There’s been a great deal of noise in past week about ‘what’ the big society is - and apparently this week will see a flurry of announcements on ‘big society’ projects.
Aside the fact that it’ll take more than a few days of press releases and speeches to cement a massive new concept in the public conciousness, there is a broader question at issue - namely, why is the definition an issue?
One problem in Westminster is often the role of policy ‘wonks’ in delivering policy. Nearly a year on from when the concept was first flagged at a high level within the Conservative party and became part of the manifesto language, large swaithes of the population don’t have any idea what it is, think it’s about volunteering or see it as a trojan horse for cuts.
The vacum in definition that has existed since the concept was flagged has allowed skepticicms and uncertaintly to take hold. As was often said of Gordon Brown, a re-launch can’t change what hasn’t been launched in the first place.
So, rather than worry about a definition, I think its time to cut our loss, stop trying to shape government by the big society and try and shape the big society itself by action, not words.
Put another way - crack on with what matters to people.
Why? Well probably because the general public, unlike Westminster politicos, couldn’t care less if there’s an agreed definition or shiny report - they care about the quality and availability of the services they access, and what it costs them.
To coin a phrase, if you build it, the definition will come - to each individual according, to their experience.
If two years down the line the public have seen and like the change it leads to, then take the big society flag and plant it at the heart of a new Britain.
But if worrying about a definition consumes westminster, the public will begin to wonder if politicians on all sides are fiddiling while Rome burns.
Replacing a journalist who made his name in the ‘tomorrows chip wrapper’ mentality of showbiz journalism with a broadcast news editor will ensure the Coalition is seen well in coming months. The GVs of Cameron, Clegg et al will be fresh, dynamic and show the team in a positive light.
This in itself is no bad thing. As Guido blogged last week, many felt David Cameron needed a TV expert as a “director of communications who understands televisual imagery” and I agree entirely with what he says. Cameron (and indeed the coalition) needs someone to present it in the best light, no mean feat given the difficult decisions the Government is taking.
But this falls into what I think is a common problem that modern politicians often fail to comprehend - the difference between presentation and communication.
Last year I blogged a speech given by Edward R. Murrow, the journalist who did so much to finally end the McCarthy-era of American politics, to what is now the the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Convention on October 15, 1958.
One quote seems particularly apt in light of Craig Oliver’s appointment.
“During the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: LOOK NOW, PAY LATER.”
The Coalition is embarking on an enormous task, tackling Labour’s economic legacy of a dangerously unbalanced economy, out-of-control public spending and the defecit that both of those approaches caused.
Yet the public will not be appeased with warm images and reassuring soundbites. The Coalition has yet to establish it’s own narrative on cutting public spending or indeed set it in context of the alternative - much higher taxes for all. This requires a more strategic, long-term view and as difficult as it may be politically, looking beyond short-term factors like polling, by-elections and indeed local elections.
The Big Society is a concept which could transform the British way of life, endearing a sense of civic responsibility not seen for generations, based on a balanced and vibrant, low-tax economy. David Cameron’s determination to bring this vision to fruition, despite the catastrophic legacy he inherited, is one of the reasons he may well go on to achieve more than any Prime Minister in living memory.
It cannot be achieved through a series of headlines - it requires a culture shift.
Alastair Campbell forumlated a style of campaigning (and indeed governing) based around Objective, Strategy, Tactics. With the appointment of another headline driven journalist, the coalition must not allow itself to become obsessed with strategy and tactics, or risk sight of achieveing its objective.
The Coalition’s challenge to ensure the public not only understand the objective but share it will be the difference between the middle classes (and indeed aspirational working classes) supporting the Government, or believeing it has betrayed them.