The Big Society: A Realistic Objective or a Political Myth?

Table of contents

Chapter 1

Socio-political background

The connection between civil society and the state reflects the changing nature of the public – private interaction and poses questions about the role of government in advanced capitalist societies. The constantly changing dynamics of the public-private coexistence is a direct response to the processes of globalization and modernization, which have placed the state in an entirely different realm, and have challenged its parameters as a political entity.

On the international level, what Samuel Huntington called “the third wave of democratization” (1991) has seen the globalization of world politics, and according to some, the undermined capacity of the state (Cerny, 1990; Scholte, 2006; Rosenau 1990). The third wave of democratization in the world has also been marked by the rise of the global civil society and the increasing power of non-governmental organizations and associations (Bull, 1977).

On the domestic level, a similar process can be traced. Throughout the last several decades, the traditional political ubiquity of the state has been challenged, with the rise of civil society and associational democracy (Baccaro, 2002). The state no longer exists in its exhausted and narrow confinement as a ‘provider’ of public services. Its functions, theorists like Baccaro argue, have been divulged to the local communities and voluntary associations, which have become the new pillar not only of public opinion, but also for public advocacy in legislature. Civil society challenges the modern state to some extent, but its functions do not aim to undermine its capabilities. As this dissertation will argue, they seek to reinforce them.

1.2 Research aims

This dissertation will examine the feasibility and sustainability of the Big Society Project as a model of political governance. In order to do this, the author will focus on the connection between the private and the public in the contemporary state, and will assess the resuscitating power of civil society in the public sector. It will illustrate the theoretical connection between the two through the critical analysis of a rather contemporary juxtaposition between civil society and the state, proposed by the Conservative Party in 2010. Specific aspects will cover the shift of state powers from the public to the private realm.

1.3 Historical trends before the Big Society

Although the Big Society was represented as a strategy by the Conservative Party, its ideological tenets can be found in earlier observations, related to the rise of an independent civil state and community participation.

Attempts to accommodate civil society and the state in the same political equation have started at the turn of the last century, with a deep reconsideration of the main characteristics of advanced capitalist societies and the role of the state. A leading Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci proposes a classic division between the state and non-state elements of governance in his Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971). He views civil society as an organic entity, which exists beyond the realm of the government. The controversy in his theoretical model of governance comes from the exaggerated view that the civil society can exist as a self-regulatory body in a stateless world. A more moderate view on the connection between civil society and the state is proposed by sociologist Max Weber. In his Politics of the Civil Society Weber discusses the idea of public citizenship and its role in mass democracy. He discusses civil society not as an alternative, but as a cultivating force, necessary for the existence of the modern state (Weber, 2004). The Weberian approach to understanding civil society suggests that the connection between the public and private is not necessarily exclusionary, as suggested by the Marxists. In his 1962 Capitalism and Political Freedom, economist Milton Friedman discusses economic neo-liberalism as an important prerequisite for political freedom of the citizens. He emphasizes the central role of the government as a provider of legislature, which would enforce property rights and civil institutions. Friedman’s economic philosophy of government intervention suggests a model of public-private form of governance. In an extensive study on social movements called Beyond Left and Right, Anthony Giddens goes even further and suggests that social movements are stronger advocates for change than political parties are (Giddens, 1994). Last but not least, in his Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital (1995) Robert Putnam uses the decline of voluntary associations and civic engagement to explain the social decay of the American community. As symptoms of social apathy, he points out the political disengagement of the American public and its growing distrust to the government (Putnam, 1995). The ideological tenet of the Big Society can also be related to what Lucio Baccaro calls associational democracy (2002). He describes associational democracy as the intersection between civil society and the state. Baccaro’s vision of decentralization and empowerment of the local communities can be used to fit the Big Society into a wider theoretical realm. Baccaro offers a model of public-private governance, which reveals elements of societal conservatism behind the Big Society’s main goal – the shift of regulatory powers from the government bureaucrats into the hands of the people.

It is not difficult to notice a historical trend on the changing divisions between civil society and the state. Last several decades have witnessed a major shift towards empowerment of the private sector, and transfer of powers and regulatory functions in the hands civil society organizations. This trend does not necessarily mean however that the state as a provider of services and individual well-being is in decline. On the contrary, this historic tendency suggests that civil society is a pillar, not a threat to the state and can act as a channel for reform in the public sector. The next section will examine its contemporary manifestations as a policy, proposed by David Cameron and the Conservative Party in 2010.

1.4. What is the Big Society

In July 2010 in Liverpool, after the general elections, David Cameron re-launched the Big Society Programme, which was to become part of the political platform of the new coalition government. The programme had five main tenets: localism and more power for the communities; volunteerism; transfer of power from central to local government; support of cooperatives, charities, and social enterprises; transparency of government legislation (Cameron, 2010). Under the Big Society programme, initiatives such as the Big Society Bank and the National Citizen Service (NCS) were established.

