Saving the Big Society

Lately, the Big Society has seemed in danger of early consignment to the dustbin of history. Though it is David Cameron’s big political idea, the Big Society did not excite the voters at last year’s general election and has wobbled alarmingly between unpopularity and ridicule in recent weeks, as the British prime minister’s plans for citizen activism were derided by charities hit by the looming public spending axe and laughed at by political commentators. But Mr Cameron is not giving up easily. Today, he tried to refloat the idea at a gathering of social entrepreneurs and other philanthrocapitalists, hosted fittingly by the Big Society Network.

Before Mr Cameron arrived the veteran social entrepreneur John Bird, founder of the Big Issue newspaper sold by homeless people, warmed up the crowd with jokes and even a song and gave the Big Society a warm (and rare) endorsement. Then it was the main act. PM Cameron, jacket off, giving a robust defence of his big idea, dismissing the notion that it is all merely a cover for cuts, and then taking questions from the audience. Yes, he really does believe that the Big Society is going to make Britain a better place.

There is still a gaping hole in his Big Society vision, however. Asked about the role he has in mind for business, Mr Cameron endorsed the idea of companies ‘doing well by doing good’ but offered no vision or plan about how to ensure that this will happen. As we argue in the newly-released UK edition of our book ‘The Road From Ruin’, he needs to harness the tools of philanthrocapitalism if his project is to succeed.

A glimmer of hope comes from the new Big Society Bank (a scheme conceived by the Social Investment Task Force, formed by his predecessor Gordon Brown and chaired by Sir Ronald Cohen, who we are delighted to see has now been brought into the Big Society tent as advisor to the bank), which will launch with £100 million siezed from ‘dormant’ bank accounts and £200 million of capital lent by the banks as part of the ‘Project Merlin’ peace deal between government and the City. If this “Dave-geld” money is simply used to buy off charity sector critics and create some PR opportunities then it will be a missed opportunity. As we argue in The Times (paywall, sorry), the big prize will be to use this new bank to leverage real sums of money for social investment, not as a way to bash the City but as a real partnership.

Mr Cameron’s other big problem is that he is still alarmingly vague about what success for the Big Society would look like. When pressed on this today he talked about more volunteering, more mutual societies, and money lent by the Big Society Bank. These may be useful intermediate targets but they are still just inputs. He needs to start talking about better educational performance, improved health, reduced crime and so on – and setting targets by which his government’s claims to be creating a Big Society can be judged.

Given that Mr Cameron heads a party whose iconic recent leader famously claimed that there is “no such thing as society”, we should perhaps be grateful that unlike Mrs Thatcher he both believes in society and wants it to be big. But, for most people, that would be just a statement of the obvious. Now we need some meaningful details on where Mr Cameron actually wants to lead us, a roadmap and a timetable.