24 May 2011 8:45 AM

Big Society explained - in an hour

One of the Biggest Criticisms of the Big Society - given its latest push yesterday - is that it is too nebulous, too massive, for people fully to understand it. Indeed I've often thought the original slogan, "Big Society not Big Government", sums up the whole problem - it is easier to say what it isn't than what it is.

I've just been reading the transcript of arecent conference about the Big Society hosted by the Reform think-tank, where Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin was the keynote speaker. He gives a really comprehensive outline of both the Government's Big Society vision and the strategy which will deliver it, but therein lies the problem. After a long speech and two questions, director Andrew Haldenby remarks: "Oliver, you’ve given us an hour of your time, which is much more than we expected, so thank you so much."

A few things stand out from Letwin's speech. First is the passion with which he speaks - he clearly really believes in the BS (as harsh critics have dubbed it).

Second is a claim that the Tories and Lib-Dems were both developing the same "set of parallel...not always knowing what each other were doing". He adds: "When we came to negotiate the programme for government we discovered that we had a very similar cast of mind."

Third is his very ambitious stated aim: "We're trying to shift the centre [of politics]"

Fourth is a call for Britain to take more risks, part of an attack on health and safety culture: "We actually need to recognise that very often curtailing risk curtails opportunity to a greater degree than is proportional to the risk that we’ve reduced. And, you know, that’s a recalibration that’s really very important if this vision is to be realised."

Finally, and as an amusing aside, he used the Ministry of Defence as the perfect example of one public service that shouldn't be delivered as close to the ground as possible.

"We have no plans to equip our enemies with vouchers to enable them to choose which of our militaries they get attacked by."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse


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