The Big Society Network has been quiet since its launch on the same day as the Conservative Big Society plans, which then became the centrepiece of the Tory manifesto. The Network aims to be non-partisan, despite sharing a name, so it must be difficult to figure out how to promote their plans for a 15 million-strong mutual society to support social action wihout getting too caught up in the election fray. (background on the Network here)
The Network founders, Nat Wei and Paul Twivy, have now taken some first steps towards wider engagement with posts on the Network blog about their personal passion for the project.
Nat – now a consultant – explains how he quit his job to set up the Teach First project 10 years ago to help people become teachers in the inner city, and then goes on to say of the Network:
I believe that the Big Society transcends politics and elections, the media and its constant pressure to comment and critique, and represents an ideal that is frankly worth fighting for, which is summed up by Margaret Mead so well when she wrote “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
The idea that ordinary people with very little time, and often very little money, and with no power at all, can nonetheless together make extraordinary things happen and sustain them over the years – and benefit at the same time from doing so by being healthier, more positive about the future, less likely to be antisocial and get involved in crime, and feeling more in control of their lives.
So there will no doubt be set-backs, and cynicism, and lots of detail is still needed – the Network is still very much in “beta”, as it were, but we want to encourage as many organisations and people to work with us to make it truly “ours”, whatever your background or politics, and to show us what they are already doing and want to do and how we can make it easier for more people to get involved. But whilst we British are rightly pragmatic and have a healthy skepticism of all things new and shiny, we do know what we stand for especially when our backs are to the wall, and will fight for it (even if it takes us a while to get going!). It is time to fight for the Big Society, for the right to act for our interests, whether governments and the powers that be want us to or not, and to fight for a world that is a little less cynical, a little more about doing stuff and not just talk, and one in which it is in everyone’s interest to contribute whatever they can however large or small and be part of something bigger. It’s time, in short, to fight for the right for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
Paul Twivy recalls how isolated he felt when made redundant seven years ago, and how he went on to help organise The Big Lunch last year – “the biggest collection of street parties since the Golden Jubilee”. More and more people are living alone, and are isolated in different ways. He urges us to Make Isolation History:
We have to live more locally and enjoy living more locally, because it gives us the joy of good neighbours and the power to act. Strong communities that tackle crime, partner their local government, improve their schools, support their shops and facilities, that grow their own
food, and which enable everyone to mentor and be mentored, are our path to a happier life.We need to stop being anonymous tax-payers and learn how to be strong citizens again. We must do it whilst the anger still courses in our veins about the expenses and banking scandals. This must not be about a cynical way of reducing the state in a recession and it will always be anything from an irritant to a curse for politicians in power because they will tend to prefer docile, anonymous citizens. That’s why we all have to become part politician to avoid a small minority of professional politicians making remote decisions.
To achieve this change, we need to have an enormous tool-kit of practical help. We also need to start with simple actions: talking to a neighbour of another generation, doing an on-line petition to change something within the street, experiencing the visceral excitement of a public meeting again but perhaps initially in a neighbour’s private home.
We need to harness the power of broadband, the ubiquity of the mobile, the trust of the hand-written note, the instant power of a poster in the street, to learn real democracy again. We need to share and network like crazy.
I hope to find out more about Network plans over the next week, and the potential it may have to add something different to the many projects and networks operating in the field. As I wrote here, I think that there is potential to convene a non-partisan discussion about social action and civic society, to work with existing networks, and add some of the additional flair Nat and Paul have demonstrated elsewhere.
I’m still not sure about the name though. What must have seemed a great shared brand a couple of months back when Tory hopes were high, may not useful if we get a Labour-LibDem post election pact, and a Conservative Party re-examining how much of an election asset Big Society proved on the doorstep. Either way, I hope Nat and Paul can lift the idea beyond the party politics, and engage with other potential allies in the field.