it?s instructive to re-read the prime minister, David Cameron?s rhetoric on the i?big society?, back in the heady, early days before austerity had taken root: how eloquent and purposeful it seemed then; how empty and cynical now.
Stirring phrases were crafted for his speeches. He promised to oversee a shift ?from state power to people power?, and from ?unchecked individualism to national unity?. To citizens, he issued a call to arms: ?Society is not a spectator sport?. To charities, he promised a starring role in public service provision: ?Come in and provide a great service,? he urged.
Most glib and infuriating of all, Cameron gave us the phrase that has been adopted as an ironic coda to the now almost daily reports of widening social, economic and geographic inequality: ?There is no ?them? and ?us? ? there is us. We are all in this together.?
In 2010, big society seemed momentarily significant. Whitehall devoted huge resource to making policy big-society-compatible. Big society lobbies were pump-primed with cash (controversially it turned out); supposed gurus were enobled and promoted (but didn?t last long). There were conferences. Within months it became an Oxford dictionary word of the year (alongside ?double-dip? and ?Tea Party?).
Briefly, some actual big society participants may even have believed in it. Two years after he attended the invitation-only launch of big society at Downing Street, the community activist David Robinson concluded the PM?s vision was ?as much use as an ashtray on a motorbike?. His was not a minority view.
Now big society has disappeared entirely, like an embarrassing fashion item, worn once and pushed to the back of the cupboard. The PM last mentioned it at Christmas 2013. The phrase has been erased from official government discourse (although a monthly big society gong is still awarded by the PM?s office). On Twitter, the big society hashtag is used wryly to signify coalition hypocrisy and spending cuts.
In the circumstances, it almost seems superflous that the Civil Exchange thinktank has published its third and final audit of the big society; but it is worth reading as a guide to why and how the policy went so disastrously wrong, and a useful pointer to whether some of the sound principles underpinning it might be rescued in future.
More than anything, Civil Exchange demonstrates the coalition?s sheer contempt for civil society, right from the start: billions of pounds cut from charity grants (small, local charities losing most); restrictions against civil society?s right to challenge policy through the courts, and the voluntary sector?s ability to speak out on behalf of the people it works with.
The coalition?s saw charities narrowly as service ?contractors? the report notes. And yet its obsession with market-led reform of public services meant those charities that sought a role were frozen out by ?private sector quasi-monopolies?.
According to the audit, people feel less able to influence local decisions than they did in 2001, Britain, it notes, ?still has one of the most centralised political systems in the world.? It promised a rise in civic engagement, and yet volunteering levels are flatlining, and while cuts and austerity have fallen most harshly on deprived neighbourhoods, social action remains concentrated among the well-off, in the wealthiest places.
But ultimately, you sense big society failed for a very simple reason. Too many members and supporters of government did not understand or believe in ? and in some cases actively despised ? its overarching social vision.
© Georgina Rowlands, all rights reserved