The Big Society is the Conservative Party’s flagship policy, designed to ‘fix Britain’s broken society’. The aim is to roll back ‘big government’ and ‘empower’ and ‘activate’ citizens and local communities to solve problems for themselves, and even run local amenities. Through the Big Society, public services are to be delivered ‘cheaper … while bringing communities together’, while the state itself assumes ‘a new role as an agitator for social renewal’.
Crucial to the Big Society agenda is the role of the voluntary and community sector. According to a source close to Cameron during its re-launch in February this year, ‘the Big Society is about personal morals, in terms of charities and volunteering’. Amongst its proposals are to train up to 5,000 community organisers to inspire and encourage people to volunteer and get involved in a wide range of community activities, and to create a National Citizen Service for 16 year olds to ‘make a difference in their community’. But two years on – and, in particular, post the August riots – where is the Big Society agenda now? And what is the role of the charity sector?
Does the Big Society represent a challenge to ‘big government’ and freeing people from an overweening state; or rather a new rationale for state-led activity into local communities and family life? Is it, as a recent Leeds-based report states, a ‘real opportunity … for the voluntary and community sector to take a lead in developing creative solution to local needs’? Or does it risk compromising their independence, their purpose, and very spirit of voluntarism itself? And can and should charities the voluntary sector even be running public services at a time of public spending cuts?
Post the August riots, the Big Society rhetoric of empowerment and solidarity seems especially appealing. But what does it mean and who will it really empower: citizens and communities, or ‘platoons’ of government ‘volunteers’ who will decide what’s in their interests? The clean-up campaigns that emerged in the aftermath seemed to suggest that the decline of community was overstated. But did the riots also bring into doubt the notion that people need official support and volunteering schemes to get involved in the Big Society? Or did the response of so-called vigilantes defending their neighbourhoods suggest that we’re not to be trusted after all?