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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two and a half cheers for Jesse Norman
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...
Published on 6 Dec. 2010 by S Jones

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Biased, lacks credible sources but is interesting in parts
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...
Published 18 months ago by SagMonkey80


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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two and a half cheers for Jesse Norman, 6 Dec. 2010
By 
S Jones (Liverpool, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
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. It mainly seems to rest on the fact that the lack of ideology within the Conservative Party allows it to support ideas which are timely and relevant (cynics might suggest that this is opportunistic rather than principled). Yet many of his arguments, for giving individuals greater control over their lives and limiting state interference, with the promotion of workers co-operatives, friendly societies and a broader, less exam-centric form of education, have been around for many years on the "radical wing" of the Liberal Democrats and elements of the Green Party, for example.
Where the book really falls down however is in its programme for action, which simply reads like a wish list from the Conservative manifesto. It's also illogical - having argued that public services cannot be treated by the same economic models as manufacturing, and having suggested that too much "choice" can actually be counterproductive - his solution for the NHS is "more competition".
As a contribution to the debate, and a well-argued attempt to give the "Big Society" an intellectual and philosophical background, I'd recommend that people of all political views read it (if only because it is the first and I suspect only time you'll see a Conservative MP quote Trotsky approvingly!). However, if you're looking for guidance about what might actually happen under the present Government you're likely to be disappointed.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly thought-provoking and revolutionary, 18 Nov. 2010
This review is from: The Big Society (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. The benefits to society will be impressive if the strategy does work and horribly depressing if it doesn't.

This is not a Dummies Guide to the Big Society, there are some weighty discussions around economics, psychology and political thought, but for those with the inclination and interest, it is definitely worth the read - it is both mind-opening and life affirming and for a political book, that is no mean feat. Whether it sets the grounds for the debate over the next year or more remains to be seen but as a first contribution to what will no doubt be a deluge of literature on the Big Society, we are off to a great start.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A convincing argument, 4 April 2011
This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
The Big Society is about our institutions and how to benefit from a better understanding of what makes us tick as human beings.

Over the last fifty years or so, big government and the rights of the individual have reduced the influence of institutions like family, clubs, societies, charities and professional and trade associations. It has become widely accepted that it is government's job to intervene and incentivise us in the pursuit of a set of social goals and we have developed a dependency on the state. Responsibility and authority have become more centralized and government has attempted to use the tools of traditional economics to measure and manipulate us.

Unfortunately these tools are based on a deeply flawed view of human behaviour which can be summarized as if "we are perfectly rational utility-maximizers operating under perfect information". Recent history and research show we are not like that. We are social creatures that still retain the animal spirits that Keynes made famous. We are soft wired for compassion and imitation and at the same time our "lizard brain" can drive us to fear and greed.

Our motivation is complex and ever-changing. In society, we can promote happiness and self fulfilment by providing the right conditions for people to be able to strive for self-expression through the development and utilisation of their "capabilities".

To a great extent, our loyalty, affection, regard and sense of belonging to our institutions define us as human beings. The big idea behind the Big Society is that by reinvigorating our institutions we can release the huge latent energy in our society for the benefit of everyone, giver and recipient alike. "Politically what emerges is both new and distinctive". It is neither intrinsically right nor left wing however the author does align the Big Society with compassionate conservatism.

This book gives us a firm intellectual basis for the Big Society. It is true that, with the benefit of hindsight, some of the criticism of previous governments is harsh and party political. However that does not impinge on the quality of the thinking and can be ignored. The book draws on many sources for its inspiration including human behaviour studies, economics, philosophy and politics. I hope you enjoy seeing how the strands come together to make, what is for me, a convincing argument.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Broader picture, 1 Jan. 2011
By 
N. J. Parker (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
I found the book to be an easy read and very informative on what the Big Society might be all about. The contextual information about previous economic policy and its impacts provides a useful platform from which to explain why the Big Society is necessary.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Biased, lacks credible sources but is interesting in parts, 20 Oct. 2013
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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.

