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Why a "Just Society" must also be a "Big Society"

June 8, 2011 - Jonathan Chaplin

First in opposition and now in government, the British Conservative party has adopted the slogan of the “Big Society” to capture the heart of its social policy agenda.  The U.K. government’s website declares that “the Big Society is about helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It’s about putting more power in people’s hands—a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities.”

What is particularly interesting is that among the leading intellectual feeders of the Big Society idea are some of the best sources of contemporary British Christian social thinking: the evidence-based policy work of the Centre for Social Justice led by Ian Duncan-Smith, and, less prominently, the edgier new “Red Toryism” spearheaded by “Radical Orthodox” theologian Phillip Blond, now director of his own policy think tank, ResPublica. Some Conservatives also trace the remoter origins of the idea to the thought of the eighteenth-century conservative and anti-Revolutionary thinker Edmund Burke. Burke’s championing of the “little platoons” of society—its vibrant organic network of families, churches, charitable bodies, neighbourhoods, localities, and so on, existing prior to and thriving independently of, central government—has been one of the philosophical inspirations for some Big Society advocates. 

Perhaps these distinctly Tory origins explain why the term “Big Society” tends not to be found on the lips of the Conservative party’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners with whom they entered government in May 2010. The term does, however, express a key element of the liberal conservatism championed by Prime Minister David Cameron and evidently converges with longstanding Liberal Democrat commitments to the decentralization of power.


Some British “Big Society” talk is of purely local interest, but the underlying thrust alerts us to much wider issues of how to justly order the complex relationships between state, market, civil society, and individuals—issues faced by every Western society today. So it’s worth briefly trawling the U.K. debate for wider parallels.

“Big Society” is not simply a slogan. It has a powerful institutional driver right at the heart of government called the Office for Civil Society. This office “works across government departments to translate the Big Society agenda into practical policies, provides support to voluntary and community organisations and is responsible for delivering a number of key Big Society programmes”—the Big Society Bank, the National Citizenship Service Scheme, Community Organizers, and Community First.

The notion of a “Big Society” gains whatever rhetorical purchase it has from its contrast with a “Big State”—the outcome, so Conservatives and Liberal Democrats charge, of thirteen years of New Labour attempts to modernize British society from the top down. Frances Maude, Cabinet minister responsible for the Big Society, declared, “This is about a real cultural shift—we know that the era of big government, just tweaking things at the centre of power, didn’t work.  We want to build a Big Society where local people feel empowered to bring about the changes they know their communities need and they come together to change the things they care about.”

There is an obvious irony here, since New Labour came to power in 1997 promising a “third way” between state socialism and free-market capitalism and offering an “enabling state,” which was supposed to shift the balance of power from state to society along similar lines to those proposed in the Big Society vision. Yet after the party’s drubbing at the last election, even some prominent Labour voicesincluding the new leader Ed Miliband—have reluctantly concluded that, whatever New Labour’s starting aspirations, the cumulative result of a succession of frenetic Labour policy initiatives over many years was an increasingly bossy and intrusive state.

But that certainly does not mean that most of the Labour party—or indeed most grassroots Liberal Democrats—have signed up to the Big Society programme. On the contrary, these constituencies—and more broadly, those identifying with the British social democratic and social liberal traditions, both of which are committed to strong notions of equality of opportunity—are treating it with great suspicion, and in some cases, outright scorn. They warn that the Big Society will threaten the promotion of “social justice.” That worry is understandably magnified since the Big Society agenda is being pursued simultaneously with the most radical programme of public spending cuts for half a century (cuts which are aimed at tackling the astronomical government debt bequeathed by Labour governments). Big Society critics allege that the idea is a convenient (indeed, frankly, dishonest) cover for a radical programme of fiscal tightening which will inevitably worsen the economic circumstances of the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society. The Conservatives have a certain defence against that charge, since David Cameron began propounding the Big Society idea well before the financial collapse of 2008 which forced austerity measures on governments (both old and new). Yet many still fear that, whatever Cameron’s original intentions, his Big Society idea will now simply be harnessed as yet another instrument of a brutal fiscal conservatism.

“Big Society” or “Social Justice”? Are we forced to choose? In order at least to clarify what is at stake in the question, let’s dig a bit deeper into both notions to see how they relate. According to the UK government, there are three parts to the Big Society agenda, all of which will have their parallels in other countries: “community empowerment,” “opening up public services,” and “social action.”

