For those who don’t follow British politics, the ‘Big Society’ was supposed to be David Cameron’s vision for running the country. It started out as an attempt to distance the Conservatives from Margaret Thatcher’s infamous remark, ‘There’s no such thing as society.’ By 2013, when I wrote this, it had all but vanished from view. This piece was written for Closer, a one-off newspaper of ideas for an independent Scotland.
Whatever became of the Big Society? It still gets mentioned, sometimes, as a joke: its humourless punchline, the lengthening queues at volunteer-run food banks. At Westminster, the Tories forgot their flirtation with social capital, localism, community organising and got down to the business of cutting, privatising, outsourcing, fracking and inflating a new housing bubble. So David Cameron’s one-time big idea gets written off as a warm fuzzy makeover for the Thatcherite desire to shrink the state, the kind of neoliberalism from which an independent Scotland might hope to liberate itself. Yet this obituary misses what is worst about the mess that was the Big Society. The Tories did not simply invent a half-baked cover story, they took other people’s ideas for a joyride, then smashed them into the dead end of their own ideology. The challenge now is to salvage what is worth saving of those ideas from the wreckage.
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Image: Front cover of Closer, designed by Kieran McCann.