Read it for interest but do be critical of what it puts across as fact (with very few sources). If this was the so-called 'philosophical' backbone of the manifesto of TBS then it is of no surprise that it has almost disappeared from political rhetoric (and replaced with 'austerity localism'). A flawed, biased, but borderline intriguing piece of work that even the author is distancing himself from.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Three Cheers for Jesse Norman, 9 Sept. 2011
This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
Whilst it is David Cameron who is focussed on implementing the Big Society, it is Herefordshire MP Jesse Norman who has provided the intellectual ballast to support it, and in my view he could not have produced a more engaging, timely or interesting book.

Why do I like this book?

For me it is the fair hand he applies in showing what is, and has been, wrong with Britian and how we can do so much better. His diagnosis focusses on the inadequacies of economic thinking which views human beings as solely rational, utilitarian agents, rather than as bundles of capability whereby we can act freely from the state in achieving more meaningful destinies.

Once we break through this misplaced view of human nature, direct pathways to improving our lives can be found. This is the Big Society: devolving and transfering power into the hands of individuals. Allied to this is the need to form institutions which harness our untapped energies to bring Britian forward. Consider free schools where parents and teachers are not constrained by state driven dogma, but are able to work together to educate their children in a more fitting way.

Or the power of music, which has sat on the sidelines in many schools whilst sport seems to drive all which students are able to do. Music in its variety and pleasure gives youth the opportunity to take responsibility and ownership over an instrument and produce song to the best of their ability.

Further, Norman takes the argument of injecting capability and responsibility to other problem we face. Through increasing entrepeneurship for example, individuals can invent and innovate, distributing the benefits of their achievement to us and the Chancellor.

All in all, I find Norman's work very appealing and practical, and Ed Miliband should not ignore but embrace the attractive consequences it can bring.

Readers will quickly find that Norman is exceptionally erudite, and writes beautifully. Anyone interested in the potential for the Coalition and the Conservative Party to revolutionise Britian will enjoy reading this.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thought-provoking overview of politics and economics, 25 April 2011
By 
Mark Pack (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
Conservative MP Jesse Norman's book, The Big Society, is certainly not uncontroversial, but it makes a sufficiently strong and clear case to have received favourable comments from across the political spectrum on its publication, including from Labour MP Jon Cruddas.

At times the book seems to have two, almost contradictory, purposes - to persuade traditional Conservatives that the Big Society is a Conservative idea they should be comfortable with, but also to persuade non-Conservatives that the Big Society is an idea that reaches out beyond the bounds of traditional Conservative ideology and so should also appeal to them. As a result, The Big Society ends up skating close to trying to be all things to all people. All people, that is, except for Fabians who are routinely criticised throughout the book for their historic love of centralisation and top-down control.

The other main weakness of Jesse Norman's book is the lack of consideration of where we start from. Jesse Norman emphasises the benefits of giving people the opportunities to make their own choices - both because it makes for a more free society and because, he argues, giving people more control over their job and their organisation makes for more efficient (public) services and a more successful economy. However, we do not all start from an equal place, and those questions of inherited wealth, privilege and opportunity get little attention from him.

In Norman's wide-ranging book (which is worth the read simply for the overview it gives of many political and economic debates, whether or not you agree with his conclusions), he repeatedly stresses two themes that he says both free marketers and Fabians have neglected - that humans are sociable beings and that institutions matters. In other words, neither the free market emphasis on the interactions of fully autonomous individuals nor the Fabian-style preference for top down control fully appreciate the way humans interact with each other, relying on and prospering from the existence of a large range of intermediary institutions.

To a Liberal Democrat ear, some of this sounds very similar to community politics (and much of the criticism of traditional economics and the failings of markets, alongside calls for restrain on excessive corporate pay, will sound familiar to more left-wing ears too).

Norman's own conclusions are that the central state should be smaller, but that it should not simply be rolled back and all left to individuals. Instead, there needs to be a growing and healthy mix of other institutions, whether it is mutuals that provide public services, local groups that give a voice to community concerns or simply organisations that bring people together to enjoy shared interests. At the same time, rather than trying to target outcomes - an approach Jesse Norman says ends up in failure under New Labour with ever-more draconian central control and target setting - government should target capabilities, giving people power and skills and then letting them get on with whatever they wish. There is an echo there of Nick Clegg's own preference for talking of social mobility rather than about outcomes.

