Big Society and Egypt: be careful what you wish for, Mr Cameron


The level of self-organization exhibited by the Egyptian revolt has been stunning. The day after ousting Hosni Mubarak they turned up in Tahrir Square armed not with placards but brooms and paint brushes to clear the place up! Yet another example of the Egyptian Big Society in action.

I’m not suggesting we’re going to see a revolutionary upsurge in Britain, but that there are already signs that the Big Society might manifest itself in ways the Coalition government may regret.

We are already seeing small examples of the famous ‘little platoons’ organizing themselves against the governments program me of cuts and radical reorganizations. In localities all around the country they are mobilizing against closures and cuts in libraries, swimming pools, and other civic amenities. The campaign against privatizing our woods is growing. Leaders of voluntary organizations nationally and locally are only just starting to speak out the scale and pace of the dismantling of the local state.

Whilst it may be unlikely that these various tributaries will swell together into the sort of Nile sized river that engulfed Mubarak, if I were David Cameron I’d be rather more cautious about what I wish for. Self-organisation can have a mind of its own.

What is ‘The Big Society’

Over the past couple of days we have had several versions of the ‘Big Society’ – David Cameron claiming “it is coming”, David Miliband saying it is just a cover for cuts and, intriguingly, Nick Clegg letting it be known that it is a ‘Tory idea’ that the Deputy PM doesn’t feel obliged to defend.

If the ‘Big Society’ is essentially about people organising themselves to deal with social problems, then there really is nothing especially new about it. The American sociologist and founder of communitarianism, Amatai Eztioni, was writing about “The Active Society” nearly 50 years ago. Robert Putnam’s various works on ‘social capital’ have been around for a couple of decades. And more recently their has been extensive debate about the ideas like ‘co-production’ and ‘crowd sourcing’ in relation to public services. So is there anything distinctive about the ‘Big Society’.

Unfortunately for Mr Cameron there is, and it is not that helps his case. The ‘Big Society’ as elaborated by Cameroons like Tory MPs Jesse Norman (The Big Society – the anatomy of the new politics) and Nick Boles (Which Way’s Up?) is a highly political project. Norman’s book, for example, whilst celebrating the “new politics” hardly let’s an opportunity pass-by to indulge in the old politics with swipes against the Labour party. More fundamentally, what they all share is a desire to “roll back the frontiers of the state”, in Mrs Thatcher’s famous phrase. The Big Society is called that precisely to contrast it with the Big State, which is public enemy number one for most of the acolytes of the so-called ‘new’ politics.

There are some conservative thinkers – like Philip Blond (Red Tory) and Danny Kruger (On Fraternity) – who have a rather more rounded view, and include the Big Market and individualism in their target list – something not popular with the neo-Thatcherites.

Cameron has recenty claimed that the ideas behind the Big Society are shared by all the main parties, and that is partially true. All of them do see a crucial, expanded, role for civil society in creating the good society – many of the so-called “wicked issues” cannot be tackled without greater social activism.

Where they part ways is mainly over the role of the state. The neo-Thatcherites pursue a crude view that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the state and the ‘size’ of society – you cannot have the Big Society without dismantling the Big State. And the current state financial crisis presents them, they think, with the perfect opportunity to do just that.

But this is not just a crude bit of ‘real politik’ it is simply wrong factually. The relationship between the state and civic activism is a complex one. At best there is little correlation between the size of the state and the level of civic engagement, which is shaped by a complex set of historical factors. At worst, for advocates of the Big Society, there is some evidence that there can be a positive relationship between the Big State and Big Society, with a complex ‘feed-back’ loop between them. Etzioni’s work comparing US states, for example, showed that there was just such a positive correlation. Scandinavia would tend to suggest likewise.

Even if – and this is highly questionable – there were a simple inverse relationship between Big Society and Big State what most of the research on the active society and social capital has shown is that these things evolved over decades, if not centuries. And some of the historic sources of civic self-organisation – the trade union, labour and socialist movements, for example – are ones that are inimical to proponents of Big Society.

Mr Cameron tells us the Big Society is coming – maybe it is, but he should be careful that it is not entirely a different sort of Big Society from the one he envisages.

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About Colin Talbot

Professor of Government. Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Big Society and Egypt: be careful what you wish for, Mr Cameron

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Big Society and Egypt: be careful what you wish for, Mr Cameron | Whitehall Watch -- Topsy.com

  2. Flemming Bjerke says:

    Please, notice there were two extremely important ingredients of the success the egyptian revolution:

    1. An extremely clever group of leaders emphasising non-violence and democracy:
    http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/peopleandpower/2011/02/201128145549829916.html

    2. A TV-channel, Aljazeera, which throughout the revoulution
    – paid extensive day-to-day attention to the activists and their acting
    – supported the revolution by continually sending analyses of the situation using top knowledgable professors etc. around the world
    – showed online surveillance of the Tahrir Square.
    (Such a service may be dreamt of by most activists, only. Isn’t this Aljazeera concept quite revolutionary, too?)

    Are any of these two factors abundant in UK? I know pretty well … they are not in DK. Demostrations are infiltrated by stupid violent activists, and the media are afraid of reporting anything political, which is not endorsed by some authority (in a broad sense). This is quite destructive for succesful protests.

  3. Alex says:

    Fleming: Al-Jazeera English is actually based in London…

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