Bringing back the big society
I think we've all lost count of how many times David Cameron has 'relaunched' his big society initiative. Today he was at it again, attempting to reinvigorate the idea with the announcment of a £600m fund designed to help grassroots projects get off the ground.
The prime minister said: "Big Society Capital is going to encourage charities and social enterprises to prove their business models – and then replicate them. Once they've proved that success in one area they'll be able – just as a business can – to seek investment for expansion into the wider region and into the country. This is a self-sustaining, independent market that's going to help build the big society."
Although the big society is an idea that has been strongly identified with David Cameron, it has its roots in the work of another Conservative minister. In 1994, David Willetts published a paper entitled 'Civic Conservatism', in which he set his party the task of “designing institutions and arrangements that encourage our natural reciprocal altruism”. In many ways, Willetts set out Cameron’s flagship idea over a decade before the latter even became leader of his party.
I've got an interview with Willetts in the current issue of the magazine, and in it I asked him whether it bothered him that an idea he had over a decade ago is now so closely associated with someone else. Here's the relevant extract from the interview:
He considers for a long moment, then says: “What does frustrate me is that, in the long years of opposition, it took a long time for the Conservative Party to get to grips with some of this stuff. I think we have now. If you look at the social action projects that the members of the new intake have done, their commitment to their constituencies, their understanding of the importance of the voluntary sector, we’ve made great progress. In politics, you have to be patient.” All the evidence suggests that Willetts is going to have to continue to be patient; there is no guarantee at this stage that his party will win a majority at the next general election, or that, even if it does, his highly intellectual approach to his brief will have delivered enough substantive change to justify his promotion ahead of others.