Back in October, when I went to the
Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, the big society was everywhere. It
would have been physically impossible for one person to go to every conference session that
had the phrase in its title.
It was the buzz phrase of the conference, and
was being used in a universally positive way by charities, think tanks, MPs and
councillors. Everyone was asking: What is the big society? How can we
contribute to this exciting new idea? What will we gain from it?
Just four months later, the picture has
changed. As councils and charities across the country see their funding cut and
their services closing, the big society has lost its fuzzy glow and become
intrinsically linked to a sense of fear and vulnerability and a struggle to survive.
During the coalition’s first six months in
government, many in the voluntary sector were prepared to get caught up in a
big, abstract, enticing new idea, particularly if they thought this would
endear them to the new administration and protect them from the worst of its
A few months on, they have gone back to
thinking with their heads rather than their hearts. As more charities realise
that no amount of fawning over the big society idea will protect them from the
cuts, more will follow CSV’s Dame Elisabeth Hoodless in speaking out against
This may well have the effect of forcing
government ministers to quietly stop using the phrase. But unless it also
forces them into U-turns on major policy areas, will anything have been