The Prime Minister has said he wants to explain the Big Society idea better. He has appointed a couple of Big Society advocates to spread the word.
The good news for him is that the Big Society is alive and well. I take it to mean that the public good can be furthered by private and voluntary action, as well as by state programmes. The UK has a long and proud tradition of charitable work. It has a great history of private sector companies taking responsibility for many vital services, from the supply of bread to the discovery and manufacture of pharmaceuticals. It has many charities involved in caring for the sick and lonely, assisting the poor and disabled, and helping families in distress.
The left wishes to argue that much of the private sector is solely motivated by profit or self interest, which they think rules out that sector doing good for others. Where they accept that charities, mutuals and not for profit companies have a role, they usually judge their social purpose and their effectiveness by how much public money they attract.
One of the absurdities of the New Labour era was the support or creation of third sector charities and other institutions that spent considerable time and money on raising money in the form of grants from different branches of government. Such a body was said to have mixed funding if it received cash from a Council or two, from a quango or two and from central government. It is such bodies that are now finding life more difficult, as all parts of government review their policy on financing external bodies. True charities have always raised all or most of their money from outside government, so they will not be adversely affected by public spending controls.
The test of the Big Society idea over the next four years is this. Will there be more mutuals, more charitable giving and activity? Will groups of public sector employees set up their own institutions to further the public good? Will there be new or more ways of joint working, and better ways of furthering the public good by private means?