Last May, the UK held a general election. If elections are manifestations of the popular will at a given moment in time, then the will of the British people proved to be divided: no one party gained a majority and hence was able to rule alone, and a coalition of two or more parties became necessary. Two possible combinations recommended themselves. First, a "rainbow coalition" of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the various smaller left-wing separatist parties (we call them "nationalists", but they're not nationalist like Mussolini, more nationalist like Catalans). The second was a combination of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, which seemed to many of the supporters of both paties like an unholy alliance they wouldn't entertain in their darkest nightmares. The reason why it worked out is called "the Big Society".
Of the many faultlines in British politics, one is the division between centralism and localism. Although every party and politician has conflicting tendencies, the Labour Party has broadly being the party of centralism: its initial mission was to expand the role of the state in helping the working-class, transferring wealth into poorer communities and establishing a series of legal obligations that the central ("welfare") state had towards every citizen. Its historic mission was to capture the state for the benefit of the underprivileged, and prevent any rolling back of the rights of the masses through the provision of these legal guarantees. Such things could not be left to the whim of philanthropists, political winds, or local government (what if they elect Tories?) This is one strand of our political tradition, and a great deal of good it has done us too.
The other strand is localism and the drive to decentralize. According to this school of thought, central government is not as well equipped to understand local needs as it thinks it is, and nor is it nimble enough to respond to local wishes. Localists argue that the citizen has for too long being the object of the state rather than the driver of it: that the central government machinery is so large and indiscriminate that it almost suffocates people with kindness, imposing a uniform standard which reduces their capacity to make choices about the way communities are run and public services are delivered. They want more powers for local government and more democratic control over the delivery of state services, a move which seems to centralists to threaten the guarantee of uniform rights for all. This is the agenda that the Tories and the Lib Dems came together on when they coalesced.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, calls this agenda "the Big Society", a phrase that has met with much derision. The aim, it seems, was to escape the legacy of the Thatcherite claim that there is "no such thing as society", and to instead argue that "there is such a thing as society, and it's not the same as the state". The goal of the Big Society is to empower individuals and communities (i.e. society) through an agenda of localism, and in turn to reduce the power of the central state. The phrase has met with much derision and incomprehension, even though it seems much more descriptive than LBJ's "Great Society" or the "New Politics" announced with nauseating regularity by every progressive leader since John F. Kennedy. Even many seasoned observers of British politics seem hard-pressed to visualize what, in concrete terms, the Big Society means. But they're not looking hard enough.
The essence of the Big Society is the passage of power away from the state. Unfortunately, it has become conflated with the government's policy of fiscal austerity and the cutting of budgets, because one part of the Big Society calls for the strengthening of voluntary groups and charities and their increased role in British society. This, say critics, is just a cover for the state to stop providing for the welfare of the people with the excuse that philanthropists will step into the breach. There is no doubt that the two agendas are complementary, but an agenda of localism long predates plans for fiscal austerity; the agenda has always appealed to Liberal Democrats, whose strength is in local government and so naturally wanted more power for town and county councils. Furthermore, the voluntary sector is only a small part of what the Big Society is about.
This can be seen by a brief look at three areas of government policy: health, policing, and local government. Taking policing first, the government plans to create U.S.-style elected police commissioners who will be able to set priorities for local police forces rather than having the forces work to meet targets set by central government. The hope is that this will foster not only more local accountability but also stimulate debates at a local level which until now have seemed superfluous: local policing priorities are not high on the political agenda, as the means of influencing them is so remote. The danger of politicizing policing is the most salient one here.
The second area is in health, where the plans are proving perhaps the most controversial. The government plans to dismantle much of the central apparatus for setting priorities in the health service and allowing healthcare providers - doctors - to form their own consortia to make decisions about how they run their own particular part of the health service. Citizens will then exercise a positive choice over which consortia to attend, rather than being ascribed a particular practice to attend based on geography as they are at the moment. This not only empowers the citizen but also creates pressure for improvement within the health service; other parts of the functions of the central health apparatus will be transferred to local councils, who will then be democratically accountable for them to the local electorate.
And local government is, in a way, the mechanism on which the Big Society hinges. The government is empowering local councils to make choices like never before (even if, for the time being, they have to make them with fewer resources due to the austerity programme), while also legislating for an unprecedented degree of transparency in the way that local councils spend their money. Again, the aim is to stimulate debate at a local level about local priorities in an attempt to fight the apathy with which most citizens currently view them, an apathy that the government would argue is based in part on a feeling of a lack of empowerment. So councils are being given more freedom over how they spend their money and being ordered to tell local taxpayers more about it. Important decisions can hence be made at a local level.
It may become boring for me to continue (if it hasn't already), but once one acquires the habit of mind of viewing the current government's policy through this prism, one understands it much better. The nub of the whole project is whether citizens can be trusted to become engaged with these issues and to make good choices about them at a local level, something opponents of many of the government's plans often deny they can. It is possible that Britain's political culture has become too stifled by centrism and the feeling of entitlement, that the state owes one everything and can be trusted to provide it without a greater degree of democratic engagement. And, as always, the question is one of balance, not a complete surrender to either centralism or localism. Nevertheless, the Big Society is a big step towards the latter, and the government's fortunes will largely depend on it.