Published on 14 Feb 2011

Big Society or Bijou Society? Francis Maude’s muddle over a “Good” idea for Business

The nightmare commission: do a report on the Big Society in 8 hours, with almost no previous preparation. The immediate response from Twittersphere to my quandary was amusing and elegant: “Get someone else to do it for free”.

We decided to focus our attentions on the Big society Business deficit. This is, if you did not know, the Government’s anointed “year of corporate giving”. But corporate donations are down. In fact, hailing from Manchester, I’ve always been intrigued by the contribution of the great Victorian philanthropists (Whitworth, John Rylands etc) so we decided to film similar buildings in London.

Sir Henry Tate is obviously for the Tate art gallery built on the grounds of the Millbank prison. But he funded hospitals in Liverpool and Manchester, and libraries alongside inventing the sugar cube. There are Tate-founded libraries in south Lambeth and Brixton. So where are the modern day philanthropists?

(I also got the best voxpop ever outside South Lambeth Tate library: I ask bright young woman “What is the Big society?” She says: “Is it obesity?”)


So today yet another relaunch for the Big society project – far from running scared of the scorn, the Prime Minister redoubled his commitment with missionary zeal. The People’s Supermarket hosting today the would-be people’s Prime Minister.

But it strikes me that some tactical errors have been made with trying to get Big Business on board.

The failing attempt to engage the advertising industry in the Big Society is a case in point. An American style fund for a series of free public service ads for health army recruitment was the plan put by the Cabinet Office to Britain’s media industry. The modern day Mad Men politely declined, not just because they already offer free work to charities. But also because right now, the same government departments are also drastically cutting back their paid-for advertising spend.

It probably doesn’t help that the same Cabinet minister behind a push to cut billions out of the bills of public sector contractors, is also the same one trying to get Corporations to sign up to Big Society inititiatives: Francis Maude. There appears to have been a muddying of these waters.

And then there is the banking industry. Francis Maude was visiting JP Morgan today to make the case for financiers to divert some of their hot money towards social projects. As part of last week’s much-hyped peace deal with the government, Banks will provide £200m of funding for a Big Society Bank alongside hundreds of millions from customers’ unused bank accounts. But the Project Merlin deal showed that this funding would be on a “commercial basis”.

As the New Economics foundation wrote in a report today, it doesn’t seem like a great deal versus the hundreds of billions that were made available on a non-commercial basis to keep our friends in the banking afloat and rolling their bonuses. It seems more like the Bijou society than the Big society.

Clearly whatever the good intentions of the Social Investment fund, and the push on volunteering, it is inescapable that libraries and council cuts undercut huge planks of the idea. I sense among some businesses that the Big Society brand is contaminated. They would rather not associate their existing corporate social schemes with a government effort that rightly or wrongly is now entangled with the austerity plan, particularly in the aggrieved key 18-24 year old advertising demographic.

Indeed it was an unexpected irony that as we were filming outside Sir Henry Tate’s South Lambeth library, a symbol of a previous Big Society, most of the locals assumed we were reporting about threats for its closure.

10 reader comments

  1. David Walker says:

    C19th history, lesson one: despite philanthropic endeavour (cf Tate, Carnegie etc), business was never going to able or willing to provide the social infrastructure necessary for social let alone economic development, let alone allocate to labour a ‘fair’ (or acceptable) share of the proceeds of economic activity. Is the “Big Society” about the redistribution of economic reward? I didn’t think so. So what does it say about the division of labour?

  2. Richard Blogger says:

    Loved your retweet:

    @spbaines @faisalislam Great point. Where is the Branson Research Inst, Grosvenor Educational Endowment or the Green Museum?

    It would be great to see a table of the country’s richest people against the country’s most generous philanthropists… and maybe (being mischievous) the country’s biggest political donors…

  3. Michael Taylor says:

    Faisal, closer to your home town there’s a magnificent example of the Big Society in action in Bolton. The Bolton Lads and Girls Club. A charity called OnSide is now making good headway in opening similar projects in Carlisle, Blackburn, Manchester and Wigan. They are funded by philanthropists and by public sector, and run by a professional board but staffed by volunteers.

    1. Philip says:

      This sounds great, but I assume it pre-dates the “Big Society”? Part of the recent rhetoric has been to criticise the “broken society” left by the previous Government, yet pick up all the good work like this under the “Big Society” umbrella. It just seems to me that there is too much political re-branding here (& the Civil service have been told to re-badge as many activities as possible as “Big Society”). I was hoping that a coalition might use less spin and be less partisan & misleading in its publicity, but I’m increasingly disappointed.

    2. Michael Taylor says:

      To be fair, David Cameron has been to Bolton and said – yes, this is what I mean.

      But it works the other way too. One the greatest risks to encouraging wider engagement through business funding and through wider participation is politically inspired cynicism. It is seen as Conservative and therefore many of those disposed to support community initiatives are put off. This was expressed to me recently by someone running The Big Issue in the North.

  4. Kim says:

    Humm, “funded by philanthropists and by public sector, and run by a professional board but staffed by volunteers”, that says a lot about “The Big Society”. The few get well paid, those that actually do the work get nothing, and the public sector funding will soon be axed to pay for high end tax cuts. The “Big Society” is about the redistribution of economic reward, from the many to the few. Concentration wealth in an ever small number of hands. Cameron just wants to take us back to the 19th Century, not into the 21st.

    1. Michael Taylor says:

      I’m not the PR for Bolton L&G, or anything, but one of the issues is that people who are volunteering as football coaches or youth helpers or whatever have a better chance of connecting with young people who have been written off by multiple agencies and schools, than if they were paid professionals.
      But I guess you were making a wider point about your disgust at the cuts, the government and the tax cuts you expect.

  5. Saltaire Sam says:

    You can imagine the conversation in a luxury house in Notting Hill Gate sometime before the last election.

    Dave (for it is he): how are we going to get rid of the public sector without revolution? We are going to have to keep some of the services, no matter how distasteful it is. But how can we do that as cheaply as possible?

    Minion: Well you know in my constituency, whenever we want things done we call for volunteers and the ladies always step forward. We haven’t had to pay a steward to make tea for yonks now.

    Dave: Brilliant. We’ll sack people and replace them with volunteers. Better still, we’ll get local councils to sack people and we’ll come to the rescue with our plan. We could call it having our cake and eating it. No, that won’t do. I know the Big Society. The Big Society is my passion!

    Minion: You always were great on BS.

  6. Sarah Wheeler says:

    Philanthropy was so last century (and the one before that), darling.

    In contrast today’s big business is too keen on blackmailing the Treasury for bigger tax cuts.

    It’s the legacy of the Thatcher generation.

  7. Philip Edwards says:


    That “Big Society=obesity” line was indeed dead funny :). I don’t know how you kept your on screen personna straight.

    So funny, you have to larf or you would cry.

    As for Francis Maude, at the last count he was worth over £3million, which probably is an underestimate. So HE wouldn’t miss a mill or two would he? Why doesn’t he give us all an example?

    But don’t hold your breath……

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