The first of these (“community empowerment”) involves giving local councils and neighbourhoods more power over planning decisions. This amounts to a process of administrative decentralization within the sphere of government (from central to local), and a strengthening of democratic accountability (of local governments to the neighbourhoods they govern). 

The second (“opening up public services”) involves an expansion of the existing policy of contracting out selected public services  to non-governmental organizations (charities, social enterprises, private companies, and employee-owned cooperatives), where these might deliver a better or more efficient service. Such services will include not only routine tasks such as catering and cleaning but also specialist health services, employment support programmes, or drug rehabilitation centres. This amounts to a process of institutional devolution (from state to “third sector” civil society organisations or to commercial bodies operating in the market). It is clear that a key concern of this part of the agenda is supporting the government’s policy of getting people off welfare and into work, but the goal is not confined to that objective. Critics refer to this “opening up public services” as “off-loading”—but, as we shall see, the term needn’t actually be taken as pejorative, so long as the services in question are offloaded to the right sort of provider.

The third part (“social action”) is defined rather blandly as “encouraging and enabling people to play a more active part in society,” but takes concrete shape in three specific initiatives: the National Citizenship Service (a youth volunteering scheme), Community Organizers (a training scheme for local activists), and Community First (a fund for community groups in deprived neighbourhoods).  This amounts to governmental enabling of voluntary action by individuals and local organizations. This is the smallest plank of the Big Society agenda and, while worthy enough in itself, is not likely to make that much impact.

Before examining these policy goals more closely, it is worth noting that each of them could claim to find a measure of critical support in three key principles of modern Christian social thought. One is the Catholic principle of “subsidiarity,” first made explicit by Pope Pius XI in 1931, although anticipated by Pope Leo XIII in his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891. Another is the Reformed principle of “sphere sovereignty,” first propounded—also in 1891—by the Dutch neocalvinist theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper. These principles jointly argue that the state ought not to usurp social responsibilities properly belonging to other institutions like families, schools, business, trades unions, or cultural associations. And this is not primarily for technical reasons of governmental efficiency; rather, Pius XI declared that it would be a “grave injustice” for the state to usurp such tasks, and neocalvinist thinker Herman Dooyeweerd, continuing Kuyper’s concerns, likewise held that this would amount to a breach of the principle of “public justice.” In both Catholic and Reformed traditions, the question of the proper distribution of social authority among various institutions is an integral part of “social justice.”

The principle of subsidiarity has also been interpreted as implying the need to decentralize power from the central state to lower tiers of political authority, and in this regard it comports well with the third principle of Christian social thought—the Reformed principle of covenantal federalism, first fully articulated by the seventeenth-century Calvinist Johannes Althusius. Echoes of these three ideas can also be found in the thought of modern British Christian political thinkers like the conservative Edmund Burke (whose notion of “little platoons” was cited previously), the liberal William Gladstone (champion of voluntarism and no friend of the Big State), the pluralist John Neville Figgis, and the socialist Richard Tawney (a strong supporter of cooperatives).

It is important to note that the Big Society agenda consists of four quite distinct policy goals which shift the relationship between state, civil society, the market and the individual in importantly different ways. The first, administrative decentralization, only transfers power within the state itself—in this case, from central to local government. In my view this is a long overdue goal for the U.K., though it may not be as compelling in other jurisdictions (such as the U.S.) where local governments have greater power. There are also other forms of administrative decentralization, such as from central government departments to regional offices (also termed “deconcentration”) or even within central departments themselves, both of which might be equally important for effective governance.

Distinct from these cases of administrative decentralization would be examples of legislative devolution—the transfer of legislative authority from a higher governmental body to a lower one (national or federal to state or provincial or Aboriginal, or state/provincial to local). This occurred in the U.K. over the last fifteen years when Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish legislative bodies were (re)created. These larger-scale “devolutions” of power are not envisaged as part of the Big Society vision, though they are a very important instance of the question of how to properly allocate power vertically within a state.

The second Big Society policy goal—strengthening democratic accountability at the level of local government—is, again, also arguably a very worthy goal, but it is another a shift of power within the state, in this case from local government to people in their capacity as citizens (who are members of the state).

