David Cameron called time on “the era of big government” on Tuesday but admitted the state would need to be used as an “instrument” to nurture civil society for decades to come.

In an address outlining his approach to society and government, the Conservative leader argued that the expansion of the state was hampering the drive against poverty, promoting “selfishness and individualism” rather than solidarity.

Giving the annual Hugo Young lecture in London, he warned that simply “rolling back the state” would not revive civil society unless it were accompanied by reform to create a “smarter government” that supported social activism.

“In the fight against poverty, inequality, social breakdown and justice I do want to move from state action to social action,” he said. “But I see a powerful role for government in helping to engineer that shift …We must use the state to remake the state.”

“This is not the work of one parliamentary term, or even two,” he said. “Culture change is much harder than state control. It will take more than a generation.”

Mr Cameron’s team sees the speech as a direct response to critics who dismiss the claim that the Tories are now the party best placed to reduce poverty and inequality.

Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, said his rhetoric masked “a return to Thatcherism or 19th-century liberalism, calling on the state to withdraw, leaving people to fend for themselves and charities and community groups to pick up the pieces”.

The Tory leader’s speech floated ideas ranging from encouraging civil servants to act as “civic servants” to asking Facebook, the social networking website, to include “social action” as a category in profiles.

He said the expansion of the state up to the late 1960s was “generally successful” in advancing social justice. But the “big government approach” ends up “perpetuating poverty instead of solving it” and giving incentives that make people “better off if they do the wrong thing”.

“As the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours,” he said. “Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state.”

Mr Cameron’s alternative is a “smarter government” that acts as “an instrument for helping to create a strong society”.

“Our alternative to big government is the big society,” he said. “But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen.”

Cotswolds community

David Cameron need look no further than the “village agents” roaming parts of the Cotswolds for an example of where the state supports civil society, even as it seeks to reduce spending.

The scheme, launched by Gloucestershire county council, funds dozens of agents to work part-time in their villages, helping the elderly gain access to community and government support.

The agents, who are managed by a separate charity, visit the homes of older people ostensibly for a friendly chat. In the process they offer advice on claiming benefits and taking measures to stay healthy. The help can range from suggesting a community group to installing a smoke alarm or a grab rail.

In addition, agents are encouraged to set up services that are demanded by the community, ranging from allotments to yoga classes.

Although the agents are paid a salary, the project is intended eventually to bring down local spending by cutting hidden costs: broken hips, poor health and the need to go prematurely into care. While assessments show the scheme is popular, research has yet to be done on its cost effectiveness.

Jonty Olliff-Cooper, who is studying the network for the think-tank Demos, said Mr Cameron’s agenda “is clearly in line with what village agents do so brilliantly – provide the framework for civil society to flourish. It is not the state doing something for you; it is the state giving that little bit of support necessary for something much bigger to start.”

He added: “Progressive conservatism is about finding the 5 per cent that the state can do that unlocks 95 per cent more in time, energy and enthusiasm from ordinary people.”

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