For those wanting a less colloquial explanation, the Big Society is an attempt to transform the relationship between the state and its citizens. Using the weapons of devolution and transparency, it seeks to empower individuals, improve public services that fail the most disadvantaged and reconnect the civic institutions that lie between the people and the state.
So why is the Big Society such a radical idea? As one of its leading proponents in government admits, it is a massive social experiment – stripping power from the state in the expectation that individuals, communities and enterprises will pick up the reins. “As in most such experiments, it is based upon instincts and understanding rather than empirical data,” he says. “It will be two to three years before we begin to see if it is playing itself out properly. But the direction of change will be remorseless and I’m confident it will transform Britain.”
This tussle between the responsibilities of state and citizens is at the centre of political struggles across the west, from France’s battles over pensions to the backlash against Washington in the US. Unsurprisingly, the Big Society ideas – far removed from the rampant individualism of the Tea Party – are being watched with growing interest by moderate Republicans.
In Britain, they fit comfortably with a nation fed up with over-bearing statism and corporate irresponsibility. The latest British Social Attitudes survey revealed growing distrust of both state and big business, combined with a desire for smaller, more local institutions.