Often misunderstood and unfairly demonised by its critics, the Big Society works as a bold conservative political idea. It was first introduced by former Prime Minister David Cameron in his Hugo Young lecture of 2009 in the run-up to the 2010 general elections. Though it was first presented to me during my time in secondary school, it has undoubtedly shaped my perception of politics and society ever since.
The main ambitions of this policy were not unusual as such: decentralisation, innovation, prosperity and community-building. The means, however, were different and promising. The idea revolved around a simple mechanism, specifically investing in and encouraging social entrepreneurs, start-ups and community activists to unleash a mighty wave of social energy which would in turn benefit everyone – regardless of race, class or gender. Yet the narratives on Mr Cameron’s premiership instead shifted towards arguments over austerity and Brexit, as the sole legacy of a government which believed in individual and collective empowerment. Likewise, the rise of populist rhetoric has shifted public opinion towards issues like immigration, thus ignoring the possible prospects and achievements of the Big Society.
Resources exist in society, some created by government, but most are produced by the people, and often overlooked and underestimated. The purpose of the Big Society was to encourage civil society to take action, sometimes in lieu of public services but most often in addition to them. In the long-term, that would mean combining institutions such as charities, trusts and even private companies in order to offer opportunities at a local level, therefore reducing dependence on government. In the short and medium terms, the Government would support those who need it the most, particularly in areas such as education, health and security. In other words, that would mean integrating a pro-market government with a widespread model of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism. The Big Society marked an impressive attempt to reframe, but not withdraw, the role of government and to unleash entrepreneurial spirit – thus stimulating economic and social growth whilst reducing inequalities.
The Covid-19 crisis has offered us an incredible insight into the significance of the role of civil society in building shared purposes and inspirations. The British people did not become ‘social’ overnight, but the pandemic has shown us that coming together for the common good is neither a political utopia nor a prelude to small government. Restaurants that have become incapable of serving customers have helped feed front-line workers. Families have secured funding and groceries to support food banks and other charities. Not forgetting, of course, the incredible solidarity impetus driven by Captain Sir Tom Moore and which has been made possible by the help of supporters up and down the country. The Big Society focuses on human beings as bundles of capability instead of economic atoms. The Covid-19 crisis has proved that more than ever, putting human nature at the core of society can help overcome all sorts of political challenges, from cutting crime to reducing unemployment.
There is a very specific reason why the Big Society must come back to the core of governmental incentives: the Conservative Party has always proved its capacity to adapt to its epoch. 21st century Britain requires that the Conservatives remain the party of social reform. Meritocracy, personal liberalism and social pluralism all characterise the current government. One example of that is the capacity of the party to embrace the amazing diversity that builds up the United Kingdom. Rishi Sunak, son of Punjabi Hindu immigrants, galvanises our economy. Priti Patel, daughter of Indian immigrants, protects our streets. This capacity to offer everyone a chance and to support those who need it the most lies at the core of the Big Society ideals. The public sector has already failed to prevent the poorest parts of the country from becoming so, and there are many examples of the Big Society having been effective in poor areas. In Balsall Heath, Birmingham – which used to be one of the country’s most precarious areas – inspiring social organisations such as the Balsall Heath Forum have continuously acted towards socio-economic progress, working alongside a government providing support but also freedom and autonomy to the people who could make the greatest difference. Likewise, the Big Society Awards have for years encouraged and celebrated groups and organisations making things better for their communities and their people.
Now is the time to provide a new social contract between the state and civil society. It would be naïve to believe that this transformation will happen overnight, hence why the Government must remain strong enough to plant the seeds of this project. To be an enabler instead of a provider per se. Such a massive shift in the culture of society would put power and responsibility in the hands of local people and social entrepreneurs who can really change communities. Prime Minister Johnson and Mr Sunak have throughout the pandemic been highlighting in various occasions what the British people can achieve together at a local level, whether when supporting vulnerable and elderly people in doing their groceries or in setting up telephone befriending services in Eastbourne. The Prime Minister and his Government shall now learn from the positive outcomes of the Covid-19 crisis and unlock Britain, by enabling the formation of a strong and prosperous community spirit. Build back better, in a Big Society.