To the long list of flagship ideas and slogans that have failed to catch on (which includes Tony Blair's Stakeholder Society and Gordon Brown's British Jobs for British Workers) David Cameron has added the Big Society. The shoeless bicycling guru who convinced the Prime Minister to put it at the centre of his bid for power is frustrated with life in government and is departing for California. As far as most Conservatives are concerned, Steve Hilton can take the Big Society with him and keep it.
But, before it is dispatched, the failure of the concept should be properly understood. It was not, contrary to how it is usually presented, purely a piece of marketing which obscured an absence of ideas. It was the reverse. It was a very good idea, appallingly badly marketed.
Cameron thinks the state has too much power. He wanted all sorts of other groups and individuals — volunteers, churches etc — to be liberated from the grip of big government, to provide services that evolve organically rather than according to the diktat of the distant bureaucrat. It is a Victorian impulse, and I mean that as a compliment.
When the Tory leader said, "There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state," he infuriated Thatcherites who perceived it as an attack.