The idea behind the Big Society is to attribute more responsibilities to the citizens as key participants in the policy-making process. According to David Cameron, its main purpose was to propose a ground up approach of governance, where power and ideas will derive from the people (Cameron, 2010). The Conservative Party proposed the Big Society Project as the engine of public sector reform.

The government indicated that the Big Society would empower local communities in their attempts to solve problems in their own neighborhood, and to voice their opinions.

1.4.1 Ideology

The ideology behind the Big Society is an unconventional type of conservatism. It views successful governance as a hybrid between the private and the public sectors, and citizens’ initiative as a prerequisite for associational democracy. The idea behind the Big Society is very often confused with classic Marxism, which offers an extreme and rather utopian view of civic associations as a necessary replacement of the state. The rise of a big society however, does not imply the demise of the state. The Big Society can be interpreted as a politically sensible response to the economic recession, poverty, and social breakdown. It has lead to Cameron’s recognition of the role of the public sector and volunteerism as antidotes of a disintegrating society (Bochel & Defty, 2010; Evans, 2011; Smith, 2010). The ideas of the Big Society diverge from the stance of some of David Cameron’s predecessors such as Margaret Thatcher, because it recognizes the role of non-state associations as advocates for political change and providers for the citizens. At the same time, it does not use the societal factor as an umbrella for a smaller government (Norman, 2011; Smith, 2010). Therefore, the ideology behind the Big Society can be described as societal conservatism. Societal should not be confused with social (or socialist), because the Big Society project does not exclude privatization within the welfare sector and public sector cuts.

1.4.2 Responses

The Big Society project has provoked mixed responses. Its supporters claim that the idea to unite the public and the private sector as providers for the citizens is revolutionary and democratically advanced. Liberals tend to view this idea as innovative, because it emphasizes the role of the citizens in shaping modern day policy.

The main criticisms of the Big Society are that is has been used to justify the radical budget cuts in the public and social sectors, and is too utopian to be implemented in practice. A popular criticism points to the lack of citizens’ incentive and appropriate skills, which are prerequisites for a fulfilling civic participation (Grint & Holt, 2011; Hasan, 2010).

1.4.3 Local empowerment and decentralization

Localism and decentralization have been key tenets on the Big society agenda. Some of the proposals, designed to empower local authorities and citizens include introducing directly elected mayors and police commissioners; devolving the financial powers of local government; increasing transparency and letting local citizens choose the organisational structure of their local council (Inside Government, 2011).

The ideology behind local empowerment and decentralization is akin to the neo-liberal political thought. The transformation of local empowerment into an actual policy came to life in March 2011, when the Localism Bill was passed by the House of Commons despite controversies over social housing (Hodge, 2011). Some of the prescriptions of the Localism Bill have already been put into practice. Ministers have started giving councils greater financial freedom, by devolving ?7 billion more of government funding. They have removed burdens and bureaucratic controls so that they local governments can prioritize budgets to support public services in ways, which meet the priorities of local people and communities (Communities & Local Government, 2011).

This is one way to enhance reform in the public sector, as it will give more incentive for local governments to improve their services, and they will be transformed from recipients of policy, into actual initiators of one.

1.4.4 Volunteerism

Another important tenet of the Big Society Project is the idea of volunteerism and civic associations. The new government has encouraged voluntary organizations and social enterprises, as another way to reform the public sector. Two of the key programmes, related to Big Society volunteerism are the National Citizens Service (NCS) and Community Organizers. These two programmes target thousands of volunteers of all age groups and different social backgrounds nationwide, and their participation in community projects in 2011 and 2012 (Cabinet Office, 2011).

The ideology behind volunterrism relates to associational democracy, which holds that democratization does not necessarily come from the state, but also from the citizenry, with its accumulated incentives and skills. As far as policy is concerned, both NCS and Community Organizers already exist as programmes. Whether efficacy has been achieved will be discussed in detail in the following chapters.

In general, the Big Society is an opportunity for citizens to participate in the actual process of policy-making and to provide first-hand feedback to those responsible for legislation. The most important component of the Big Society is the financial autonomy of the local councils, because it will play important part in the allocation of budgets. Local councils know the needs of their residents better than the national government (Smith, 2010; Norman, 2011). Their financial plans will be much more realistic and sustainable, targeting the public sectors policies, which have the biggest demand and have been starved for resources in the past. Financial decentralization can bring not only better quality of public sector services, but also more realistic response to the actual needs of the local residents.

1.5 Summary

This chapter has traced the historical and policy features of the idea of the Big Society, and has examined some of its basic tenets. The remaining chapters will examine in detail the feasibility of the Big Society as a form of political governance, which can make local communities more involved in the policy-making process.


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