But despite the echoes of views held by those in other parties, this is clearly a book from a Conservative MP laying out a prescription for a Conservative Party. Nonetheless, it is well worth a read by a wider audience.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A pint of lager that is in an ale glass, 17 May 2011
This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
The Big Society is one of the most vaguest ideas that is on the political landscape today. It uses words like empowerment, liberty and choice, which are wonderful words. This book is apart of the 'Nu Conservatism' that really isnt new at all. Nu Conservatism is in short a continuing of the Thatcher way of thinking, but with a twist. It uses these wonderful words to dress up what appears at its foundations a strong idea. However the difference of opinion comes in how the idea is employed. How can anyone not disagree with such words as empowerment, liberty and choice. These have vague meanings because there are so many of them. Just because The Big Society uses these words and appears to be different, the core values of the conservatives are still the same. It doesnt really matter if a pint of lager comes in an ale glass, its still a pint of lager.

This books does present a strong case in support of The Big Society concept. After all The Big Society is just a collection of ideas regarding a number of different topics, that has been given a label. This book is well researched and makes good use of making the reader understand what The Big Society is. There are places in which the author goes too far. One occasion the author tries to argue the case that The Spirit Level - Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, can be used a Nu Conservative piece of literature. I think anyone with their feet fairly on the ground can see the glaring contradiction. Aside from some gaps in the argument in the book, anyone who is interested in the current ideology of the current political landscape cant do much worse than read this book. Just do not believe that everything in this books is based in fact.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Overbaked, 16 Aug. 2012
By 
Mr. D. J. Warden "David Warden" (Bournemouth, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Big Society (Paperback)
Jesse Norman's book is useful and interesting but a bit 'overbaked'. He's not terribly clear about the 'standard model', 'rigor mortis' economics he's rejecting except that it's rationalistic, managerialist, command and control, technocratic and utopian. In short, it's 'Fabian' - his bete noire. One of his favourite mnemonics is ICE - an odd triad comprising Institutions, Competition and Entrepreneurship. He's fond of inventing new but rather vague notions like 'Compassionate Economics' and he overanalyses the discussion into 'strands' of this and that: the 'religious strand', the 'fraternal strand' and the 'civil strand'. There is some promising confluence here with Blue Labour thinking - maybe it would be a good idea if we had a coalition of Blue Labour/Red Tory/Big Society politicians. But there's little sign, so far, of any of this coming to life in the wretched Con-Lib Coalition which has little to offer except a ruinous ideology of austerity. Perhaps the biggest impediment to Jesse Norman's big idea is the term itself - the Big Society - which doesn't sound as if it's up to the job of slaying the monster of market fundamentalism unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan thirty years ago. We need something much more powerful than this.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Most sensible book that I have ever read, period., 19 May 2011
Jesse Norman has provided a very clear and yet concise exposition of what has gone before and where we need to be. People on the 'Right' whether they be Big or small c conservatives are generally suspicious of Big ideas and overarching sweeping theories. This is very much the former but at the same time not the latter. It is more a synthesis of a few sometimes different schools of thought; so much more complex than a single theorem or simple formula. Both the Government and the Opposition need to study what has been written in great depth and implement as much as is practical.
The text although thoughtfully written is relatively easy to read and surprisingly modern sounding when not referring to classical literature. Of course people will be unimpressed with his stance because he is a wealthy, super-educated, middle-class Conservative by background. However he is critical of both Left and Right wing orthodoxies of the past 30 years and has provided a true rather than (New Labour)synthetic 'middle' ground.
I have not yet read Phillip Blond but after reading this brilliant, short book feel more motivated and convinced about the New Conservatives. Of course there are always bad eggs in any walk of life; there will inevitably be lazy and greedy politicians whatever their hue. However Norman's writing indicates that some of the Cameroons are not just pre-occupied with being in Power but actually believe something AND in their 'coalition' they have got the nugget of a new way of doing Government.
Buy it, take two days off to read it; tell your friends and put it by your bedside! Then go back to it on a regular basis and start to change the way we all think about life and public policy.
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The Big Society by Jesse Norman (Paperback - 5 Nov. 2010)
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