In February I carried the news that Liberal Democrat peer Lord (Chris) Rennard is chairing the Commission on the Big Society, set up by Acevo, the umbrella body for chief executives.
Now Chris Rennard has been interviewed by Civil Society about this work:
Q: I want to talk to you about your role not just chairing the Commission, but also as a Lib-Dem peer. We’ve heard a lot from the Prime Minister and the Conservative part of the coalition about the Big Society, we’re beginning to hear more from Labour, but we haven’t heard a huge amount from the Lib-Dem side of the coalition. Can you fill us in?
A: Well I think the first thing the Liberal Democrats would say is that we don’t think the Big Society is that we think it’s actually quite an old concept. We would actually argue in political philosophy terms, that perhaps it’s quite close to the concept the Liberal party was advocating strongly in the 1970′s. But much of the concept goes back centuries if not longer than that. And that in some ways we feel that to try and suggest that it’s either completely new, or it’s the province of either one political party or philosophy, is probably undermining the concept.
I think Liberal Democrats see themselves very much as third sector champions, people who have always been prepared to say it isn’t necessarily for the state to have all the solutions. We probably feel that the Labour Party, at times, has been uncritical of state action, but also that those parties on the Right have perhaps been uncritical of the failings of the market. Therefore the Liberal Democrats have always thought that actually allowing people to do things themselves, for themselves, in their communities, communities based on geography, or communities of interest, is just as important.
And we’ve also looked to people who want to do things without a profit motive, often with a good way of doing things, and want to see people who actually do things in their life that aren’t necessarily just based on the personal profit motive recognised.
Q: So Labour’s view which seems to be coming through more strongly at the moment, that this is their territory that they need to reclaim, you don’t have a great deal of time for that perspective?
A: I think people shouldn’t fight over whose territory it is. I think that’s actually undermining to the concept. I think it’s more important to recognise that there are good values behind the concept of Big Society, and that those values go across all parties, and have lasted for a lot longer than recent years.
But how are we to achieve it? It would be much easier to achieve some of these things in a time of plenty than a time of famine. That’s quite difficult. They’re wasting all our time arguing about who is responsible for the famine or what’s the scale of the famine. The issue is how could we actually change the way in which government functions, at all levels, how to actually enable communities to control more things for themselves, and how can we encourage civil society to thrive.
Also how do we support people making these initiatives and how do we encourage people to be more philanthropic? We’re probably the second most generous country in the world in terms of philanthropy, but we’re still a long way behind the States. How can we do things to encourage people to be more philanthropic?