Analysis: Just how Jewish is the Big Society?

By Martin Bright, October 22, 2010
Challenges: David Cameron: at The Big Society conference in March

Challenges: David Cameron: at The Big Society conference in March

The full consequences of the Comprehensive Spending Review will take some time to digest. But one implication of the cuts is that the concept of the Big Society will immediately move from the realm of think-tank utopianism into the hard reality of delivery on the ground.

Whether the so-called "third sector" will have the capacity to cope with the fall-out from 500,000 job losses predicted by the government is yet to be seen.

In past months, several writers on these pages have pointed out how much the coalition could learn from Jewish charities and social enterprises. No-one doubts the capacity of large organisations such as Jewish Care
and Norwood to deliver health and social care services, nor the wider plethora of Jewish charities to
provide models of self- sufficiency
and mutual support.

However, several important
questions are raised by the yoking
of the Big Society to the Jewish charitable ethic.

How far is the connection a conscious one on the part of David Cameron's Conservative Party? How applicable are the principles developed by one small community to wider British society? And is the Jewish community ready for the level of expectation placed upon it?

Even model charities will not be immune from the cuts

Anyone in doubt about the answer to the first question should refer to David Cameron's speech to Jewish Care in July, available in its entirety on the Conservative Party's website. Although little-noticed at the time, it provides an exposition of the Big Society far more detailed and lucid than in the party's election manifesto itself.

"Not everything can be achieved through coercion by the state or competition between individuals," he said.

"In fact, many of the challenges we face as a country can be tackled through the multitude of acts of voluntary co-operation that makes up what we call society."

The new Prime Minister used the speech to invoke everything from Hillel's "If not now, when" axiom, to Chief Rabbi Sacks's book, The Home We Build Together, in support of his concept of the Big Society. But this is not a new dicovery for Mr Cameron. He told this newspaper in 2007 that the Jewish community encapsulated his vision of Britain, long before that vision had become the Big Society.

"The essence of what I'm saying about the future of the country, how we should run our government,
I think is something that Jewish people will profoundly understand, which is that we need a sense of social responsibility."

There are some within the Jewish community who remain sceptical about the inspiration Mr Cameron claims to draw from the Jewish way
of doing things.

One prominent social activist told me: "Just because what we do often represents the best of self-sufficiency and social responsibility, this does not mean that we believe there is no role for the state."

Many smaller Jewish organisations, like any other charity, are dependent on public money, either from grants or from selling the services they provide to state bodies such as local authorities. They will not be immune from the cuts.

This week marks a watershed for the "Big State". Because so much has been made of the connections between Mr Cameron's Big Society and the Jewish commitment to social responsibility, it could also prove to be a watershed for this community.

Last updated: 10:36am, October 22 2010