Big Society means government by citizens, for society

Writing in the Evening Standard this week, Matthew Dancona makes a spirited defence of the Big Society.    He veers around the subject, pivoting on what he sees as the ideological underpinning of Cameron’s big idea – the small state.  This pitching of state against society, government against citizen, really misses the point.  Government should be for society and by citizens, we must see the state not as a collection of services – vital though many of these are – but essentially as a place where people come together to share power, through the democratic process. The Big Society is surely most meaningful when it is about redefining our relationship with the state, not with the starting assumption that the state is the problem, but an appreciation of the role that the state can play.  The real challenge is not to divide state and society but to ask how the state can enable the Big Society and not stand in its way.   The massive funding cuts that local councils face make this challenge urgent.  Sometimes through choice, in many cases of necessity, the government will be getting out of the way.  This withdrawal of the state may allow the Big Society to flourish sometimes in some places, but the Big Society will be much bigger if we embrace, rather than exclude, the active role that local councils can play in nurturing it.