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Jesse Norman has long been an advocate of The Big Society so much so he has written a book on it. Here he speaks with Govtoday Editor, Scott Buckler about what The Big Society means to him and what he thinks of Big Society Sceptics

What it means to me

There is an important a distinction to be drawn between the idea of the Big Society, and the Big Society as it is implemented in government policy.

The Big Society as an idea is about releasing social energy:  empowering the individual, and pushing more power down from the central state to local institutions such as hospitals, schools and local government.  If these institutions are given greater powers and freedoms then they gain both the ability and the responsibility to improve local communities, and so society in general.  All the more so if new institutions such as mutuals and co-operatives can be created as well in the private and public sectors.

Local government under successive Prime Ministers, but especially Messrs Blair and Brown, became a glorified branch of central government.  It was not always thus.  Lord Rosebery became the Chairman of the London County Council after he stepped down in 1886 as Foreign Secretary.  It is inconceivable that a former Foreign Secretary would seek a position in local government today.

But the real question is not just What can a local institution do within a community?  It is also What I can do to improve things myself?

Big Society Sceptics

Of course there are, and will likely always be, sceptics about the Big Society.  Part of the reason is purely political:  the Opposition will nearly always oppose new ideas on principle.  But some more independent-minded people oppose it because they think it is a mere cover for cuts; others because they think it is not new at all.  Neither claim is true:  the Conservative party was talking about these ideas for years before the financial crash of 2008; and the Big Society blends different ideas from across the political spectrum in a new way.

Interestingly, there seems to be a clear split on the political left as to how to respond to the idea of the Big Society.  Many people on the left oppose the government, but not the basic ideas of the Big Society, which they call the Good Society.

Liverpool Council famously pulled out of the Big Society political project earlier this year.  But their reasons were heavily down to their disappointment at the lack of funding, rather than a disbelief in the basic idea, since Liverpool has long been regarded as having strong communities--indeed they have been the backbone of the city.  So their decision could be an opportunity missed for Merseyside.

Future for The Big Society

The Big Society is not a short-term idea; on the contrary, it may take many years to develop fully.  In particular, its benefits may not be seen till after the next general election.  But understanding and implementing big ideas often takes time, so perhaps that is only to be expected.  This point and many others are developed in my book The Big Society, published by UBP and available in bookshops and on Amazon.

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Written by Jesse Norman MP   
Wednesday, 04 May 2011 14:20
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 May 2011 14:24


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