There is such a thing as society," David Cameron declared in an implicit rebuke to Margaret Thatcher, "but it is not the same as the state." The Big Society has become a main leitmotif of the coalition, and it dovetails neatly with Liberal Democrat beliefs in decentralisation. But does it have any content - or is it, like Tony Blair's Third Way, just another exhibit from a well-stocked repertoire of political slogans?
Paul Kelly, the London School of Economics political theorist, has noticed that Blair's Third Way, while successful as an electoral strategy, failed as a strategy for government. The Big Society, by contrast, is a strategy for government that leaves the public cold. Admittedly, Jesse Norman, a former director of the think tank Policy Exchange and now Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, believes that the idea "is taking root in the public mind". But this just shows how remote some MPs have become from those they represent.
Still, The Big Society is the most coherent attempt so far to clothe the idea with substance. Norman makes large claims for the concept, which, he believes, "may amount to the most profound reshaping of the relationship between the individual and the state in modern times". The trouble is that his book contains much cloudy rhetoric, but little concrete analysis of what the Big Society actually entails.
Stripped of the rhetoric, the Big Society can be seen to comprise three fairly standard ideas. The first is decentralisation, which fits happily with the Liberal Democrat predilection for the dispersal of power; the second is an emphasis on voluntary action; and the third is the idea, first championed by John Major, of empowerment, competition and choice in the public sector, including, of course, higher education.
Norman claims that the Blair and Brown administrations destroyed the Big Society by disabling alternative centres of power so that the state became over-mighty. Yet Labour's constitutional reforms - devolution and the Human Rights Act - dispersed power, and the financial crash came about because Labour had deferred too much to alternative centres of power in the financial sector, not too little.
The ideas of the Big Society are open to the obvious objection that they offer little succour to the victims of the coalition's policy of retrenchment in public expenditure. The unemployed are unlikely to receive much help from local authorities or the Salvation Army; and it is unrealistic to expect volunteers to run local public libraries, a task for professionals rather than the untrained. In any case, economic retrenchment means that the hard-pressed will have less time than they once did to act as volunteers. The unemployed may have the time but not perhaps the inclination.
During the first half of the 20th century, it was the very inadequacies of provision by local authorities and volunteers that made for the growth of the state. Conservative governments, since Winston Churchill's in 1951, have sought to roll back the state, but public spending continues its seemingly inexorable rise. It has now become fashionable once again to decry the state, but, nevertheless, it is the state that we turn to when we find ourselves sick or unemployed.
Norman has no real answer to these obvious objections. Cynics will suggest that his aim is to provide a coat of whitewash for a policy of offloading public responsibilities on to local authorities whose revenue is being cut by a quarter during this Parliament, and a raggle-taggle army of untrained volunteers. Norman is a clever man, but it was George Orwell who warned that when Conservatives start to get clever it is time to feel for your watch and count your change.
The Big Society: The Anatomy of the New Politics
By Jesse Norman
University of Buckingham Press
156pp, £10.00 ISBN 9780956395207
Published 5 November 2010