It’s probably not news when a religious leader confesses his disappointment about the mess that society is mired in. But the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, had a remarkably optimistic comment to make about David Cameron’s big idea (which has been re-launched on multiple occasions), the Big Society: “It contains within itself the hugely important sense of investing your value, your worth in the… happiness of your immediate community – so it’s about building community, about getting beyond the bounds of selfishness and about taking local responsibilities”.

This blessing of an endorsement comes when many, including former supporters and advocates of the whole idea, have jumped ship or confessed their dissatisfaction with its lack of progress. George Campbell Gosling, of Oxford Brookes University, wrote a damning indictment of the limping on of David Cameron’s envisioned social legacy. For Gosling, it is a “dead policy initiative.”  His most crucial and obvious point – charity itself is not dead, just the initiative of the Big Society – must surely annoy the few remaining figures at the helm of the Big Society. Speaking of which: Steve Hilton, Lord Nat Wei, Emma Harrison – how many have since left their roles to take a “break” or to earn some money, which was what Lord Wei ended up doing after less than a year in his unpaid position as the Big Society tsar? Anyway, in praising the Big Society Dr Williams may actually be simply reiterating his Christian commitment to that noble concept, caritas, and the crucial role religious organizations have played in developing local communities since time immemorial.

…local communities could be empowered to do more for their residents…

This is the real misfortune: the vast majority of people across the political spectrum happily acknowledge that building something like the Big Society is a good thing. Local centres and charities and schools do it every day. No one denies that Britain suffers seriously acute social problems, and many of these require solutions from passionate local groups that can deliver person-to-person healing at the grassroots level. The crucial hitch is that the Prime Minister did not acclimatize himself quickly enough to Dr Williams’s observation that this ideal is being pushed just as charities suffer cuts to funding, resources, and manpower. The government never really managed to explain how charities and local organizations could survive, let alone grow and prosper. It’s true that building a bigger, stronger society is a good thing even in the midst of cuts, but how practical is it for organizations struggling to get funding for the activities that help the disadvantaged?

I am interested in how the Big Society can work because I work for a religious non-profit. I was always eager to learn how local communities could be empowered to do more for their residents, or their congregations, or their vulnerable. But how many re-launches has it been – at least four or five? One more re-launch, and perhaps even the most patient and dreamy-eyed supporters of the Big Society will have to crash out for the sake of surviving on the few resources they have after government cuts.

…the launch of the ironically named Big Society Capital.

It will probably be crushing, but David Cameron will need to acknowledge that his legacy is no longer one of social transformation through the Big Society. It will be through some other platform that the country remembers him by – economic reform, Europe, recession – but it is highly unlikely there will be any political capital from this Big Society venture, even with the launch of the ironically named Big Society Capital.

Dr Williams would probably agree that it is not too late to salvage decency, compassion, and empathy in our society. He is also right in remaining optimistic about the stake we can build in society, getting involved in our communities, and the importance of building a life beyond the self. But I have to wonder if he is talking about the Big Society, or really just about the potential in our better selves.


About The Author

A journalist of religion, Raymond is the editor of Buddhistdoor International. He divides his time between London and Hong Kong and can be reached at

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