We need to bring back the Big Society – but without Government meddling

A few weeks ago, Peter Cousins and Jackie Tittle enjoyed a day trip to London. Down from the Lancashire town of Skelmersdale, they were lucky enough to meet the Prime Minister during a visit to Number Ten. Peter and Jackie are social entrepreneurs and their company works to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Established in 2005, Brighter Future provides training for disabled folk and recycles mobility equipment such as electric wheelchairs, selling it on at affordable prices.

“The Prime Minister was extremely interested in our work helping people with disabilities gain life, social and practical skills, whilst also preventing thousands of pieces of reusable mobility equipment from ending up in landfill sites,” said Mr. Cousins. He and Mrs. Tittle then returned to Skelmersdale as proud recipients of one of David Cameron’s Big Society Awards.

You don’t hear much about the “Big Society” these days. Launched in 2010, it was the centerpiece of the Tories’ election manifesto, an ideology “integrating free markets with a theory of social solidarity”. Dreamt up by Cameron’s then strategy guru Steve Hilton, the Big Society was presented as post-Thatcherite UK conservatism based on empowering local people and communities.

As such, leading Tories spent a fair amount of the 2010 election campaign talking about “rebuilding society from the ground up”. The role of government was to be “reframed”, we were told, “unleashing our entrepreneurial spirit”. The political reality, of course, was that Hilton desperately wanted to link the Conservatives to cuddly good causes and shed the “nasty party” image. So having replaced the traditional blue torch logo with a green tree, Cameron then fought an election on plans to spend state money, lottery funds and dormant bank accounts on projects that would “be a big advance for people power”.

Labour derided the Big Society, of course. Ed Miliband claimed it was a “cynical attempt to dignify the cuts agenda, dressing up the withdrawal of state support with the language of reinvigorating civic society”. Lefty academics accused Cameron of wanting to reintroduce the Elizabethan Poor Law, when paltry welfare payments were randomly handed-out by individual parishes, rather than being paid by a vast, centralized state.

Right-wing critics, meanwhile, waved away Tory attempts to be “nice”, mocking the “hug-a-hoodie” agenda, throwing rhetorical darts at pictures of Cameron on a husky-powered sled. For them, electoral success was about grown-up policies – fiscal consolidation, tighter borders, sound money – wanted by the silent majority.

Five years on, as we approach polling day once again, the Big Society has died as an election strategy. A National Audit Office report anyway slammed the manner in which related lottery and state grant money has been spent and there’s talk of a probe by the Charity Commission. With the Tories now once again majoring on economic stability and border controls, the warm words of 2010 have gone. Apart from some rather infrequent event ceremonies, David Cameron’s Big Society is no more.

I argued from the outset that much of the Big Society initiative was clever-clever public relations guff. British voters aren’t stupid and know when they’re being spun a line. I also believe that, after the 2008 financial crisis, had the Conservatives put less emphasis on “matching Labour’s spending plans”, stressing instead the need to control our wayward public finances, they would have won a majority in 2010. That wooly, misguided tax-and-spend message, like the Big Society, was also designed to “decontamination” the Tory brand.

Having said all that, I absolutely agree that social entrepreneurship – the idea on which Cameron’s Big Society was based – can indeed be a force for good. In the right hands, in fact, it can be a catalyst for inspirational and revolutionary change – and I was privileged to met two incredibly impressive people last week who reminded me of that.

Muhammad Yunus is a quietly spoken Bangladehsi who hasn’t only won the Nobel Peace Prize for “creating economic and social development from below”, but also been recognized by Forbes Magazine as “one of the 12 greatest entrepreneurs of our time”.

Back in the early-1980s, in rural Bangladesh, Yunus launched Grameen bank – literally village bank – that has since extended millions of small, uncollateralized “microcredit” loans to poor people, the vast majority of them rural women. “We look at what conventional banks do, and do the precise opposite,” Yunus told me at an event organized by Pi Capital. “Following that model, we’ve lent more than $12.5bn over three decades to 9m people and counting”.

Microcredit is always for investment, not consumption, helping to launch small businesses. “We provide good people with the seed capital they need to express their inner creativity”, Yunus explained. Grameen loans are extended only after a thorough application process, which insists on borrowers in some of the world’s poorest areas meeting rigorous and often life-changing conditions – everything from sending their children to school and refusing to pay or receive marriage dowries to protecting their health by digging latrines.

Yunus’ great insight is that, when loans are properly monitored and transparent, and social and moral pressure is brought to bear, the vast majority of borrowers seize the opportunity, do the right thing and meet repayments. That’s why Grameen bank has a default rate of less than 1pc. Even more incredibly, perhaps, the bank now has branches operating on the same principles, if imposing modified conditions, in America. Grameen bank is also now launching in Glasgow.

The second inspirational social entrepreneur I met last week – at another event held by Pi Capital – was Brett Wigdortz, an American now based in the UK, who since 2002 has led the charity Teach First. Formerly a high-flying management consultant, Wigdortz has built an organization that recruits top UK graduates, often from prestigious universities and trains them as teachers – as long as they commit to spending at two years teaching in a state school in a low-income area.

Funded partly by firms and companies, Teach First has now placed over 7,000 teachers in almost 1,000 schools. It is not only the UK’s largest recruiter of graduates but, having transformed the image of state-school teaching as a graduate destination, it also ranks highly as a career choice among those leaving Oxbridge and Russell group universities. Many Teach First recruits leave teaching, but do so with skills, experience and confidence employers know is valuable. And, believe it or not, around a half of those who do their two years in a tough state-school actually choose to stay on.

The UK state remains huge, unwieldy and unsustainable. Our national debt, even on heavily-massaged figures, having ballooned from £558bn in 2008 to over £1,400bn now, is set to reach £1,650bn by 2018. We simply cannot look to state spending as the only way we can improve the lot of the poorest and create social cohesion. Government money is important, of course, but so are business donations and the work of charities and volunteers – as well as the social entrepreneurs who use their business smarts to actually make things happen.

I applaud Peter Cousins, Jackie Tittle and their team at Brighter Future. I raise my hat to Brett Wigdortz and, above all, am in awe of Muhammad Yunus. “Governments always want to get involved with my work,” he told me last week. “They plead with me to accept their help. But government meddling just warps incentives and mucks up what I’m trying to do”.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Big Society should be all about. If informed by such wisdom, it’s an idea that we should salvage.


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