Chapter 1: ‘Big Society’ and ‘Great Society’: A Problem in the History of Ideas
Jose Harris 1 INTRODUCTION Everybody uses the word ‘society’, but nobody is quite sure what it means. Over many centuries, great philosophers and religious teachers, economists and sociologists, sublime poets and ordinary folk have all pondered the nature of this mysterious entity. Against this background, how are we to interpret the currently fashionable term ‘Big Society’? Is it a variant of the much older term ‘Great Society’, or a smaller version of the same thing (and, if so, how much smaller?), or is it something quite different? And how does ‘Big Society’ relate to other similar-sounding historical antecedents, such as the ‘Great Community’, the ‘Great Republic’, the ‘Great Commonwealth’, the ‘Good Society’, the ‘Civic Society’ as conjured up by Gordon Brown (Brown, 2000), or simply ‘Society’ tout court, as the arithmetical sum of ‘individuals and families’, famously envisaged by Margaret Thatcher (Thatcher, 1987)? Contributors to the ‘Big Society’ debate, both enthusiasts and critics, often assume quite recklessly that it is closely akin to, or even identical with, such terms as the ‘Great Society’ or ‘Civil Society’.1 But history suggests that ideas and concepts can subtly, or even dramatically, change their meanings in different cultural and historical settings. This paper explores a few of the historical antecedents of the current debate, and suggests that over many generations human understanding of both ‘Great Society’ and ‘Big Society’ has been more variable, complex and unpredictable than initially meets the eye. 2 The historical emergence of ‘society’ Contested views about the virtues of large-scale...
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