Ask ten different Cabinet Ministers what they understand David Cameron's 'Big Society' to mean and you're likely to end up with ten rather waffly but competing answers. As far as asking the man himself, right now, it seems to be an exercise about as rewarding as nailing jelly to walls.
At various points, Cameron has defined the Big Society as being about "devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny", and "opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve." At other moments, he has fleshed it out as providing the means for 'groups' to "run Post Offices, libraries, transport services and shape housing projects".
The impressionistic nature of the policy certainly gives a passably convincing response to the charge that in common with Margaret Thatcher, modern Tories still believe there is no such thing as society. 'There is such a thing as society', intone the Cameronistas, 'it's just not the same thing as the state'. Ask those on the political left, however, and you're likely to get a fairly unanimous reaction, where it's viewed as little more than 'a figleaf for Tory cuts'.
While there might be a fair bit of substance to that charge, I can't help but feel that it's one which risks diminishing the role which volunteers of all kinds play in society. For one thing, we've got a strong tradition of volunteering in Scotland and are quite used to the idea of the third sector and charities providing services in our communities, with or without the aid of government money. There's also nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that government should enable individuals to step in to do that which the state can't, or which private business either won't or perhaps shouldn't.
When we think of volunteering, it's probably of something like the WRVS running the cafe at the local hospital, or a community transport service, rather than filling in for the full-time professional agencies of the state. However, why shouldn't it also encompass the work of Retained Firefighters or Special Constables? The RNLI has always relied on volunteers, while the work of First Responders in assisting the ambulance service across rural Scotland has helped to save many lives in situations where minutes really can be the difference between life and death.
In a small way, I volunteer myself as a member of one of my local Rotary Clubs. Each year, through a variety of events, we raise thousands of pounds to support local and international charities. Particularly, we support the efforts of Rotary International to eradicate polio and have taken the lead in Scotland in supporting a charity which enhances early life chances for young children in rural Nepal - a venture for which we were able to gain significant financial backing from the worldwide Rotary Foundation.
Closer to home, we stage mock job interviews, run cookery and music competitions, and send local youngsters on an outdoor education and leadership camp in the Cairngorms. The more green fingered amongst us tend to the community garden which the club opened a couple of years ago, and take turns cutting grass at the old folks home. But while we might do a lot, we're never going to be in a position, even alongside thousands of others, to ever try and replace Aberdeenshire Council's education or social work departments, far less the efforts of the Department for International Development. And nor would we want to even try.
Volunteering can bring much to the table that central or local government will never be able to and should not be expected to, but there are limits. The main block to volunteering isn't usually money or even suitability – it's about having the time to give, and finding a suitable outlet through which to give it. We live in a society where many are underworked and many more find themselves overworked. In that regard, there's a lot which can be done to assist more people who might welcome the opportunity to volunteer.
The right to ask for flexible working, for instance, now exists. However, it's much harder for small businesses to offer this flexibility than it is for larger businesses. Even something as basic as offering greater support to employers to allow those who wish to volunteer, or who need to work unconventional hours to look after a child or older relative, could transform the quality of life of millions of people.
Why, for instance, should someone on Jobseeker's allowance, be penalised through the withdrawal of benefit for working more than 16 hours in a week? Equally, why is it that the most experienced in our workforce find it so difficult to scale back their hours as they approach retirement, without jeopardising either their jobs or future pension entitlements? Our inflexible approach not only creates a disorientating shock when retirement finally comes, it also deprives people of opportunities to find a future role in the community, which would enable them to do something worthwhile while helping others to make the most of what life has to offer them.
If you want to look at it this way, we already have a 'Big Society' in Scotland, supported by thousands of volunteers and community minded individuals who expect nothing in return, but we won't make that society bigger or better simply by making the state smaller. We could, however, with the judicious use of some policy levers currently out of reach of Holyrood, begin to make it easier for more people to make their contribution. Now that would be a society worth being part of.