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The infamous quotation most frequently deployed to denigrate the Thatcher legacy is from her interview with Woman’s Own in which she stated “there is no such thing as society”. Although many would argue that this has been stripped of all context, the point has become a rather sore totem of questions which have vexed conservative thought ever since. Most notably, how can conservatives – natural sceptics of top-down organisation – define a relationship between government and society at large?

Civil society refers to those institutions, formal and informal, to which people willingly and without quantifiable reward donate their time, energy and money. In Edmund Burke’s “little platoons”, Michael Oakeshott’s notion of  “common association” and Roger Scruton’s defence of “autonomous institutions”, conservative thought has a common thread. There is a shared belief in a civic realm (that belongs to neither government nor commerce alone) which deserves to be strengthened. In recent political history, however, transporting this from the abstract to the deliverable has proven a bruising experience for Conservative politicians.

Thatcherism lent itself to an easy caricature of selfishness and rapacity which has proved difficult to shift. John Major’s reply to this was a “back to basics” approach of “long shadows, warm beer” and all the other comforts of home. Although Major’s message lacked energy in tone and clarity in policy direction, one creation in particular stands out as an extraordinary success. Since 1994, the National Lottery has provided a new and independent revenue stream worth a cumulative £38 billion to nonprofits and good causes.

A more deliberate response to the issue of a conservative understanding of voluntary association came in the form of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. At its heart, this was a civic conservative project that sought to inject an American-style optimism into the way we think about addressing social problems and charitable responses. Cameron summarised this as a “broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”.

This said, the ‘Big Society’ label can be attached to a number of significant policies including the establishment of the National Citizen Service (NCS) and Free Schools. Social investment was an area of particular focus under the previous Government with a specific tax relief, social impact bonds, and support to new institutions like Big Society Capital and the Social Stock Exchange.

Against the backdrop of austerity and hampered by poor branding, the ‘Big Society’ became something of a punchline rather than a vision which had earnt the respect of the public. In the eyes of its many critics, it somehow managed to be both a naff distraction and a sinister plot to offload the responsibility for delivering public services onto the voluntary sector. This has not been helped by what seems to be the abandonment of the mandatory three days’ leave to volunteer pledge.

A keystone of Cameron’s approach to civil society was the promise of localism. Although the Localism Act 2011 has provided for ‘assets of community value’ and ‘power of competence’ for councils over all areas not reserved by Whitehall as well as laying the foundations for City Deals, Britain remains one of the most centralised countries in the developed world. Without a much greater constitutional shift towards the local, civil society will remain dependent on the whims of central government.

With a change of Prime Minister, the ‘Big Society’ has mutated into the ‘Shared Society’ and the latest chapter in the story of the Conservative Party’s decades-long grapple with the issue of the civic space is the Government’s Civil Society Strategy published earlier this month. Despite its mid-August release, the strategy has been generally well-received by third sector organisations for its ideas and observations, but again, criticised for a lack of resourcing. Some notable aspects of the new strategy include the distribution of dormant assets, the creation of two new institutions focussing on helping young people into employment and addressing financial exclusion, an ‘Innovation in Democracy’ programme to trial new local decision-making structures such as online platforms, and deliberative citizen juries.

Understandably, having a civil society strategy drafted by the state may seem a total contradiction in terms. The response from Danny Kruger, DCMS advisor and veteran of the ‘Big Society’, is that “government’s job isn’t just to fix social problems directly, but to strengthen the foundations of society”.  Although it is encouraging to see this latest iteration of thinking on the subject identify new institutions and ways of working, there is a continuing lack of radical reform. One particular area of omission is that of civic education akin to what is practised in the United States. Taking place inside and outside of the classroom, civic education in the United States seeks to provide young citizens with a fuller knowledge of their political system and institutions as well as helping foster a sense of democratic engagement and communal responsibility. This is something that could form part of the work of an expanded NCS.

Although the Burkean affection for the organic, the lived and the local remains at the centre of modern conservative thought, it is still a cause that is yet to be channelled into significant reform. Britain is a generous country known for its charitable culture, but this remains an underutilised asset the full potential of which we still don’t know how to harness.

Oscar Rocklin is a graduate intern at Bright Blue The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.