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Retrieving The Big Society

Jason Edwards (Editor)
ISBN: 978-1-118-36878-7
196 pages
September 2012, Wiley-Blackwell
Retrieving The Big Society (1118368789) cover image


Retrieving the Big Society presents a collection of essays that challenge the view of Britain’s Big Society as a political gimmick and recognise it as an alternative to the central state in social and economic governance.
  • Offers an original and critical take on the idea of the Big Society
  • Attempts to make sense of the Big Society by placing in the context of the history of localism, mutualism, and voluntarism
  • Features contributions by experts on British politics and political theory
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Table of Contents

Notes on Contributors

Introduction: Retrieving the Big Society (JASON EDWARDS)

1. The Big Society in Question (MAURICE GLASMAN and JESSE NORMAN)

2. Red or Orange: The Big Society in the New Conservatism (PAUL KELLY)

3. Cameron, Culture and the Creative Class: The Big Society and the Post-Bureaucratic Age (ALAN FINLAYSON)

4. Big Societies, Little Platoons and the Problems with Pluralism (RODNEY BARKER)

5. Servile State or Discredited State: Some Historical Antecedents of Current ‘Big Society’ Debates (JOSE HARRIS)

6. Tocqueville and the Big Society (JEREMY JENNINGS)

7. The Big Society and Conservative Politics: Back to the Future or Forward to the Past? (ALAN WARE)

8. Freedom, Free Institutions and the Big Society (JASON EDWARDS)

9. From Burke to Burkha: Conservatism, Multiculturalism and the Big Society (RICHARD KELLY and ROBERT CROWCROFT)

10. The Big Society: Post-Bureaucratic Social Policy in the Twenty-first Century? (BENJAMIN WILLIAMS)

11. Free Schools: Big Society or Small Interests? (ADAM LEEDER and DEBORAH MABBETT)

12. The Big Society and the ‘Mutualisation’ of Public Services: A Critical Commentary (JOHNSTON BIRCHALL)

13. Beginning the Big Society in the Early Years (LOUISE BAMFIELD)


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Author Information

Jason Edwards is Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr. Edwards is also Director of the B.A. Programme in Politics and Government, Co-Director of Birkbeck Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, and has written widely on the history of political thought, contemporary political theory, and British politics.
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“It is well worth a read.”  (The Journal of Social Policy, 1 October 2013)

One of the problems associated with the introduction of the idea of ‘Big Society’ was its perceived lack of ideological underpinning. In many ways, this book of essays seeks to redress and explain this omission. But it is more than this. Many of the contributions are seeking to make sense of what might be described as ‘new conservatism’, sometimes called ‘Cameronism’, placing it in its ideological, social and cultural context. It is, therefore, an excellent addition to the debate about the coherence of modern conservatism.
Neil McNaughton, Principal Examiner, A Level Government and Politics. Former editor, Talking Politics.

When I first heard of this book, I must confess my initial thought was that it was appearing a touch too late. Along with so many people, not least on the Tory right-wing, I was surprised when the 2010 Conservative manifesto embodied the Big Society concept at its heart. Since then, the Big Society’s own heartbeat has been almost undetectable. His launch of the idea at my own university, 11th July, supported by Phil Redmond, has not seen it acclaimed by his own party or anyone much else. Has it all been a waste of time?  Even this book’s editor admits in his introduction that ‘for some it is already looking like a decidedly exhausted project’.

Having read a fair bit of the book my feeling is that Cameron was prescient in first launching such a radical idea in his 2009 Hugo Young lecture but then premature, if not a little foolhardy, in building his manifesto around it. His party, after all, is called the Conservatives and its difficulties in digesting this call for more participation and voluntary activism is kind of understandable. Some people in the Labour Party, by the same token, were a tad peeved that items of what they have regarded as their own distinctive clothing had been stolen. In his contribution Rodney Barker points out that ‘Pluralism in one form or another-trade unionism, guild socialism, municipal socialism, workers control- is part of the left’s democratic heritage.’  But he goes on to add that:

‘Pluralism is not a monopoly of the left, and because it is so rich and diverse, it is always necessary before anything else to ask exactly what kind of pluralism is being proposed….The word pluralism is a numerator, not a denominator; it tells us there are many different collections of people but not what kind of collections they are…. Burke’s ‘little platoon’… is a capacious and empty term, which can cover a fox hunt or hedge fund just as easily as it can cover a parent’s group or an allotment association.’        

Edwards insists that the aim of the Big Society is not so much to achieve a future ideal as to retrieval of something valuable – ‘a world where strong local politics, voluntary public service and mutual and cooperative civic associations were at the heart of Britain’s social and economic life’- which has been lost. Now that sounds more like Edmund Burke, the Conservative thinker about whom Jesse Norman MP has recently written a much praised biography.

Norman offers up his explanation of the concept at the start of the book in a discussion with Maurice Glasman, the progenitor of the Blue Labour school of thought. Norman evokes Hobbes’ idea of a social contract. According to this citizens live in an anarchic world in which for protection they have to accept an autocratic state Leviathan.  Norman observes that Hobbes seems to ignore the role played by institutions in society and the fact that human nature is more resourceful than merely avoiding death.

‘The Big Society is about empowering free and independent institutions that lie between the individual and the state and is about empowering individuals on the basis of a rich conception of human nature.’

Glasman adduces his own concept of the ‘good society’, arguing that while the BS sought to ‘bring things back to the internal goods of practices and institutions of goodness, of knowledge, of skill, of excellence of good practice’ it cannot ‘conceptually as well as politically, confront money, power and capitalism as forms of exploitation.’

I was especially taken with the well written piece by Richard Kelly and Robert Crowcroft, on Multiculturalism. It seems to use BS almost as an ostensible reason to argue that the Conservative Party should row back vigorously from Cameron’s ill-advised repudiation of multiculturalism in his February 2011 Munich speech. Living and working in Manchester, it is not surprising that Kelly should feel that a disconnect between the Tory party and ethnic minorities is a mistake.

Both authors, in an acute analysis of Burke’s thinking – they see him as a maverick rather than an orthodox thinker – maintain that the ‘Father of Conservatism’ would have seen the ‘liberal integration project’ as one which crudely ignored the ‘organic’ nature of ethnic communities and sought to impose on them in a way which has bred disaffection. They see political sense in reaching out to such ethnic minority groups, where ‘the Tory values enshrined in many Black and Minority Ethnic communities could be valuable to a Conservative leader seeking public support.’ [My own view of Cameron’s volte face was that, alarmed by the UKIP threat, he was seeking to curry favour with his fractious, often unmanageable right-wing.]  

I  lack the space and time to comment in depth on the many other excellent chapters in this book but I think they succeed in proving that the Big Society has opened up a new flank in public discussion. It is far from being, in Edwards’ words ‘bombast or window dressing for the coalition’s deficit reduction programme.’ The Coalition’s initial pursuit of Big Society policy has been desultory, almost pathetic, but when nothing short of a renaissance is required in public attitudes towards democratic government, this volume shows that it has contributed towards a reframing of language of politics and the content of a beneficial public discussion.
—Bill Jones, Professor of Politics, University of Liverpool Hope

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