The ‘Big Society’, Dutch-style

by Elias Blum

Done right, I’m very keen on the idea of a ‘Big Society’.

Deeply rooted in Christian Democratic thought, the Big Society, in principle at least, blends the complementary concepts of subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good, and embeds these in the structure of a mixed, centrist, social-market economy. It combines the greatest possible liberty with the best possible social co-ordination and protection.

Of course, Philip Blond might have understood this, but David Cameron and the Tories never did. In their hands, the Big Society became a meaningless phrase: a branding sticker to cover privatisation and service cuts – with just a hint of Victorian volunteerism thrown in to pick up the pieces.

So I thought it would be worth exploring how the Big Society could be done properly. What would it look like for the state to take an active role in co-ordinating and empowering all sections of society to work together, freely but co-operatively, for the common good?

And the Netherlands is a good place to show what such a Big Society might look like.

Interestingly, it starts with a constitutional provision. The Big Society isn’t just a policy fad – or, worse, a duplicitous slogan – it is a set of institutional provisions entrenched in the very constitutional fabric of the state:

Article 134
(1) Public bodies for the professions and trades and other public bodies may be established and dissolved by or pursuant to Act of Parliament.
(2) The duties and organization of such bodies, the composition, and powers of their administrative organs and public access to their meetings shall be regulated by Act of Parliament.  Legislative powers may be granted to their administrative organs by or pursuant to Act of Parliament.
(3) Supervision of the administrative organs shall be regulated by Act of Parliament.  Decisions by the administrative organs may be quashed only if they are in conflict with the law or the public interest.” (The Constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, 2008).

“The Constitution now [since the revision of 1938, which introduced this provision] specifies that the lawmakers may call into being groups which can act upon the regulation of certain trades and industries. Regulating authority may be given to these bodies. Naturally their work must be subject to the control of the Government. The Government, therefore, is empowered to suspend or to annul their decisions whenever it feels that these are in conflict with the general good. Here new perspectives have opened up for democracy. In these new organs contractors, workers, consumers, specialists and representatives of general interests are brought together in order jointly to handle and solve questions of industrial life. This means democracy in industry, and as a result it brings competent and experiences citizens far more that formally into co-operation in pursuit of the general good. These new organs may also be called to collaborate on the preparation and execution of social laws and thus transfer the task largely from bureaucratic hands to those of the groups concerned.” (J. W. Albarda, ‘Netherlands: Constitutional and Political Aspects’, in B. Landheer (ed.), ‘The Netherlands’, University of California Press, 1943).

This decentralised and co-operative self-regulation of particular activities, under the guiding and restraining hand of the government as the guardian of the common good, is brought together in institutions of national co-ordination:

“In specific policy areas such as socio-economic policy and education policy, the leaders of the relevant sub-cultural networks also work together, often in special institutional arrangements such as tripartite advisory councils. The Socio-Economic Council, in which representatives of employers organisations, trade unions and government appointed experts meet, is a typical example.” (A. Timmermans and R. Andeweg, ‘The Netherlands: Rules and Mores in Delegation and Accountability Relationships’, in K. Strøm, W. Müller and T. Bergman (eds), ‘Delegation and Accountability in Parliamentary Democracies’, Oxford University Press, 2005).

Imagine how Grangemouth might fare under such a collaborative way of working. Imagine what could have happened to Linwood’s car factories, or to the Glasgow shipyards, or any other branch of Scottish industry, if we the state had taken upon itself a role of fostering and supporting the active co-operation of all social partners, rather than alternating between the extremes of centralising state ownership, on the one hand, and leaving them to the cold and careless hand of market forces on the other.

If only we could try it. It might even work.