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The Big Society Paperback – 5 Nov 2010


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Product details

  • Paperback: 156 pages
  • Publisher: The University of Buckingham Press (5 Nov. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0956395201
  • ISBN-13: 978-0956395207
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 13 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 134,156 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Confused by Cameron's vision for a new society? Here's the clearest explanation yet... "What's the big idea?" "Why can't politicians articulate one?" Nobody interested in politics can have failed to hear these laments. They are particularly discernible during election campaigns and following the death of demagogues. Conservatives tend to be suspicious of big ideas. They think that when ideas get too big, they become ideologies. Ideology is a way of thinking that aims at power, not truth, and the whole basis of conservatism is scepticism towards the possibility of true knowledge. Yet the Conservative-dominated coalition ruling Westminster does have a big idea. It is called the Big Society, and Jesse Norman has provided the best explanation we have yet had of it. The new Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire has worked in finance, academia and the third sector. He writes lucidly, has the ear of the Tory leadership, and during his time at Policy Exchange, Cameron's favourite think-tank, published several works whose ideas this book coheres. Its argument is clear and cogent: the state is too big and boisterous. It should be smaller and smarter. Growth in the power of our state has produced diminishing returns in the quality of public services, portrays citizens as passive recipients of centralised benefaction, and is unaffordable. It has taken place during the reign of homo economicus a flawed representation of the human being's economic preferences, which portrays him as rational and acting on the basis of perfect information, when actually he is neither. At the same time, political theory has been obsessed with the freedom of the individual and the function of the state, but said too little about what is in between: institutions. We need a theory of institutions. The Big Society aims to harness their power, whether large (school) or small (family), to boost fraternity. Norman calls on a central idea in the work of Michael Oakeshott, his conservative hero, to advance this theory. Oakeshott distinguished between two types of society: civil versus enterprise associations. The former is an association of citizens who are equal under the law but have no common purpose or plan; the latter is a project in which citizens are conscripted into a common, broad undertaking, usually aimed at world improvement. Oakeshott preferred the former. Norman's introduction of a third category is liable to be remembered as his great contribution to political thought. It is timely, astute and compassionate. For the Big Society, the "connected" society, we need a philic association, from the Greek philia, meaning "tie", "affection", "friendship" or "regard". This can be a vehicle for the human affections embodied by institutions. Unleashing those affections is the aim of the Big Society. This book is something else: the elucidation of a philosophical tendency. It doesn't so much go beyond left and right as reacquaint conservatism with a noble tradition of old Whiggery one that accommodates the best intentions and insights of the left. It coheres major recent academic advances, and is argued with urgency. Next time you hear someone caterwauling about the lack of big ideas in politics, refer them to this. --Amol Rajan; Independent 21 November 2010

John Maynard Keynes spotted the problem even before it came about. In his new book on the big society, the philosophically inclined Tory MP Jesse Norman quotes an article the economist wrote in 1939: "Why cannot the leaders of the Labour party face the fact that they are not sectaries of an outworn creed, mumbling moss-grown, demi-semi Fabian Marxism, but the heirs of eternal Liberalism?" Heirs, perhaps but disinherited. There are few liberals in the Labour party these days. The task of thinking liberal thoughts has been left to the coalition. On Tuesday Nick Clegg will give the Hugo Young Memorial lecture at the Guardian premises, and try to persuade his audience that the government draws its strength from ideology, not opportunism. He will step away from government by measurement and defend the liberal idea of individual human advancement. He has even been reading Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. Hayek next, perhaps. Much of the left will sneer at this: but if I was inside Labour I would worry that Britain's centre-right parties are making a better job of setting out an optimistic philosophy of government than statist conservatives on the left. They have fallen into a negative sulk: everything, Labour predicts, is about to get worse, which only makes sense as a strategy if you have something better to offer. Labour doesn't. The party has become uninteresting. The coalition is doing the thinking. Yes, the "big society" is waffly, unmarketable and disliked by many Tories. Norman's book won't persuade sceptics. But it is also a serious attempt to replace two misguided philosophies, one on the left and one on the right. Norman attacks Labour's state centralism. More interestingly, he also questions the liberal market economics which not long ago seemed a prerequisite of Tory thinking. He's trying to offer something original and he is not the only one in his party to do so. --Julian Glover Guardian 22 November 1010

This rich discussion of the origins and possibilities of the Big Society is the book that many of us have been waiting for. The idea of a Big Society has received just about every possible reaction: there have been those who have enthusiastically embraced the idea of freeing up communities; there have been those who have instinctively railed against any suggestion that the State should budge over on the driving seat; and then there have been those who are instinctively wary of an unfamiliar idea. Jesse Norman, the book s author, uses a fantastic Ernie Bevan quote to describe the attitude of this last group - Open up that there Pandora s box, and who knows what Trojan horses won t jump out of it! With the debate around Big Society raging, the publication of this book could not be more timely . The book is for: those who are curious to learn more about Big Society; those who think they understand Big Society but are open-minded enough to test their own thoughts and assumptions; and also, I think, those who are unconvinced by the whole thing but are unsure as to what exactly it is they are unconvinced by. This book will satisfy each constituency but it s only fair to issue a health warning to the unconvinced: Reading this book may decisively erode your scepticism! Jesse Norman has been writing about the idea of a Big Society since long before the term became universally known. Those of you who have read his previous offerings, such as Compassionate Conservatism and Compassionate Economics, will know this. Among other pursuits and achievements, Mr. Norman is a former Executive Director of the think tank Policy Exchange and is the newly elected MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire. The book is rich in content and wide ranging in themes but I want to pick out just a few tasters to whet your appetite. Rigor Mortis Economics is a culprit Previous Governments acceptance of textbook economics, where humans are treated as average units, has eroded understanding of individuals and communities. This has led to ever more centralisation and micromanagement from Government, which has affected how we perceive our own role in life and made us unsure about what we can or should do and who we need permission from in order to do it. We know this isn t how things should be we know that there are things we do such as volunteering, which this text book approach does not explain. Big Society is about correcting this confusion. This is not about politics Mr. Norman is concerned that the art of politics has supplanted the art of government. However, David Cameron s commitment (and the Coalition s commitment) to the Big Society agenda is a rejection of what the author calls ice cream van politics. It s not about the national press sound bite of the day it s about what works for individual communities. Those of you who have read my previous post on this topic will know that I really support this assertion. It s impossible to do justice to the quality of argument in the book in this space but hopefully this gives an idea of the themes it covers. Being about Big Society, it is appropriate that this book is not prescriptive. It does not dictate to the reader what they should make of Big Society. What it does extremely well is equip you with a greater understanding of the roots of Big Society and helps the reader understand how, as a country, we have let go of those roots through an ever more centralising government. But don t panic! We are not left wallowing in despair over the state we are in the book looks to the future and the reader is left in a much stronger position to understand what Big Society could mean to their life, their family and community. --Andrew Laird; Point of View

