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"Big Society" explained by its creator

Philip BlondHow Big is the Big Society?

A breakfast meeting in Liverpool’s City Leaders series promised some new insight into that elusive creature, the Big Society. The speaker was Phillip Blond of the think-tank ResPublica, the Liverpool-born “Red Tory” whose writings are credited with a key influence on the development of David Cameron’s self-described “passion” for the growth of the Big Society.

At the meeting (at the Anglican Cathedral on 19/7/11), Mr Blond was clear in his talk - called "How Big is the Big Society" - that to him Big Society was neither a left- nor a right-wing agenda. He was in favour of business and the operation of the market. But he was adamant that the current “broken society” was the fault both of corporations and the state.

The power and monopoly of large corporations was a bad thing. Corporations need to be “re-moralised”. This was idea to which the appearance that same day of Rupert Murdoch from News Corporation before the Parliamentary Sub-Committee gave particular relevance.

State redistribution of wealth through taxes and benefits also needs to change – it is bureaucratic, inefficient, and ultimately ineffective. The idea that in a period of growth there is an automatic trickle-down of wealth has been shown as false.

He was dismayed at the growing concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands – even as total wealth was increasing – but he saw a solution not in redistributing income through taxes, but rather as re-distributing assets. And the assets he is particularly interested in are the assets of skills, of community values – in short, what has been described as “social capital”.

He sees positive change, and reversal of the that concentration of wealth, coming out of the value that people receive when they believe in their neighbourhood and can influence it, or when they have a real power to influence and to share in their workplace.

How to achieve this sort of value? Through – for example - local neighbourhood collective action; or through turning existing public services into “mutual” organisations; or by groups of small businesses working together in locally-based mutual support groups. In such cases, it seems that he sees peer influence as the force leading to improvement. This influence automatically ensures that no one can be unproductive, or – if they fall into difficulty – no one will end up abandoned and without help.

He didn’t often mention existing voluntary groups – it wasn’t clear from this speech whether he sees them as an agent for this change or part of the failed structure that needs to go (though he did see the church as a key local catalyst for moral and thus economic renewal). And he was not addressing the question of the current widespread cuts to the voluntary sector either (because he is also adamant that Big Society is a concept that pre-dates, and is independent of, the current financial crisis).

Probably the most startling statement was that “there is no infrastructure for the Big Society”. If that is indeed the general feeling in Downing Street – that there are no existing organisations that could help progress the changes that need to happen - then that could explain the paradox of falling support for the existing voluntary sector while a whole new structure of community organisers is funded and organised.

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