Big [Stick/Sentence/Riot/Cuts] Society – where are we now?

There are many kinds of peace. There is a more passive definition: the absence of war or noise. Then there’s a proactive one, which involves bringing order by reining in all that is chaotic and destructive; and another proactive one is like the Hebrew ‘Shalom’, which means ‘the creation of harmony and concord’.

During the riots we saw a public demand for the reining-in version, with a big stick and long sentence attached. By the end of that outbreak the discourse had turned to look at how we can make the kind of peace that renders little need for the big stick because peace is generating itself.

To some extent we’re talking about the difference between internal and external discipline. Those with strong enough internal boundaries don’t need someone else to enforce the external. That has to be more preferable, more inclusive and, critically, cheaper!

This is surely where ‘Big Society’ started. We can parody it with all those other words in between (see title) but it’s true that a good 90 per cent of this country probably watched TV dumbstruck: no reference points for the lawlessness on our screens.

As a concept ‘Big Society’ started with the belief that a letting loose of Shalom would beget more Shalom. Empowering the ready-helpers would ignite those within its reach, and social goodwill could multiply. As a model of citizenship it believed that state intervention actually inhibited goodwill by stopping the goodwilled from their proactive and responsible creation of harmony and concord. That is a certain optimistic view of both human nature and the state.

This might not be wrong as a generality. But a year in to the smaller state project, in England we have not seen an outbreak of Shalom but of citizens crying out for protection against chaos and destruction.

When the civic intermediaries and policing started to be reduced we didn’t experience the letting loose of peace. What we seemed to discover was a thousand lateral justifications for why, this time, it was my turn to be a ‘have’ and not a ‘have not’.

It’s likely that at the end of the day we won’t find a mass grievance (although many will project one into it) but many many smaller ones: a thousand personal opinions but no community opinion behind the disruptions. This is surely inevitable in a society that is becoming more atomised and diverse whilst removing the peace-making energy that consolidates communities. Expecting this to happen without state presence is like throwing a party for sheep and believing the wolves won’t gatecrash (or running a residents association and expecting the problem families to join in). It takes more than that: it takes peace-building work from the state because the state is the one thing that, by definition, is everybody’s.

Unfortunately for us all, the Big Society will struggle to make this happen if it relies on the predisposed Shalom-builders. And it will discover that the marginalised won’t wish to join in if they have nothing to build for. A view of citizenship that presumes that letting out good-will will rule the day is a dream until everyone is around the table in a way each perceives to be fair. At that point whether the problem is ‘entitled people’ at the top or entitled people at the ‘bottom’ won’t matter – it will be down to whether or not people collectively feel they have the power to rein each other in, with a stake in the solution. That is the power of our citizenship.

This article was published originally on

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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