Giles Fraser: Why the Big Society is a good thing

21 July 2010

THE Prime Minister is relaunching his idea about the Big Society. Apparently, some people didn’t understand it the first time round. Actually, I think it’s pretty straight­­forward, and something all churches ought to welcome en­thusiastically.

For generations, British politics has been dominated by an unhelpful black-and-white argument about the best way of delivering human flourishing. Those on the Left have argued that it is all about the state, and those on the Right have argued that it is all about the market.

We have swung backwards and forwards between these two answers, while our two main political parties have been dug in behind their positions as if in trenches. Those who venture into the territory between these positions move into no man’s land, and will be shot at from both sides. But this is the space in which we all now need to work.

The idea of the Big Society is that the state and the market have had their go, and both, for different reasons, have been found wanting. The top-down politics of the state encourages no deep loyalty in people, making too many obsessed with what they are entitled to, and not what they might contribute.

On the other hand, the idea that everything can be left to markets creates a weak society that is all about the individual and his or her choices. In terms of human flourish­ing, the state thinks too big, and the market thinks too small.

The motto of the Big Society might well be Burke’s famous idea that “To love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle of publick affections.” This is completely correct. It is always the little platoon that, in reality, stitches us together, one with another. For some, it is the golf club, or church, or school PTA, or the Women’s Institute or the Working Men’s Club, or the Young Farmers or the Trade Union branch.

Although the Left may speak in universal terms about what used to be called the “brotherhood of man” (until that phrase was recognised as leaving out half the human race), the truth is that this is too big and abstract an entity to call on our deepest affections. Our moral sense and care for others is engaged by medium- to small-sized social units where alienation and otherness is overcome by relationship.

These are the units where we can most successfully practise the extremely difficult task of putting the needs of others before our own. And it is the overlapping build-up of these little platoons that generates the big society.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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