Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Big Society is in Big Trouble

The Conservative Party used "the Big Society" as a central campaign theme. The idea is vague, but broadly that we should each ask much less from the state and more from each other. Civil society, not the state, should rise to the challenge of taking a more active part in policy and community relations. Oh, and we'll need a vibrant civil society to provide for free those public goods provided by the state because the state will be slashed. (Hence, many critics have understood the Big Society to be a euphemism for cuts in public spending.) (Note: don't get me started on the AHRC and Big Society.)

Never before has a governing party had so much trouble with its central idea. Everyone knew what the "Third Way" was under Labour. But not even the Tories seem to understand what the "Big Society" is in theory or, indeed, in practice. We have now seen about four so-called "Big Society tzars" come and go. Today, we learn further that many in the party still -- 18 months into government -- do not see how the "Big Society" might become implemented in practice. A central problem is its being too "vague" (or so we are told by party members).

All the more reason to question the decision by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to include several references to the "Big Society" in its five year delivery plan spelling out its strategic research funding priorities. The AHRC delivery plan is explicit: the plan will "contribute" to the "Big Society". It is curiosity that the AHRC would make this part of its delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities when the government can't find a tzar to lead on the idea and party members still don't see how it might work in practice.

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