Obama visit to Britain: How about a peek at Cameron's 'big society'?

During President Obama's state visit to Britain, he could learn how Prime Minister David Cameron is creating a 'big society' of givers who donate time and money. The idea is barely flying yet but may have lessons for the US.

Credit; AFP PHOTO/Lewis Whyld/POOL/Newscom
British Prime Minister David Cameron met with social entrepreneurs in London last February to talk about his idea of a "big society."

During his three-day visit to Britain starting Tuesday, President Obama may want to see an example of “right-wing social engineering,” as Newt Gingrich would call it.

As a former community organizer from Chicago, Mr. Obama might relate.

Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, has been struggling in the year since taking office to implement his grand idea of transforming Britain into a “big society.” The concept is still vague to most Britons.

Mr. Cameron wants to create a culture of giving – mainly charitable donations and volunteering – that will make up for cuts in government services that are necessary in these lean times.

But “big society” is also meant to make people more accountable and responsible by putting them more in touch with their communities. Many powers of the central government, for example, are being devolved to local governing councils.

London (like Washington) does not always know best. “In this past decade,” Cameron says, “we have surely tested to destruction the idea that a bit more state action here, a welfare payment, law or initiative there will get to grips with the crime, the drug addiction, the family breakdown that plagues too many of our communities.”

Some ideas that he’s putting in place: Making it easy to donate money through ATMs; enlisting teenagers to volunteer in a “national citizenship service”; lowering tax burdens for philanthropy. Many of the ideas come from America, which already has a strong legacy of giving.

Shifting an entire society’s values takes time and patience, something rare in politics, as Obama knows. Even Cameron’s own Conservatives are a hard sell for his concept after years of singing Thatcher individualism.

The United States has yet to go through the massive budget cuts that Britain is enduring. When it does, Obama may want to import back into America some of the “giving” ideas that Britain is now trying to absorb.

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