added. "That could produce a new and important debate that could reshape British politics."

Some Labour politicians have already gotten that message. David Miliband, a Labour minister and brother of the opposition leader Ed Miliband (who has himself denounced the Big Society as a "failure" and a "cloak" for heartless cuts to services) recently called for his party to reclaim the concept.

"We should be for the Big Society," Miliband told a crowd in May. "They are reoccupying ground we previously held."

Philip Blond, a political theorist referred to as "Cameron's philosopher-king" for his role in shaping his thinking behind the Big Society, did not dispute that Labour could potentially seize the ideas underpinning the plan and make them its own.

"The key point is who can deliver on it, and I think that's an open question," Blond said in an interview.

He acknowledged that Cameron's roll-out of the policy had so far been flawed.

Too much attention had been focused on charity and volunteerism, he said, allowing critics to paint the Big Society as a ploy to get people to provide services to each other that the state used to provide for free.

"All the stuff about volunteerism has sucked the air out of the room," he said. "By itself, it can't deliver on the agenda."

Cameron needed to focus more on the transformational aspects of the Big Society, such as decentralizing power and breaking the hold of the state on social services like health care and education, he said. Those aspects of the policy could not only strengthen communities, but deliver superior value and save money, he said.

"They really need to link this with small business start-ups, with entrepreneurialism," he said. "If they remain in the philanthropy and volunteerism cul-de-sac, the radical possibilities will be lost."

To still others, the ideas of the Big Society have value, but their importance is dwarfed by the looming dislocations of massive budget cuts -- proportionally larger than even those enacted by Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister dubbed the "Iron Lady" in part for her often ruthless budget slashing in the 1980s.

So far, virtually all of Cameron's rhetoric on the plan has focused on sacrifices by the middle class and on proposals targeting the poor, such as welfare reform, not on corporations and the wealthy, said Ray Jones, a professor of social work at St. George's, University of London.

"All the focus is being turned away from the affluent and the powerful, who are not being challenged by the government on taxation," Jones said.

Just last week, tens of thousands of teachers and other public employees walked off the job in protest of proposals that would dramatically scale back their pensions while simultaneously raising their retirement age. Labor leaders warned that the one-day strike would be followed by wider disruptions in the fall if concessions are not made by the government.

Whether Cameron can avoid rising class tensions as budget cuts continue to bite is unclear. Many Britons remain embittered by the perceived lenience shown to bankers and traders whose risky behavior helped trigger the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008, precipitating a wider economic crash.

'The brutal truth is simply this: the burden of deficit reduction is being piled unfairly on to millions of low and medium-paid public sector workers who did nothing to cause the crash," Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, said at a rally in support of the strikers on Thursday.

"Meanwhile those who are actually guilty of causing the crash in the finance sector are busy getting back to business and bonuses as usual," he said. "This is a gold standard for unfairness."

Serious labor upheaval could quickly push the Big Society to the fringes of the policy debate, and ultimately into political irrelevance, experts said.

"As time goes on, as the difficulties of governing increase, there won't be time to formulate these big ideas," said Pattie, the political scientist. "The cuts have been announced, but the effects haven't really been felt yet."