All these potentially worthy objectives should, however, be clearly distinguished from the policy of institutional devolution, which involves transferring tasks from the state—at any level—to non-state bodies in civil society or the market sector. This is entirely consistent with the principles of subsidiarity and sphere sovereignty, so it is hardly surprising that advocates of these principles are contemplating the Big Society agenda with initial interest and enthusiasm. But the process is consistent with such principles only so long as the public services being transferred from government are not themselves inherently state tasks. That would be true if there was an attempt to offload core state tasks such as policing, criminal justice, or taxation, or unavoidable state regulatory functions such as setting minimal professional and health and safety standards in the health and education sectors, or the unique state responsibility to guarantee minimal basic needs. But this is not so. The services being transferred seem eminently capable of being delivered well by non-state bodies (albeit under the state’s regulatory eye, and in some cases on the basis of state funding) because they are not inherently governmental tasks.

Such transfers strengthen civil society in general by dispersing power and increasing an ethos of initiative and self-responsibility on the part of individuals and associations. Yet “civil society” isn’t an entity with its own imperatives, but rather a network of multiple centres of social agency, each of which requires a proper degree of independence in order to function well. Put less prosaically, living, breathing, growing, relating human persons, acting on their own initiative or in structures of cooperation and solidarity with others, need a wide degree of legal space and a vibrant social infrastructure if they are to flourish and to contribute to the common good—to experience a measure of “shalom.” And securing these crucial goods is indeed a matter of “social justice” (or “public justice”, in neocalvinist parlance), for which the state is responsible. And part of that responsibility might well be stopping doing some things and letting others get on with them.

Now some critics will charge that this amounts to a strategy of “privatization” with the goal of “shrinking the state.” These phrases are blunt rhetorical instruments. “Privatization” usually refers to transferring state services to private, profit-making commercial enterprises (for instance, to the market sector). But while Big Society policy does make space for this in some areas (subject to all kinds of service-delivery conditions), two major qualifications should be entered. First, the “private sector” that government has in its sights crucially includes social enterprises, which, although not charities, are not driven by the profit motive but by larger social purposes. The government made a big splash out of the launch of one of the first of these, Leatherhead Community Hospital in Surrey, which is now owned by the nurses and therapists who work in it. It is a producer cooperative supplying services to the public sector. The government’s Big Society former adviser, Lord Wei, cut his teeth in the social enterprise sector (and is, as it happens, a devout Christian). Second, government seems as much if not more interested in transferring services to the non-profit charitable sector as to social enterprises.

So critics should not be allowed to get away unchallenged with the rhetorical force of the charge of “privatization.” They would have a powerful case if the primary destination of formerly public services were to be for-profit business corporations. And some Big Society advocates—those on the more libertarian wing of the Conservative party, for instance—sometimes speak in those terms. But the direction of actual policy seems to be moving in a different, and healthier, direction.

How about the charge that the Big Society is all about “shrinking the state”? Well, surely no one has an interest in a big state for its own sake. So if the net result of the Big Society is to reduce the proportion of national income spent by government, or to increase non-state employment relative to public sector employment, that is surely no bad thing. If we don’t need to expand the scope of state intervention in order to promote justice in a particular area of society, why would we want to? Equally, no one should have an interest in making the state as small as possible, as if that could be in any sense a credible political goal. While Christian political thought strongly supports a limited state—a state limited by law and by other social authorities—it does not advocate a minimal state.

Let’s put it straightforwardly. The state should be as big as it needs to be in order to properly discharge its core task of establishing a regime of public justice and securing the basic conditions of the public good—a task Dooyeweerd summed up as its “qualifying function,” the structural purpose for which it is fitted. The key objective is not to get the quantity of government right, but to correctly identify its characteristic purpose.

Equally, society should be as big as it needs to be in order that its diverse components can properly discharge their own core tasks. Now it’s possible that society (by which I mean the realm of individuals, civil society associations, and the market sector) could indeed be too small, crowded out by an ever-expanding state which gobbled up resources and stifled social initiative. Or, it (or parts of it) could be too big, such as when large and resource-rich institutions (businesses, trades unions, professions, for example) or powerful social networks (financial markets, the media) are able to ride roughshod over weaker institutions (small businesses, voluntary bodies, arts associations, independent newspapers) or vulnerable individuals (non-unionized employees, the unemployed, members of ethnic minorities, single parents). When society—or part of it—is too big, the state must act to redress the imbalance of power or resources in order to secure greater social (or public) justice. If it is too small to do so, then it must make itself bigger by expanding its legislative power, its administrative muscle, or its revenue base, or sometimes all three.

