The "big society" in Canada
While the Conservative convention was taking place on the main stage in Ottawa over the weekend, a whole other set of conversations about conservatism was also taking place in the capital, not far away from the congress centre.
It was the Manning Centre's policy shop, set up temporarily in the basement of the Chateau Laurier, and packed to the rafters with conventioneers who were eager to hear some of the ideas now being bandied about by the founder of the Reform Party.
I sat in for most of the afternoon on Friday, and was most immediately struck by how many times the "Big Society" project in the United Kingdom was referenced by attendees. It's possible that David Cameron is being seen as a trail-blazer for modern conservatism, in the same way that Margaret Thatcher was an exemplar for many of these Canadian conservatives in the 1980s.
So what does a "big society" look like? According to the U.K. cabinet document referenced above, it looks like this:
We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.
Building this Big Society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces.
The document then gives five plans of action: give communities more power; encourage people to take a more active role in their communities; transfer power from central to local government; support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises; and publish government data.
Some of these ideas do dovetail with Stephen Harper's talk of smaller government and the Canadian Conservatives' emphasis on everything local. But this whole business of openness and publishing government data doesn't fit with the notoriously secretive nature of Harper's government and probably explains why the Manning Centre's discussions were not part of the official convention agenda. Power and policy talk, as Liberals have found, are often incompatible.
Still, I'm also not sure that the ideas of the "big society" can be claimed as uniquely Conservative. The idea of "networked" government was also floated at the Liberals' big policy conference in Montreal last March (much to the general bafflement of the punditry and spectators present, it should be noted.)
** Update ** On the Huffington Post front page this morning, another view of the Manning Centre poll (from someone reasonably well known to me), arguing that this barometer shows Canada moving in a progressive, rather than Conservative direction.
At any rate, if you're looking to see where the puck is headed (see? I can do hockey metaphors too), in terms of conservatism, I'd keep an eye on the big-society project in the U.K. Certainly Manning and his fellow conservatives are -- and they've blazed some trails of their own in the past.