The Big Society spin on the New Year’s Honours

If the turn of the year is a signal of aspirations for the next, then we are left in no doubt that the enthusiasm for voluntarism and community action running through David Cameron’s government is here to stay.

An honours list, being a medley of awards to establishment stalwarts, unsung heroes, industry figures, creatives and performers, requires a fair amount of analysis to determine whether there are any trends in the group of people who receive them. In the government’s own words, “the vast majority of people recognised include those supporting the Big Society by making a real difference to their local community through volunteering, fundraising, social action and philanthropy”.

There is indeed plenty of evidence that people who have made the grade through charities and voluntary work have been blessed appropriately. Save the occasional dinner lady or former Blue Peter presenter, a great many public servants, including medical professionals, teachers, military figures and members of the Royal Household are also on the list. Whether the Cabinet Office had in mind Ronnie Corbett as a poster boy for the Big Society cause or not  (he was awarded a CBE for ‘services to entertainment and charity’) may be a source of gentle amusement. But it is difficult to see whether the 2012 New Years’ Honours list looks that different from any previous roll-call. The Big Society spin on this year’s awards, interpreted to varying degrees in the mainstream media, may just be yet another convenient re-badging of the initiative. After all, few governments of recent times have failed to recognise the efforts of those in the charitable and voluntary sectors, whether they are leaders or lesser-known foot soldiers of ‘good’ causes.

Another relaunch may well be in vain, undermined by the apparent disorganisation and lack of co-ordination within government. Despite the calls for a Big Society minister, there is apparently no need for one, or an advocating department other than 10 Downing Street itself, so we may as well accept that the awarding of honours is just as political in its intention than any other action of this government. Increasingly, the question must be asked: what is the overall vision at the heart of government for this policy, other than that personally restated by the Prime Minister? Aside from the work undertaken by third sector bodies to interpret the vision in practice, the three page document on the Cabinet Office website detailing government policies that support the Big Society remains the only tangible written evidence of a Big Society policy. Everything else seems to be in the Prime Minister’s head.

If that is the case, then fine. We may never be presented with anything more than a rather anonymous looking PDF. The coming year looks set to witness a further realignment of politics anyway – a strengthened Conservative party buoyed by a newly confident relationship (or not, as the case may be) with the European Union, and an even weaker Ed Miliband. Meanwhile, Labour’s ‘good society’ response has struggled past the conceptual stage, with only vague talk of mutuals and co-operatives bandied around, yet to become a part of Miliband’s broader response to the political status quo.

The real test of the Big Society in 2012 will be Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, giving the voluntary sector enormous strength as it literally delivers the games on a world stage. Volunteers will support many of the activities which will be integral to the Games’ success, in many cases for two week periods at a time. Whether the government can make sufficient political capital out of it is another question, but the Games will, in any case, provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove that the Big Society can exist on an even bigger scale that it does already.

Paul Prentice is a freelance political journalist and worked for seven years as a communications professional in the voluntary and public sectors.