Last week's BBC R4 Moral Maze programme on Big Society featured a kind of moral pillow fight with Michael Portillo, Melanie Philips, Matthew Taylor, and Claire Fox trying to score points without choking on clouds of intellectual feathers.
Community activist Silla Carron was given the chance to set the scene and did so with a welcome unpretentiousness. But Big Soc is an unwieldy cluster of concepts and the conversation was bounced from all directions with issues like welfare dependency and the crowding out hypothesis, the perceived failure of redistributive policies, class-differences in volunteering, and so on.
Claire Fox's concern that the state might be micro-managing us made it seem like she was lashing out with the left while coshing herself with the right. Her interpretation of Big Society is that it means the state setting up baby-sitting networks and telling us to organise street parties - 'somebody else organising us to be neighbourly'.
One of the witnesses, Mark Littlewood, was concerned that BS does not go far enough in 'getting away from the idea that the state bestows on us;' but Nick Pearce was 'sceptical of the claim that if the state is strong, communities are weak.' You'd expect Phillip Blond to be a formidable opponent in this arena. He noted that the state as provider is a bankrupt model and argued for economic decentralisation and 'budgetary capturing for the poor'; but the soft furnishing was mostly thrashed about elsewhere. All good clean fun though you can be sure.
Mathew Taylor pointed out that we are not all equally able to contribute to this new moral culture, and argued gently that 'voluntary efforts work best when you have an effective state'. He too dodged most of the buffeting. Portillo meanwhile appeared to try and clobber everyone with some kind of intellectual mattress whose weight he seemed unable to lift until, at the end, he brought the house down by referring to Margaret Thatcher as a guru. This was even more unworthy than hearing Melanie Phillips matronise us thus: 'there are people who are not religious who are good people.' Why that's so wise and reassuring ma'am.
Thanks to Ben Lee for the headsup.