Catherine Walker: big society is dead - long live big society

The big society the government has in mind might not be the one it will get, says our guest columnist

Catherine Walker
Catherine Walker

The thing about the current ideology of big society is that the hype of it all, the over-conceptualisation, its lack of clarity, the alleged shiny newness of it, the 'Big Brother' overtones of nudge theory, in fact just the 'big-ness' of it - all these things have poisoned the brand. And this represents a real challenge to its acceptance by the organisations and individuals that feel they were already a part of it before it was a government policy initiative.

There are some big, and possibly insurmountable, reasons for this - the cuts, the recent economic crisis, the animosity towards bankers who are once again raking in big bonuses - meaning that people see government and big business aren't going to come to our rescue and that it looks like it will all be down to us to fund the society we want.

Then there's the fact that big society already exists in the sense that the voluntary and community sector and legions of volunteers already do huge amounts of vital work in our communities. What they - and we - want is support, not supplanting or stifling.

According to Michael Edwards, historically there are two sets of conditions that act as catalysts for a flourishing civil society: one is mass protest in the face of "outright oppression and the violation of human rights"; the second is widespread economic security. Despite what some extremists might say, in the UK right now we have neither. Edwards adds that governments have never been very successful at stimulating civil society, especially during times of rising poverty and inequality, because "such initiatives are too small, too transitory and too driven by professional elites with no roots in the community".

Is the idea of big society completely doomed, then? Or do we need a revolution to kick-start it?

Well, there is a revolution going on. There’s a growing backlash to the top-down ideology of big society, fuelled by people’s anger at the cuts and the state of the economy, and canny opposition politics. On the one hand there’s Labour’s Movement for Change, billed as an "army" of 10,000 activists tapping into the Labour tradition of community organising. Then there are a number of national community movements such as Our Society and UK Uncut (which mobilised about 500,000 people in a mainly peaceful, anti-cuts march in London on 26 March). Beside them stand countless local grass-roots activists and groups, many of them new - take, for example, the successful campaign to defeat the government’s forestry policy.

These movements are pushing back the ideology of big society and creating, um, big society.

So perhaps the government has been really clever here. It talks about big society being all about community activism, including disruptive action, and now we have numerous groups and movements rallying to "resist change imposed by state or the private sector in their neighbourhoods" (Movement for Change). This is creating real civic engagement and exactly the sense of "we're all in this together" that is needed to get things going.

In fact, if the government were to play this game well, then it truly will have pulled off the impossible - the creation of a bigger and better big society as a backlash to the policy of big society - is this the biggest nudge of all?

Catherine Walker is head of sector trends, evidence, analysis and metrics at the Directory of Social Change

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