When the then leader of the opposition, David Cameron, launched The Big Society in his 2009 Hugo Young lecture it seemed like he (or, at least, his adviser Steve Hilton) had hit on a really good idea.
On the one hand, it was an attempt to slay the ghost of Margaret Thatcher’s much quoted assertion that there was ‘no such thing as society’, on the other it was a radical critique of the growth the state under New Labour.
Cameron key point was that while Blair and Brown had spent huge amounts of money, inequality had actually increased. His new improved Tories cared about growing poverty and inequality but offered a positive alternative to Labour’s approach of chucking just chucking money at the problem.
In his lecture Cameron rejected calls from ‘some on the centre-right’ for big spending cuts saying: “Our alternative to big government is the big society. But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.”
Disastrous civil society mutual, Your Square Mile, is one the most glaring examples of the extent to which a good idea has degenerated into a politically embarrassing breeding programme for white elephants.
In this particular case, a key part of the problem was that while The Big Society was a good idea, Your Square Mile was a phenomenally bad one. The plan to set up the ‘largest mutual in the UK’ to be (to the extent it is clear even now) a sort of umbrella group for active citizens who would set up groups in their local area (their square mile) and share ideas with and get support from other members the mutual. Membership of the mutual was/is £10 per year and benefits included insurance for volunteers and discounts on printing flyers for community events.
Essentially, Your Square Mile received £830,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to tell people that they could do some stuff in their local area if they wanted to, and that they could pay £10 to be part of a national group of other people who were also doing some stuff in their local area.
As Civil Society reports, Your Square Mile had a target of 3million members and has successful signed up 140, a shortfall of just 2,999,860. It has received an average lottery subsidy per member of £5,928.
Twivy’s contribution to the event was memorable because he was absolutely beside himself with anger at the Labour Party for mocking the idea of the Big Society in the 2010 general election campaign. He was unable to understand why people with differing political views couldn’t just come together and support what he regarded as an apolitical vision designed to make the UK a better place.
It’s difficult to know how much appetite there is in the UK for a national organisation with no connection to any particular political or religious belief system, local community, community of interest, type of activity or type of organisation, set up to support the abstract concept of doing good stuff in a general sense.
Twivy believes that Your Square Mile failed because the government didn’t support it enough, saying in relation to the membership figures: “The original forecast was made against a background of Your Square Mile being the government’s flagship community project for their Big Society vision. However, the government have not contributed a single pound to YSM, nor marketed its presence even on their Downing Street and Cabinet Office websites.”
My guess is that the opposite is the case. If I was planning to start a national network of people just doing good stuff, the unequivocal starting point would have to be that it wasn’t directly associated with one of the most controversial policy ideas of the government of the day.
Whichever party happens to be in power, many of the most passionate advocates of positive social action are people who don’t support that government and, while most will be happy to be involved in government funded activity, very few will be keen to be associated with a project whose success might reasonably be seen as a direct endorsement of that government’s ideological position.
This is one of the reasons (amongst several others) why the Big Society idea has gradually disappeared from the political discourse – it had reached the point where it was active barrier to the government’s attempts to work with ‘civil society’ to tackle the challenges it rightly identified.
But even without the Big Society label, those continuing attempts don’t currently about to the ‘strong and concerted government action’ promised in 2009. The key political question posed by the Big Society – ‘how do we meet growing social needs with decreasing resources?’ – remains as potent as ever.
Some small scale answers are emerging but the overall answer (if there is one) remains elusive although, thanks to £830,000 worth of Your Square Mile, we can now eliminate ‘offering community activists 20% printing to advertise their events’ from our enquiries.