About the Author

Jesse Norman MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, the most influential British conservative think tank based in London. He is widely regarded as one of the architects of New Conservatism, a political philosophy that stresses using traditionally conservative techniques and concepts in order to improve the general welfare of society. He is the author of many books and pamphlets and has written widely in the national press.

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By S Jones on 6 Dec. 2010
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As someone with a professional interest in the concept of "Big Society", I read this book with interest. It is a well thought through, interesting read and stimulated me enough to want to critique some of the author's arguments.
However, it does suffer from a number of flaws. The first is that it is unclear who the author is writing for - fellow conservatives who he is trying to persuade around to his views, or the "intelligent general reader" who wants to learn more about the intellectual ideas behind the Big Society. As a result, the early chapters engage far too much in "Punch and Judy" politics with some quite irritating Blair/Brown bashing (not that they don't deserve to be bashed, simply that this is the wrong place if your aim is to convince people that this is a new direction in politics), while Thatcher and Major are let off lightly -John Major is simply airbrushed out of history. The further you read into the book however, you'll find much of his analysis is extremely critical of Thatcherism and her brand of "libertarian" economics (even if he dare not openly criticise her too much).
Secondly, there is a very well argued, persuasive case against modern economic theory and its application to real life problems. The author suggests that classical economists such as Smith and Ricardo were far more grounded in practical application and understood the limits of their discipline. Yet, despite giving one of the clearest explanations of the Marxian concept of "commodity fetishism" I've ever read, Marx himself (who fits naturally in with Smith and Ricardo) is not mentioned.
Thirdly, the attempt to link "big society" with "compassionate conservatism" is quite weak.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By SagMonkey80 on 20 Oct. 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've been meaning to read this book for a long time. I'm currently doing a PhD and The Big Society pops up a lot so I was looking for a credible source to at least sketch out its origins and give a convincing blueprint of how it could be effectively implemented in social and public policy.

I have quite a few issues with this piece of work. First of all, it closely references very few academic texts and seems to rely on secondary material for most of the points he is trying to make. Nowhere is this more evident than his discussions on Hobbes. Secondly, his analysis of the 'cause' of the financial crisis is painful and downright deluded. Although he makes reference to banks then selling on mortgages to other banks, he makes no reference to the extreme financial speculation that was going on in the sector and - typically Conservative - lays the blame mostly at the individual's door (i.e. they should have known better). My third main issue is that he calls the Big Society a 'philosophy' (p. 195). Eh... no. And quoting The Spirit Level does not make this an academic piece of writing.

Interestingly enough, I visited the author's website and this book is not under his list of publications. I wonder why.

The only saving grace of this book - as far as I am concerned - is his half-decent summary of the crisis in economics and the failure of rational choice theory to be applicable in this (post?)modern age. Even then tho, it is one-sided. His analysis of the Tax Credits system is also cringeworthy. And his distinction between passive and active citizens is dangerous. And is being replicated in the controversial volunteer for benefits ethos that is contributing to the downfall of the Colaition government.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By publicsectorman on 18 Nov. 2010
Format: Paperback
As someone who will be involved in the Big Society for some years to come, and indeed felt they had been for some years already, I bought this book as the first to have that title, in the hope it would clarify just what the Big Society is all about.

I am not sure whether Mr Norman's conception is the same as that which various government Ministers and a plethora of central government civil servants hold in their heads, not least as he is clearly an intellectual length ahead of the game, but his version is extremely refreshing. As long as you can ignore the occasional party political swipe at the Labour party (and to be fair, he does also swipe at Thatcherism too), the rigour of his analysis and the perceptiveness of his thinking was highly refreshing. I am not sure what sort of Conservative Mr Norman is, perhaps a small-c one than a full on party animal, but he sets out both a clear historical story as to why we have let the state become so dominant, but also how we can reverse that trend and reinvigorate people's natural entrepreneurialism and inventiveness, to the benefit of all as well as the individual.

How much this book will help those of us who work in the public sector to make the change is debatable as we will be constrained by our political masters and senior civil servants, but if those could be forced to read this book, there may yet be some hope. One has to hope that the senior members of the government are in tune with Norman's conceptualisation of the Big Society (and he does seem to have spoken with many of the key figures in writing the book) as that may in turn force their (civil) servants to change the habits of a lifetime and become less dictatorial and top down.
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