Jonathan Freedland has some nice things to say about the Big Society (still a terrible name, of course) so it's only fair to say some nice things about his column too: there's some good stuff in it and Freedland is right that the ideas behind the notion aren't owned by any one political party. Indeed, there are strains in Toryism, Liberalism and the Labour movement that can each claim some measure of ownership.
And Freedland is also correct to argue that a government intent on pruning public expenditure might be easily accused of wanting to replace public services with cheaper alternatives without any regard to how those replacement services might actually function. (The converse is also true: a government happy to increase public spending might spend a great deal of time shouting about inputs while keeping mouse quiet about outputs. Perish the thought!). And he's also right that sometimes, as with welfare and education reform, the coalition's ideas might actually need, at least in the short-term, more not less money.
But there are problems too. For instance:
How many people have you met who, when asked what they think about local control of schools, praise the LEAs? When people talk about schools reform and accountability the entire idea is that they be accountable to parents, pupils and communities, not officials.“
The brief record of the coalition reveals enough contradictions to undermine one's confidence. A core tenet of the big society, at least as Cameron explains it, is a preference for the local over the central: the word "local" appeared 19 times in his Monday speech. And yet his education policy seems predicated on a quiet loathing for local education authorities, taking schools that are currently under the wing of an LEA and turning them into academies answerable to central government or else creating "free" schools, also out of the LEA's reach.
Then there's this:
Well, indeed! Which is why there's the need to remove power from government departments and, in a good many cases, local councils too. It's precisely because, as Freedman acknowledges, the interests of bureaucrats are not the same as those of consumers and, for that matter, often diametrically opposed to the voters, that these reforms are useful in the first place.“
Cameron lauds the work of voluntary groups and social enterprises who do, as he rightly says, inspiring work. Yet talk to those groups and many now fear for their existence. They know that government departments or local councils desperate to save money will look first to contracts with third sector providers like them: how much easier to terminate a contract with, or cut a grant to, an outside body than to lay off your own staff?
Well, again, yes. Who would object to universities - or the public schools? - sponsoring schools? Indeed, that kind of diversity of provision - recognising that choice dictated by central government is not likely to be much choice at all - is, again, precisely the point.“
Labour can also notice the big gap in Cameron's big society. His idea rests on the notion that the only obstacle in people's way is the state. But what's good for the public sector state is surely good for the private sector gander. Why not nurture a shift in power away from the banks and to local credit unions? If we're going to have academies, why not encourage a local university to be the sponsor, rather than big business?
Freedland recognises this. Which, I assume, is why he ends his column by all-but admitting that Cameron is right: [T]here's a good idea in there, screaming to get out. Labour should grab it – and claim it as its own.
One contradiction he does not address - and nor really do the Tories - is that a real localist agenda (which, in the end, is what the Big Society really is) may well never be complete or deliver as much as it could while local councils receive 85% of their funding from central government. That, plus bureaucratic resistance and a dismal pessimism, is what is most likely to ruin Cameron's ambitions. Changing this remains, however, a revolution too far. At least for now.