The Telegraph: Can David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ make a comeback?

The Big Society was once the centrepiece of David Cameron’s ideological ambitions. Criticised as a cover for government cuts, it represented a recasting of the relationship between citizens and the state.

Last week, the Prime Minister went further, claiming that “Jesus invented the Big Society” and that the government was continuing his work. Cameron was lampooned for invoking the Messiah, but the re-emergence of what was thought to be a dead slogan is a reminder of how the Big Society was quietly buried beneath the harsh realities of governing in a recession.

At the start of the Parliament there was a flurry of activity around the often poorly-defined policy. Coalition announcements invoked the language of the Big Society, and the term flew around the House of Commons, with Conservative MPs offering up fluff questions at PMQs about examples of the “Big Society at work” in their constituencies.

Two months after taking power, Cameron set out his “Big Society Agenda” and followed it up with cold, hard cash. In February 2011, Cameron pledged £200 million for a “Big Society” bank, which was launched the following year in April 2012 with an extra £400 million of funding raided from dormant bank accounts.

But that “strong, concerted government action”, which Cameron had admitted would be necessary to bring about the Big Society, was accompanied by a growing silence about the policy.

“I think [the government] took a conscious decision to not talk about it,” says Cameron’s former advisor and speechwriter, Danny Kruger, who last year argued his former boss wasn’t doing enough to champion the idea.

“They were stung by the criticism and the scorn that the phrase attracted,” he adds.

The phrase practically disappeared from government announcements and Parliament, too, became tired of the phrase, with the words “Big Society” vanishing from the House of Commons after its initial popularity in the first year of the Coalition – the fact there were few Big Society initiatives to discuss no doubt contributed.

Birthed ahead of the 2010 election, the Big Society represented Cameron’s belief that government “inhibited” the reduction of poverty and that communities could do more if government got out of the way. Less than three years later, Britain’s biggest charities had declared the idea dead.

“The reality many charities now face is crippling spending cuts,” said Sir Stephen Bubb, head of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, in a letter to The Times in January 2013. By this point the Big Society was absent from the government’s vernacular and, according to the charitable sector, missing on the ground also.

Online, too, the idea had withered, with Google searches for the phrase diminishing after the first year of the Coalition.

But although the battle has been long lost, the Big Society continues to pop up, primarily in faith contexts, like Cameron’s Christmas message last year. To win the next election, Kruger argues, Cameron will need to utilise the message of social change from the community more often.

“People don’t vote in gratitude, they want to vote for the future. Saying we fixed the economy isn’t enough of a message,” he says.

With the general election just over a year away, the question now is whether Cameron’s recent invocation of the Big Society was merely in remembrance of an idea that once defined his politics or the miraculous resurrection of a policy that was thought to be deceased.

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