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What’s the big idea?

If you’re not quite sure what the Prime Minister means when he talks about the big society, you’re not alone.

8 January 2011

12:00 AM

8 January 2011

12:00 AM

The Big Society: The Anatomy of the New Politics Jesse Norman

University of Buckingham Press, pp.243, 10

If you’re not quite sure what the Prime Minister means when he talks about the big society, you’re not alone.

If you’re not quite sure what the Prime Minister means when he talks about the big society, you’re not alone. Before the election, a poll found that most people hadn’t heard of it and only very few who had knew what on earth it meant. Even some Tories deride it as ‘BS’, though Jesse Norman is not one of them.

A former banker and academic, Norman was elected MP for South Herefordshire this year. And, as the author of two serious texts on the future of conservatism, he’s well-placed to clarify what this tricky big society notion is all about.

The story begins at David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture, delivered last year. This was an event, Norman argues, as seismic as Blair’s Clause 4 moment. Cameron said ‘there is such a thing as a society’, that economists’ peculiar ideas that humans always act rationally and in their own interest were flawed and that bureaucracy too often frustrates people who try to help their communities. To be effective, government has to be smarter and much more circumspect about the areas of our lives in which it interferes.


So, in the big society, the idea that the Treasury always knows best is out. Local councils are encouraged to run their own affairs. Mechanisms like ‘targets and incentives’ which were designed to improve policing and schooling centralise power and undermine professionals. In their place local, elected police chiefs and ‘free schools’ run by parents and communities must rise up. For all this to work, government must become more transparent. Jesse Norman has written before about the importance of what might be called ‘intermediary institutions’ — charities, trusts, mutual societies and co-operatives. He argues that it’s these organisations that really fix society’s problems and that for too long government has replaced and undermined them.

Of course, when Tories talk about co-operatives, the Left are right to get nervous: some of these ideas emerge from deep in Labour’s history. But Norman convincingly argues that they have been ignored by Labour’s leadership because for years that leadership subscribed to Fabianism.

Unlike Fabians, the big society’s adherents don’t attempt to get the state to solve everyone’s problems. Instead they want people to solve their problems together. Raising his hat in the direction of his coalition partners, he says this approach owes something to ‘Old Whiggery’ and that’s just the start of Norman’s lengthy excavation of intellectual history. His book includes analysis of the political thought of Aristotle, Hobbes, Oakeshott and Sen. Even Isaac Newton makes an appearance.

One chapter — on economics, of all things — begins with an analysis of Auden’s response to Homer in ‘The Shield of Achilles’. The author does not wear his learning lightly. But he does cut down the sloppy political assumptions offered by a decade of Labour policy-makers and not a few of the coalition’s own truckling courtiers. And, ultimately, Norman offers not just the odd policy ‘solution’ to his leader but something more fundamental, an analysis from first principles of the purpose of the modern state. No mean feat.

The author acknowledges that he doesn’t hold the monopoly on what the big society is. The ‘red Tory’, Phillip Blond, is another ‘Tory philosopher’ (what a contradiction that is) whom Cameron has called on to flesh all this out. Blond might place greater emphasis on the restoration of ‘virtue’ in politics and more state intervention in the poorest sections of society than Norman and he’s certainly no Whig. And Steve Hilton, the Cameron adviser who has pushed the big society agenda from the outset (originally calling it ‘social responsibility’), might emphasise the role that private businesses can play more strongly than Norman does.

But this book sets out a framework in which they can all agree. At its heart is the observation that ‘lying beneath the surface of British society today is a vast amount of latent and untapped potential energy’. I hope that’s right, but if people are to be persuaded to take a more active role in their society, they must be inspired, and that political problem — how to communicate the ‘big society’ to a suspicious electorate — remains. As one member of the government asked last month:

What actually is the big society, let alone is it good or not? Exactly how big is it now or is it going to be? Is it, in fact, Ann Widdecombe?

Jesse Norman may make no reference to the fleckerling, high-kicking former prisons minister here but he has written a tune his whole party can dance to.


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