There was an echo of an almost forgotten political slogan at the final Prime Minister’s Questions of 2012. Ed Miliband raised the question of food banks (6 minutes into the video above). David Cameron responded, rather unsuccessfully, by recognising ‘volunteers and people who work hard in our communities, part of what I call the big society. It is a good time of year to thank our volunteers’, he said. Although few could disagree, the cheer was for the Leader of the Opposition when he came back with: ‘I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain.’
This exchange caught my attention for its rarity. It felt like a blast from the past. There was a time when it seemed David Cameron couldn’t answer any question without some mention of the ‘big society’. Not so lately. Today we have an open letter to the Prime Minister from Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of ACEVO, saying that movement towards charities playing a bigger role in the delivery of public services has been ‘glacially slow’ and that the big society agenda now appears to be ‘going nowhere’.
I’ve written on this blog before and in more depth about the big society’s absence from government policy. But I was prompted to return to the issue again lately, when writing a book review for the academic journal Cultural and Social History. The book I was reviewing was called ‘The Big Society Debate: A New Agenda for Social Welfare?’, edited by the Cambridge historian Simon Szreter and the LSE expert on international civil society Armine Ishkanian. I won’t repeat my review here, nor that of my earlier review of Hilton and McKay’s book on the same topic. Both are good if rather different books, but both leave me with a nagging worry: have they missed the window?
The time it takes for an academic book to be planned, win a contract, be written an edited, submitted and peer-reviewed, revised and finally published is a real issue. It means we must think carefully about whether a book is the right format for responding to current or topical debates. The weight of the material that can be included in an edited volume is appealing, but that does not mean it is necessarily the appropriate medium.
Talking about the big society now sounds like an echo. When he was in opposition, there was always the chance that the rhetoric might lead to something genuinely new. That a cash-strapped government might want to draw upon mutualist traditions to seize the mantel of public sector reform, and might find innovative ways to encourage voluntary action as part of the government phase of the mission to detoxify the Tory brand. Now we know that under Cameron the reform agenda is facing a rather different direction, while the Liberal Democrats have no interest in using this as a way to rein in their Coalition partners. The big society agenda is simply not a major feature of David Cameron’s government. Those academics who have invested time in such projects can only hope the Prime Minister revives this particular soundbite in the run-up to the next election.
However, a little perspective here. The frustration of academics is nothing compared to that felt today by those working in the voluntary sector.