Ministers are scaling down their references to what may have been little more than a political slogan that got completely out of hand, says Stephen Cook
Towards the end of his conference speech last week, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, referred to "a big society, a stronger society". But he didn't spend long on the concept, moving quickly into a specific discussion about looked-after children. He certainly didn't dwell and elaborate on the big society in the way he did last year.
In the build-up to the conference, there was some similar footwork from Nick Hurd, the Minister for Civil Society, who, in the aftermath of the general election, used to refer to himself rather ruefully as the big society implementer-in-chief. In his recent interview with Third Sector, he responded to a question on the subject by saying the government was moving out of the "speeches phase" into the gritty detail of policy implementation.
This is evidently the case, and there will be many questions and arguments ahead over the detail of the Localism Bill and the reform and commissioning of public services. And with luck, we will be hearing even less, and perhaps next to nothing, about the big society. All the pointers are that, without being actually disowned, it is being quietly sidelined by its erstwhile enthusiasts.
This has surely been a case of a catchy political slogan being allowed to get out of all proportion and even become something of an embarrassment. Right from the start, Conservative candidates found it didn't play well on the doorstep. It caused unnecessary resentment among those in the Labour Party and the voluntary sector who quite justifiably felt that they had been successfully fostering a big society for decades. And people mistook it for a policy agenda, building conferences and seminars around it only to find there wasn't much to chew on.
Perhaps the best that can be said is that it has helped to fix David Cameron in the public mind as a leader from the wing of his party that does think there is such a thing as society and is genuinely interested in voluntary action and community cohesion as part of the solution to the country's problems. But, all things considered, isn't it time to say "bye-bye, big society"?