Big Society: British conservatives “refudiate” the tea party

by Russell's Rants

Originally published January 3, 2011


The United Kingdom’s new Prime Minister, David Cameron, rode the Conservative Party to victory on a platform calling for a “Big Society.” To an American ear, “Big Society” sounds a lot like Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” of expanded social welfare programs at the federal level.

But it is actually the reverse. Big Society seeks to devolve power to the local level and replace big national programs with community-based charities and organizations.

Cameron has even proposed a “Big Society Bank” to be funded by dormant deposits, but that proposal has run into resistance from the banking sector. And critics on the left suspect that Big Society is nothing more than a cover to justify Cameron’s austerity budget that has made huge cuts in social welfare programs at the national level – in other words, a return to cramped Victorian notions of philanthropy.

Yet, Big Society still sees a role for activist government at the local level, and unlike the American Tea Party, does not attempt to repudiate government per se.

Cameron is attempting to modernize the conservative philosophy that previously was based on a combination of paternalism and libertarianism. Instead of choosing between the two, Big Society’s priorities are to:

Give communities more powers
Encourage people to take an active role in their communities
Transfer power from central to local government
Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
Publish government data.

According to a favorably-disposed British commentator in the Financial Times of London last week, “Using the weapons of devolution and transparency, [Big Society] seeks to empower individuals, improve public services that fail the most disadvantaged and reconnect the civic institutions that lie between the people and the state. . . . [I]t is a massive social experiment – stripping power from the state in the expectation that individuals, communities and enterprises will pick up the reins.” In other words, Big Society is conservative communitarianism, British style.

Interestingly, the same British commentator that spoke so glowingly last week of the principles behind Big Society sought, at the same time, to distinguish it from the American “Tea Party” movement, saying that the British movement was “far removed from the rampant individualism of the Tea Party” and, indeed, was “being watched with growing interest by moderate Republicans.”

In fact, a comparison of the Big Society top 5 priorities, listed above, to the top 3 of the Tea Party demonstrate the differences between the two movements. According to the Tea Party Patriot’s Mission Statements, the Tea Party’s core values are:

Fiscal Responsibility
Constitutionally Limited Government
Free Markets

At its core, the American Tea Party is based upon laissez-faire economic principles taken to their extreme: government’s only function should be to provide for the common defense and a criminal justice system. If the British Big Society wants a return to the Victorian Age, the American Tea Party wants a return to the Gilded Age of robber baron capitalism with no regulation and no social safety net.

The new British conservative “localism” seems oddly consistent with Alexis de Tocqueville’s approving observation in “Democracy in America” that power in the United States was much more de-centralized than in Europe and based upon bottom-up and not the top-down organizations. De Tocqueville, the French political observer, traveled throughout the United States in the mid-19th century, but even California’s new governor, Jerry Brown, just campaigned on decentralization of power to put more decision-making back into state and local hands.

The Tea Party’s emphasis on radical economic libertarianism, however, would not permit localities to tax and spend for the general welfare. No public education. No regulation. No civil rights. Just corporations making decisions in their self-interest and individuals, unaided by the state, trying to survive. In other words, the Tea Party wants to de-fund the federal government but has no plans to replace the vacuum created with anything analogous at the state or local level like the British Tories do. This may explain why “Big Society” is a credible enough philosophy to capture the agenda of the ruling coalition in the United Kingdom, but the Tea Party credo has yet to catch-on beyond a certain limited group on the far right in the United States.