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Language and the Big Society

City Journal
David Cameron’s imperfectly articulated vision for Britain There is no such thing as society.”

In the autumn of 1987, in the ninth year of her long premiership, Margaret Thatcher gave an interview to Women’s Own, a magazine that usually featured recipes and knitting patterns.

It was an unlikely place to find a statement of political doctrine, but “there is no such thing as society” stands out, nearly a quarter-century later, as one of Thatcher’s most famous assertions—and one of her most misrepresented. Understanding what she meant, and what people thought she meant, is critical to the future of the Right in Britain.

Crudely, Thatcher was taken to mean: you’re on your own, there is nobody but you, and you are all that matters. Of course, she meant nothing of the kind. Immediately after the famous words about society came these words, almost never quoted: “There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us, by our own efforts, is prepared to turn round and help those less fortunate.” Thatcher, then, was suggesting less that society didn’t exist than that there wasn’t an entity that existed separate from our efforts as individuals. We have a duty to look after ourselves and our families first, and then to turn outward and tend to the less fortunate. The implication, too, was that it was wrong to say that your problem was somehow the fault of an amorphous “society” and thus that it was the government’s job to put it right. Thatcher wanted us to rely on one another as a community.

But both Thatcher and her party were widely understood not to care about the common good. The myth became a serious political impediment to the Tories. In polls, policies that had obtained support when advanced without a party label would lose it once they were labeled Conservative. In the years that followed the Women’s Own article, Tory leaders made repeated efforts to correct the popular impression of Thatcher’s words. These efforts proved a total flop.

Enter David Cameron. In the 2005 speech that won—snatched, really—Tory leadership from the favorite, David Davis, Cameron declared that the party had to confront its image problem head-on. It had to convince the British people that Conservatives were not narrow and greedy. Feebly protesting that the party was being misrepresented would solve nothing. And so the new Tory leader produced his own formulation of Thatcher’s statement: “There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state.” Until now, Tories had argued for reducing the size of government. They hadn’t talked much about how a stronger society might emerge from that reduction. Cameron changed this, promoting what he would soon call the “Big Society.”

Cameron’s idea has three broad strands. The first is decentralization—what an American might think of as states’ rights. In the postwar era, more and more government functions became centralized in London. Conservatives accelerated this process in the 1980s in response to left-wing local councils that taxed businesses and residents heavily to finance politically motivated projects—community centers, for instance—for activist groups. Local councillors complained that they had almost no freedom to determine policy in their own areas. The Big Society would change this, putting an end to “ring-fencing,” the practice in which councillors are told how their national-spending grants are to be used. Residents’ groups would get a formal say in area plans. And if a controversial measure still making its way through the legislature is adopted, police commissioners would face elections, rather than being appointed by local authorities.

The second strand, and probably the most important, is the promotion of independent community organizations. Britain is restructuring the way it provides public services, in order to allow participation from many more local groups. Charities and mutual associations of employees, for instance, will be encouraged to bid to become service providers. Parliament has passed legislation allowing the creation of “free schools”—a British version of American charter schools—set up by individuals or parents’ groups but retaining public funding. Hospitals and existing schools will gain more freedom in how they operate; their increased independence, it is hoped, will make them more effective. The government is also establishing a Big Society Bank, which will use abandoned bank deposits to fund social entrepreneurs’ initiatives addressing a range of social problems—poor school attendance, for example.

The final strand is self-help. This involves subtle changes to the relationship between the state and the individual, such as encouraging donations on tax forms; automatically enrolling workers in pension-saving programs unless they opt out; and prompting applicants for driver’s licenses to choose whether they want to be organ donors. Also contemplated are measures to strengthen marriage, perhaps with a special tax break.

Most of these initiatives are likely to prove successful, and they add up to a coherent program. If he sees them through, Cameron will have strengthened community in Britain, just as he promised. Politically, however, things are more difficult. To start with, the British government has run out of money. The central goal of the Cameron government is to reduce the budget deficit, an objective that, in some particulars, directly conflicts with the Big Society. Left-wing opponents, meanwhile, charge the opposite: that the Big Society is itself a money-saving exercise. More seriously, voluntary organizations, some of which have become overly dependent on public funding, have complained that the Big Society won’t work because local authorities are cutting their budgets.

These political obstacles are not insuperable. A more stubborn problem is that no one quite understands what the Big Society means. The rationale for each policy item may be clear, but people struggle with the overall vision; indeed, it has become commonplace in Britain to joke that the Big Society is meaningless. Cameron is devoted to the concept because he believes—as he argued at his party conference last year—that not all our relationships are transactions. But his view may not be shared by many in today’s Britain. The Conservatives won because British citizens began to believe that they were being duped—that law-abiding, decent citizens were contributing to society with no discernible effect. They came to see their tax dollars precisely as a transaction, one in which they weren’t getting a fair return. The Big Society, meanwhile, asks people to become more involved in duties traditionally performed by government without making obvious what the return will be.

The way out is fairly simple. Cameron must explain the Big Society as a way of improving services, making them more efficient and more personal. He should emphasize how it will broaden the pool of contributors, getting more people in civil society involved with the provision of services so that everyone will get more out. Such an argument is less high-minded, true, than Cameron’s previous explanations, but it may prove more politically effective.

Building a strong society that grows as the state retreats is the great conservative goal. David Cameron has a program that stands a chance of achieving it. What he needs now are the words that will make the vision clear.

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of the Times (of London).

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