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That was the Big Society

Joseph Chamberlain (1836 - 1914) was a British...

Joseph Chamberlain

For the past thirty years, the dominant narrative of politics in this country has been that of individual choice in a free market.

You haven’t got a job? Get on your bike and find one, we were told. Nowadays, our entertainment glorifies the entrepreneur in shows like The Apprentice or Dragons Den. Individualism is prized more highly than community engagement. Yet, we scratch our heads and wonder why things are going wrong.

Back in April this year, I went to a talk given by Conservative guru Phillip Blond, which had been organized by the Chamberlain Forum in Balsall Heath. It was about community cohesion and referred to the Birmingham legacy of the Chamberlain family.

The Chamberlains – Joseph, Neville and Austin – and their friends set-up a range of different public services for the benefit of those less fortunate than themselves.

Joseph’s son-in-law, the industrialist John Nettlefold, who lived at Winterbourne in Edgbaston, was a noted housing reformer instrumental in developing the model garden suburb at Moor Pool in Harborne.

Similarly, visitors to Birmingham still admire the Bourneville Village created by the Cadbury family for workers at their nearby chocolate making plant in Bourneville.

These wealthy industrialists were the benefactors of late Victorian and Edwardian England. They saw this as their public duty to work for others and model philanthropic behaviour. It was a notion of public service which was done not for personal profit or individual aggrandisement but for public benefit.

If this was the big society, it is a model worth copying now.

From → Communities, Practice

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