For an ex-PR man, David Cameron doesn't seem to know how to sell an idea. Indeed, journalists across the political spectrum seem united in their derision for his flagship policy: the 'big society'. In this week's Observer, Catherine Bennett likened it, unfavourably, to John Major's cone hotline (remember that?) adding that, "an initiative that eludes, insults or enrages virtually everyone beyond the innermost parts of the government is to be pursued and where possible imposed by force of will". This is deeply ironic, given that the very essence of the idea is popular participation, voluntarism and 'engaged' communities – not imposition by 'big' government. Yet the prospects for spontaneous popular acceptance and advocacy of the policy seem almost nil. So what's gone wrong and what does it tell us us about how not to spread (market) an idea?
This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of the policy; I am only interested in its potential as a meme – in other words, how likely it is to become a contagious idea. I've written a lot about why great ideas catch fire, take off and spread ('like wildfire' as the cliché goes), seemingly with the speed of epidemics and just as unstoppable. When we look at these contagious ideas, what seems obvious is that they generally arise because of the emotions they generate – indeed, the more intensely we feel about them, the more likely we are to share them with others. The essence of really contagious ideas seems to be their capacity to inspire and excite.
Here's an example of just such an idea:
In early 2008 a fresh and relatively unknown Senator from Illinois announced his candidacy for the US presidency. Within the year Barack Obama had wrenched the Democratic nomination from the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, and swept to power on a seemingly unquenchable wave of shared enthusiasm.
Of course, nothing lasts for ever and it wasn't too long before Obama's approval ratings went through the floor, yet the contagiousness of Obama's message was enough to get him into office and give him a pretty good shot at a second term. But what was his 'message', exactly? Was it actually his policy that fuelled his rise or something more abstract, maybe more metaphorical? Somehow, Obama came to embody a shared hope and aspiration that transcended the rational and the prosaic (aka John McCain). Much has been written of his highly effective social media campaign, yet it was his numinosity (charisma) and his brilliant election slogan – 'Yes We Can' – that perfectly answered the electorate's desire for change and renewal after eight years of Republican rule.
So why can't the Big Society do the same? The simple answer is that it engages us cognitively rather than emotionally. Whereas Obama's 'Yes We Can' seemed to slip effortlessly 'under the radar' of conscious, cognitive thought, entering Richard Dawkin's enchanted land of memes (where contagious ideas self-replicate freely), the Big Society' stops us in our tracks, makes us scratch our heads and ask: 'What the…? And not in a good way, either. It is "the power of this phrase to send voters into a state of catatonic indifference" that make it special, says Bennett. And not just voters, or leftie journalists; even activists in Cameron's own party greeted his impassioned advocacy with puzzled silence at last year's party conference. It did not help that bigness was a concept he had previously employed as synonymous with Labour statism: "Big government has failed people in a big way," he said in 2009. Now, he argued, bigness would be the remedy for bigness.
An idea that neither inspires nor excites is unlikely to catch on anytime soon, no matter how much its progenitor talks up its benefits. Unfortunately for Cameron, the 'big society' seems to fall into that difficult category of ideas that both antagonise and bewilder us.