Little Platoons, Big Society

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The British Conservative Party struggles to be liked. The Tories are the party of common sense, self-interest--and red-faced nastiness. Like George H.W. Bush, they don't do the "vision thing." When Margaret Thatcher said "there is no such thing as society," she might have meant something noble. But her famous phrase has proved to be political poison, used by opponents to suggest that Tories don't care about people.

Prime Minister David Cameron intends to change all that. Having spent his years in opposition detoxifying the Conservative brand, he now hopes to imbue his party with a reputation for doing good. In his general election campaign last year, Cameron unveiled his vision of the "Big Society," whose aim, the Tory manifesto said, was "to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a big society that will 'take power away from politicians and give it to people'.'' The Big Society means "social responsibility, not state control."

Sounds good, doesn't it? But for most Britons, it didn't make much sense. Even Cameron and his advisers seem incapable of explaining how the Big Society can be achieved. As Tim Loughton, now Children's Minister, put it, "The trouble is that most people don't know what the Big Society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it." Conservative flacks might prate about Burkean little platoons and the legacy of Disraeli's One Nation Toryism, but the public saw things in less grandiose terms. To public sector employees, the Tory plan seemed simple and cynical: sack those who work for the state and make others do it for free. In a country where people are accustomed to a comprehensive welfare system, any attempt to limit the role of government is regarded as suspiciously radical.

It didn't help that the Big Society could be abbreviated to BS. The idea bombed. Soon after the Tory manifesto was published, Conservative poll ratings dipped, and they never recovered sufficiently to win an outright majority. The Big Society cost the Tories the election, but it didn't help.

The Tories have refused to ditch their agenda, however. Now that they are in coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, the Big Society has become the driving force behind almost all of their policy planning. …