‘Small is beautiful’ meets ‘Big Society’

Sensemaking / ‘Small is beautiful’ meets ‘Big Society’

Many believe ‘Small is Beautiful’ influenced Cameron’s idea. But what do these ideals mean in practice? Jonathon Porritt unpicks the rhetoric.

08 Sep 2011

Many believe ‘Small is Beautiful’ influenced Cameron’s idea. But what do these ideals mean in practice? Jonathon Porritt unpicks the rhetoric.

If nothing else, UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s feisty defence of his ‘Big Society’ has provoked lively debate. That’s partly because very few people understand what he’s on about. But it’s also because a lot of people instinctively agree that he’s probably on to something important – even if they don’t quite know what it is.

Including me. My formative years in the 70s and 80s were suffused with hyperbolic enthusiasm for ‘big ideas’ like decentralisation, subsidiarity and community enterprise, and outlier visions of bio-regionalism and self-sufficiency. All of which, with splendidly sloppy sleight of hand, were summarised under the populist slogan ‘Small is Beautiful’.

2011 sees the 100th anniversary of the birth of Fritz Schumacher, with new editions of his hugely influential work, itself titled Small is Beautiful, now on the shelves. This has prompted all sorts of speculative comparisons between Schumacher’s big idea and David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. Indeed, at the end of last year, two of Schumacher’s daughters visited Number 10 to talk to some of David Cameron’s advisors.

“Is this just a cynical ploy by the would-be greenest Government ever...?”

This really got me thinking. Is this just a cynical ploy by the would-be “greenest Government ever” to wrap itself in a ‘Small is Beautiful’ banner? Or is there any serious intent to unpack Schumacher’s ideas to help inform ‘Big Society’ thinking?

Many believe ‘Small is Beautiful’ has indeed had a big influence on Cameron’s idea – and one shouldn’t dismiss this out of hand. The appeal of Schumacher’s work has always been beyond party politics, despite his unashamedly left wing ideological roots.

David Cameron’s own imprecision about the ‘Big Society’ makes it difficult to judge the extent of Schumacher’s influence:

“The Big Society is about a huge cultural change where people in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplaces feel both free and powerful enough to help themselves and their own communities… You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society…”

As it happens, Schumacher wasn’t quite the fundamentalist on matters of scale that the title of his book might suggest. This is what he actually says:

“When it comes to the question of size, there is no single answer. For his different purposes, Man needs many different structures, both small ones and large ones… The principal task is always the restoration of some kind of balance. Today we suffer from an almost universal idolatry of giantism. It is therefore necessary to insist on the virtues of smallness – where this applies.”

Cameron’s Government is certainly keener on decentralisation than any of its predecessors. There is a sincere conviction amongst ministers that things would work out a lot better if the ‘little battalions’ were to be given their head. So there’s common ground between them on the benefits of decentralisation, by lifting the dead hand of the bureaucratic state, promoting local entrepreneurs and community volunteers, and emphasising the importance of wellbeing.

But you have to dig down to see what this means to our two idealists, in practice. For instance, Schumacher really did believe in decentralised energy systems, with far more of our energy generated from renewables at the local and community level. This is what the UK’s coalition Government subscribes to in theory, but the measures currently in place will do little to deliver the kind of revolution in distributed energy that was once promised. New nuclear power stations are still very much part of the mix. And Schumacher hated nuclear power.

Schumacher would also have had no truck with a Government which constantly undermines the role of the public sector, whilst talking up the role of the private sector and the liberalisation of public services. He would be astonished at the prospect of schools and hospitals getting bigger and bigger, not smaller, and ever more distant from the communities they claim to serve. And he would be excoriating about the Government’s failure to rein in bankers’ greed and excessive senior management salaries.

I suspect he would be in despair that so little has been done over the last 40 years to narrow the gaps between the rich and the poor, and as contemptuous today of the Treasury’s slavish adherence to conventional economic growth as he was back in 1973.

All in all, I’m pretty sure that those who see themselves as Schumacher’s heirs will fight hard to ensure that his legacy is not conveniently co-opted by a Government that, deep down, subscribes to a very different worldview.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.
You can read more of his views on his new website: www.jonathonporritt.com

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