Whenever I see the phrase "Big Society" I am reminded of Andrew Martin's wonderful political satire Bilton. In it a new Prime Minister embarks on a transparently meaningless crusade for "Social Dynamism", which comes unstuck for the empty soundbite it is when an interviewer asks him on live TV whether trees are socially dynamic. (Martin's fictional PM answered "sometimes". Our own would presumably go for a simple "no", since he's selling them off).
Apparently in Whitehall the Big Society is still a big deal. David Cameron even took the time to write another article defending it at the weekend. Outside the exclusion zone, they might as well have called it social dynamism for all the seriousness with which it is regarded.
"...it combines three clear methods to bring people together to improve their lives and the lives of others: devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community."
None of these are necessarily bad ideas. They just don't happen to be ideas that the government actually supports or believes in.
Let's start with "encouraging...social action". Here's what happens when a twelve-year-old boy tries to take social action to save his local youth club by exercising his right to organise a peaceful protest. It's a well-known story and it ends with the lad being dragged out of class to be threatened by the police with some alarmingly nebulous combination of anti-terror laws and the suggestion that the protestors might get shot by their armend colleagues and he would be held personally responsible if they did.
Or "encouraging volunteering". UK Uncut on occasion rather memorably dubs itself "The Big Society Revenue and Customs", notably when it pursues what it imagines are tax-dodgers such as Vodafone and Philip Green. The name is (sort of) a joke but private citizens getting together and pushing for the collection of corporate taxes that the government apparently refuses to pursue (see the latest Private Eye for details of the latest review called over HMRC's strangely one-sided negotiations with businesses that owe it taxes) is just one of the functions of government that people have taken into their own hands per the ostensible ambit of the Big Society only to find that, err, thanks awfully but the government would really rather they didn't. So much so that anyone trying it will be kettled by the police in the rain for hours on end. Just so that's clear.
Take "opening up our public services". Julian Assange is currently crusading to open allegedly democratic governments so that their citizens can see precisely what those governments get up to in our names. From a British point of view Wikileaks could just as well be called the Big Society Information Commissioner's Office for its role in making Whitehall and Westminster live up to their responsibility (and, for what it's worth, promise) to conduct open government. Assange's thanks for doing the government's job here is an expensive court battle to avoid being shipped over to Sweden so the Swedes can in turn hand him over to the Americans. Bradley Manning, a British citizen, is currently being thanked for his efforts to assist the Big Society Information Comissioner's Office by being held in conditions bordering on torture by a foreign power with nary a whisper of protest from the British government. British citizens who choose to work in their own time in pursuit of the Big Society's stated aims evidently do so entirely at their own risk.
What they mean by giving us more "power" is withdrawing some of their interference as we go about doing things we should clearly have been able to get on with all along. They will - generously! - stop wasting everyone's time with ineffective CRB checks. They will - even more generously! - allow a handful of carefully-selected groups of parents to educate their own children with slightly less bureaucratic interference.
"Neighbourhoods taking control of their own destiny" sounds like a nice idea, but try getting together, building a wall around yours and actually doing it only if you've recently taken up tank-spotting as a hobby. Power is never voluntarily relinquished, and neither Westminster nor Whitehall really propose to relinquish any of theirs.