Craig Dearden-Phillips: Right idea, right time, right place - all the big society needs now is the right response.

The state is about to implode and charities must seize the opportunity, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

There is huge worry in the sector that the big society is probably the right idea but is coming at the wrong time and in the wrong hands.

I couldn't disagree more. Now is the right time - never better. The state is about to implode. When, if not now, would the time be right for a bigger society?

The idea is also in the right hands. You could never trust Labour with civil society. Their addiction to big, domineering government meant they were never going to allow our sector any serious role beyond our traditional one of vitamin supplement to a corpulent state. Labour had a perfect chance to do big society - but just created Big Brother.

The response of our sector to the big society has been interesting. True to form, we are slightly on the defensive. We have various "cuts watch" websites and our commentators are very much in "yes, but ..." mode.

The view you hear most often is that this, of all times, is not the time to kick our sector in the nuts, just when society and the government needs it most. And so we complain, politely, about funding cuts to Capacitybuilders, v and so on. Voices will become shriller in the autumn when the action really starts.

How we respond is our biggest test yet. Will we dust down our old 1980s banners, daubing in the word "Coalition" where "Thatcher" used to be? Or do we actually accept that this is the financial reality - and just get on with it?

My suspicion is that we might have an eighties moment. However, we do have a choice. We can accept that there are far too many 'strategic' organisations getting public money and that it would be sensible to have far fewer. We can recognise that the long boom produced tens of thousands of charities that are now unsustainable and should merge. The sector can choose to deal decisively with its own RIPs - Retired In Posts - who, sadly, are still legion.

And, perhaps most importantly, we can decide to survive and thrive, whatever happens. This is an existential choice familiar to millions of us in our individual lives, at some point. I know that Churchill's dictum in his wilderness years, to "keep buggering on", was the right route for me when night fell on my own life. It taught me resilience.

It also taught me that, whatever happens in the years to come, the one thing we can control is our response to it. The choices facing our sector are exactly the same. Let's think big.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is a social entrepreneur specialising in public service reform and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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