Has any political slogan been harder to decipher than “The Big Society”?

When John Major wanted a return to what he called “the old values of neighbourliness, decency and courtesy”, he announced it was time to return “Back to Basics”.

This was widely interpreted as an attack on single mothers and unmarried sex in general, which may not have been what Mr Major meant but certainly demonstrated that the phrase had gripped the popular imagination.

When Franklin D Roosevelt promised Americans during the Great Depression that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” the poetry of his language ensured the phrase would be quoted, often incorrectly, for many decades to come.

Whether it was really true that the near-collapse of the banking system was a result of nothing more than lack of confidence is perhaps debatable. But there’s no doubt that his words were powerful.

The Big Society may also go down in history but, if so, one suspects that historians in 50 years time will still be scratching their heads and trying to work out what it meant.

In opposition, the Conservatives painted themselves as supporters of voluntary and community organisations, and promised to remove some of the red tape and regulation that was supposedly holding them back.

This was highly laudable, but things became more confusing when Mr Cameron announced that the “big society” was to be an alternative to the “big state” which he opposed.

Voluntary and community organisations already existed under Labour. Indeed, they had existed for many decades.

While there might be things government could do to help them grow and expand, it was always hard to see how they could step in and replace the work that the state was doing. They were already active, and doing what they could. It’s not as if volunteers were sitting around doing nothing because the state was in the way.

And the nature of the voluntary sector had changed. While many voluntary bodies were formed to fill gaps in what the state did, or even to counteract some of the things governments were doing, they were increasingly co-opted into the state apparatus in the Labour years.

Councils provided fewer services directly and started awarding contracts to private organisations. These included profit-making businesses but also included voluntary and community organisations, which often provided services more effectively and at a cheaper cost than the commercial sector.

As a result, cutting back on the state has actually meant cutting back the voluntary sector too, as authorities took contracts away.

Is there an argument for doing this? Well, maybe, but not in the middle of an economic slowdown when the services the voluntary sector provided are needed more than ever.