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The Globe and Mail

Britain's 'Big Society:' Noble experiment in volunteerism or cynical politics?

Members of the public help clean up Manchester, England, on Aug. 10, 2011, following a night of violence that occurred during Britain's worst riots in decades.


This is part of The Globe and Mail's in-depth look at the evolution of philanthropy. Read more from the series here.

Dan Thompson likes to think of the riot cleanup that he instigated after this summer's conflagrations across England as "broom anarchy": No leaders, no rules, no planned outcomes except broken glass swept into bins and doors hung back on hinges.

Thousands of people in August answered Mr. Thompson's Twitter and Facebook appeals to clean up the cities after the burning and looting. The sight of volunteers carrying brooms and rubber gloves warmed the hearts of people around the world – and the British Prime Minister's too.

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What David Cameron saw was an incarnation of his premier idea, the Big Society – his plan to radically wrest power away from central government and into the hands of citizens, whether by ripping up the rule book on school governance or by encouraging social-investment schemes. It is meant to encourage volunteering and make it easier for charities to run public services.

"It was very odd" to hear the Conservative Leader praising him, says Mr. Thompson, an artist with a lifetime of social activism behind him. To hear his DIY message being delivered by a posh Prime Minister who is instituting drastic austerity measures was a bit hard to swallow – as it has been for much of the public.

"There's a lot of cynicism around the ideas of the Big Society, and that's because people can't untangle it from the cuts that are happening at the same time," Mr. Thompson says. "In a different place, in a different time, the Big Society is not a bad idea. "

Other world leaders have kept a close eye on Mr. Cameron's experiment, and this week Canada announced it would emulate it with a sweeping roster of tax reforms and other measures meant to boost charity's role in the nation's social compact.

That comes as a bit of surprise, because Mr. Cameron hasn't made that much progress in his uphill battle to pump up can-do spirit in a country deflated by recession and by cuts that will reduce public-sector spending by 25 per cent.

In England, neither the man on the street nor, of late, even government advisers seem particularly sold. A poll in May found that most people didn't know what Big Society meant, and yet, cruelly, 58 per cent still agreed with the statement: "It's mostly just hot air, and is being used as a cover for government cuts."

"To use the language of marketers, Big Society is a toxic brand. It's been subject to equal amounts of criticism and ridicule," says Karl Wilding, head of research at Britain's National Council for Voluntary Organizations. "Intellectually, that's a shame, because some of the policies and ideas under that brand name are actually quite sensible."

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If Mr. Cameron drops the tainted label, perhaps his revolution can be saved: Many of its mechanisms are quietly being put in place, and whether or not they gain him any political traction by the 2015 election, their effects on British society will soon be felt.

For example, the Localism Bill, which is churning its way through Parliament, will increase power for local governments to control budgets and take over public services. Citizens are already setting up "free schools," independent of government control, around the country. Innovative social-impact bonds are being developed that pay a dividend when a certain beneficial goal, such as reducing prison recidivism, is reached.

For a more ground-level look at what the Big Society is doing, head far north from the scoffers of London to Eden Valley, one of the largest and most sparsely populated council districts in England. Its biggest town, Penrith Withnail & Ihas a population of only 17,000. It is a place of stunning scenery and not much Internet access.

It is also, historically, one of the country's most overlooked and underserved areas, so the local council was only too happy, in late 2010, to be made one of the three Big Society guinea pigs, or "vanguard councils." (The fourth, Liverpool, pulled out, saying Mr. Cameron's cuts made it unaffordable.)

"The biggest problem with the Big Society is that people don't understand what it is," says Gordon Nicolson, leader of the Conservative council in Eden Valley. So he offers some examples: As in many English villages, new developments in the district were seldom approved because of planning constraints, keeping housing prices unaffordably high. Under the Big Society, the people of tiny Crosby Ravensworth were given permission to ignore protocols to build 20 new houses. All of them are now spoken for.

In the same hamlet, when the local pub was about to close, 300 people got together to buy it and run it as a co-op. Thirty other communities have plans in the works, ranging from widening broadband access to developing manure-based generators.

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These are all microventures – and "not without risk," Mr. Nicolson says – but that, after all, is what the Big Society is supposed to be about: "It's all about giving local people their heads and seeing what happens."

On a more national scale, it's true that the intention of mobilizing the voluntary and charitable "third sector" is beyond stalled: The NCVO's research shows that the sector will lose £3-billion in public funding in the next five years, and despite the prodding of the new National Citizens' Service, surveys say volunteering rates have dropped since the economic crisis hit. The Charities Aid Foundation issued a report showing that British households spend as much on cheese per week (£1.80) as they do on charity.

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