David Cameron’s Big Society

The new PM wants to change the relationship between government and the public, with more local participation
Peter Shawn Taylor
LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister David Cameron has gone to great lengths to convince voters he’s taking his country’s massive $250-billion deficit seriously. Among his more symbolic austerity measures, he abolished limousines for cabinet ministers and, when he visited U.S. President Barack Obama last month, he flew commercial. Cameron is, however, allowing himself one grand, legacy-style project out of his election platform. But he plans to pay for it with found money.

“Big Society” is an intriguing attempt by Cameron to alter the relationship between government and its public by putting a greater emphasis on local participation and problem-solving. “For years there was the basic assumption at the heart of government that the way to improve things in society was to micromanage from the centre. But this just doesn’t work,” he said last month in launching his Big Society plans. “Over the past decade many of our most pressing social problems got worse, not better. It’s time for something different.”

Cameron aims to give local governments, community groups, businesses, non-profit organizations and others the authority to take control of issues that are currently the domain of national government. These efforts, which may eventually include everything from job retraining to after-school programs, are to be run largely by volunteers. Among the pilot projects announced to date are plans to provide high-speed Internet in under-serviced areas, boost local recycling efforts, and give neighbourhoods control over street maintenance funding.

By elevating the importance of volunteers and giving local organizations the means to tackle local problems, Big Society challenges the dominant belief that problems are solved by complaining to government. Cameron wants to instill in the British people an expectation that local problems will instead be solved through community ingenuity and elbow grease. Big Government is to be replaced by Big Society.

Of course, even volunteer armies require funding. And since his government is broke, Cameron has been forced to find an innovative, if somewhat controversial, means to fuel his civil society revolution. Bank accounts and other investments left dormant for over 15 years are to be requisitioned by a Big Society Bank for disbursement to worthy projects. As much as $1.5 billion is theoretically available this way, although the British Treasury admits $100 million is a more reasonable sum on hand for immediate use. Cameron may be forced to check under his nation’s sofa cushions if he wants to get Big Society off to a faster start.