So we must resist the temptation to say that if society is too small, the state must make itself smaller. That is too simple an equation, for if a too-small society is to reach its “proper” size (for instance, if independent non-profit news outlets are to grow relative to massive commercial media empires), the state may well have to do more to secure the legal space and social infrastructure necessary for that to happen. That needn’t necessarily involve spending a lot more public money or creating a massive new government department. It might mean, for instance, putting fire in the belly of anti-monopoly regulators, or giving more planning power to local authorities to stop the relentless encroachment of predatory retail chains like Tesco in the U.K. But sometimes it will certainly involve increased public expenditure, such as releasing far greater resources for disabled people or care home staff than are currently available, or stimulating investment in the greener economy we urgently need to cultivate.

We can now see why, although the term “Big Society” is a helpful way of alerting us to the frequent tendency of states to expand at the cost of societal freedom and diversity, we need a wider suite of concepts and distinctions if we are to gain an adequate view of what are the complementary roles of state, civil society, market, and individual in complex societies such as our own.

I’ve tried to show how a just society presupposes something like what is being alluded to in the slogan “Big Society,” but also why a big society cannot be equated with a general retreat of the state from society. This is because “social justice” really implies two things, not one. Social democrats (and some Christian socialists) tend to think it means one thing, namely greater social equality brought about primarily through the central state’s powers of taxation, redistribution (for instance in the form of welfare benefits to those who cannot support themselves), and provision of universal public services (such as health and education). It does mean this, in part, and Christian conservatives need to acknowledge the point. Indeed, the British conservative government does. Its Welfare Reform Bill, currently making its way through parliament, proposes major (and controversial) changes to the way welfare is delivered, and yet its flagship alternative is a universal credit scheme in which the state does exactly the kind of thing social democrats say it should do, taxing citizens and redistributing a portion of their income to those who cannot support themselves, thereby contributing to the goal of greater social equality. And that basic, protective goal has long been a central objective of Christian political thought.

But social justice means not only social equality but also differentiated responsibility. And that requires the state to target and modulate its interventions in a way that will maximize the capacity of many other institutions (as well as individuals) to fulfil the varying responsibilities they are uniquely equipped to discharge. This would mean, for example, recognizing that transfer payments such as welfare benefits, while indispensable in any society in which equal human dignity is respected, can only ever be a part of the response to persistent poverty. It would mean recognising that poverty is in fact the result of multifaceted deprivation, with many relational, dispositional, and institutional causes. People may be cash-poor, but they may also be relationally poor (alienated from their families or other crucial support networks), educationally poor (lacking basic qualifications and skills), spatially poor (geographically isolated), culturally poor (part of a threatened or hated ethnic minority), emotionally poor (suffering from anxiety or depression), morally poor (incapable of taking responsibility), and, of course, spiritually poor (experiencing existential disorientation). The state can address only a few of these directly, others only indirectly, and some (the latter three) not at all. So it falls to other persons and institutions to address factors falling outside the reach of the state, thereby contributing in their own indispensable ways to the greater realisation of social equality.

Honouring the core insights in both “Social Justice” and the “Big Society” requires affirming simultaneously the norms of social equality and differentiated responsibility. We must get beyond thinking of these goals as if they were in a zero-sum game—or as if we could even conceive of voting for one but not the other—and begin to conceive of them as part of the single fabric of human social nature.  The U.K. government’s Big Society advisor Lord Wei said, winsomely, that “a big society is a society in which no-one feels small.” My argument is that this means both that people must never be allowed to fall below an agreed threshold of basic human dignity—a dignity shared equally by all and ultimately guaranteed by the state—and that they must never be denied the opportunity to exercise the full range of basic human responsibilities—a calling to which all must be invited in a society big enough for human flourishing. 


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  1. June 2011: Big Society Meets Social Justice
    CPIP - Big Society Meets Social Justice

    In this issue of Cardus Policy in Public we look at two civil society sign posts, from both the right and the left: big society and social justice. Is there a pragmatic overlap here that governments—both in Canada and abroad—can find for creative interventions on some of our most pressing social issues?

    Register to download the full issue PDF.