Big Society

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The Big Society was the flagship policy idea of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto. It now forms part of the legislative programme of the Conservative – Liberal Democrat Coalition Agreement.[1] The stated aim is to create a climate that empowers local people and communities, building a "big society" that will take power away from politicians and give it to people.[2] While some have responded to the policy favourably, its aims have been queried and disputed by other commentators.

The Big Society concept applies to domestic policy in England only. These policy areas are devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and are therefore the responsibilities of respectively the Northern Ireland Executive, the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government in those countries.


The idea was launched in the 2010 Conservative manifesto and described by The Times as "an impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit".[3] Nat Wei, one of the founders of the Teach First charity, was appointed by David Cameron to advise the government on the Big Society programme. The plans include setting up a Big Society Bank and introducing a national citizen service.[4] The stated priorities are:

  1. Give communities more powers (localism and devolution)
  2. Encourage people to take an active role in their communities (volunteerism)
  3. Transfer power from central to local government
  4. Support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises
  5. Publish government data (open/transparent government)

It is supported by a Big Society Network, which says it "exists to generate, develop and showcase new ideas to help people to come together in their neighbourhoods to do good things."[5]

July 2010 launch[edit]

Following the 2010 general election, David Cameron relaunched the initiative on 19 July 2010 with a speech at Liverpool Hope University,[6] accompanied by screenwriter and television producer Phil Redmond.[7]

Vanguard areas[edit]

Four initial 'vanguard areas' were selected:

Developments in 2011[edit]

In 2011 major UK banks agreed to add £200M to the funding of the Big Society Bank[12] in addition to the money from dormant bank accounts.[13] David Cameron wrote that he would "prefer to see more positive headlines about the "big society", but [was] very upbeat about the torrent of newsprint expended on this subject." and that "The big society is about changing the way our country is run. No more of a government treating everyone like children ...let's treat adults like adults and give them more responsibility over their lives."[14] The UK government reportedly plans to unlock £78bn in charitable assets for big society and hand over up to 25% of public service contracts to private and voluntary sector.[15] But Ed Miliband suggested that the Big Society is a "cloak for the small state".[16]

Nat Wei, who was appointed "Big Society Tsar", resigned on 24 May and Shaun Bailey and Charlotte Leslie were moved into the Cabinet Office to work on the project. [17]

Sir Stephen Bubb welcomed the idea of the Big Society, but was concerned about cuts to government money going to charities and later described the idea as a "wreck",[18] whereas Brendan Barber said it meant that David Cameron's "ideal society was Somalia".[19]


Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network, argues that although "there is little in the coalition government's agenda that is entirely novel, what is new is the scale of change required." Ben Rogers, in an opinion piece published in the Financial Times, suggested that "the most interesting thing about [Cameron's] speech [to the Conservative Party Conference] were its sections on the “Big Society”", and that "Most of the political problems Mr Cameron faces, from cutting crime to reducing obesity, can only be met if residents and citizens play their part". However, Rogers went on to state that "the state has so far invested very little in teaching the skills that could help people make a contribution", highlighting what he perceived to be a fundamental flaw in the programme.[20]


The concept has received criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.

Labour's Ed Miliband said that the Conservatives were "cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda, by dressing up the withdrawal of support with the language of reinvigorating civic society".[21]

Two days after the initiative's launch in Liverpool, an article in Liverpool Daily Post argued that community organisations in the city such as Bradbury Fields show that Cameron's ideas are already in action and are nothing new, and that groups of community-based volunteers have for many years provided "a better service than would be achieved through the public sector".[22]

In July 2010 Anna Coote at NEF wrote that "If the state is pruned so drastically ... the effect will be a more troubled and diminished society, not a bigger one".[23] In November 2010 a report by NEF suggested that "There are strong, sensible ideas at the heart of the ‘Big Society’ vision... [but] for all its potential, the ‘Big Society’ raises a lot of questions, which become more urgent and worrying in the light of public spending cuts"[24] The Telegraph's Ed West concluded that "The Big Society can never take off", placing the blame on the socialist ideology held by some of the British public.[25] Also writing for The Telegraph, Mary Riddell said "the sink or swim society is upon us, and woe betide the poor, the frail, the old, the sick and the dependent"[26] whilst Gerald Warner felt that "of all the Blairesque chimeras pursued by David Cameron, none has more the resonance of a political epitaph than “Big Society”.[27]

The national office of Unite the Union for the community and non-profit sector, suggested that "The ‘Big Society’ is smoke and mirrors for an avalanche of privatisation under the Tories".[28] And Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON suggests that "The Government is simply washing its hands of providing decent public services and using volunteers as a cut-price alternative [...] Public services must be based on the certainty that they are there when you need them, not when a volunteer can be found to help you".[29]

Of the political weeklies, the left leaning New Statesman said "Cameron's hope that the Big Society will replace Big Government is reminiscent of the old Marxist belief that the state will 'wither away' as a result of victorious socialism. We all know how that turned out. Cameron has a long way to go to convince us that his vision is any less utopian".[30] Also referring to Marx, the award-winning political cartoonist Steve Bell in the Guardian on 21 January 2011 and the Guardian Weekly newspaper on 28 January 2011 adapted Marx's slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" for the Big Society: "From each according to their vulnerability, to each according to their greed".[31][32]

Dr. Lorie Charlesworth, an academic from the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies,[33] compared the system to the Old Poor Law, and suggested that "any voluntary system for the relief of poverty is purely mythical".[34]

Anna Coote, head of Social Policy at the independent think-tank New Economics Foundation, interviewed in Channel 4's investigative programme Dispatches (broadcast on 14 March 2011), stated the Big Society is about "privatising the welfare state on a massive scale". The programme explored the increasing degree to which the companies Serco, G4S and Capita are being paid to carry out work previously performed by central and local government authorities, in competition with local charities and the voluntary sector; the latter are unable to compete with these groups, which are making large profits from such outsourcing contracts.

Approaching the two-year anniversary of the Coalition, commentators have noted the lack of big society thinking across the policies of the Government. The lack of employee-owned mutuals and social enterprises in public sector reforms and the changes to tax relief on philanthropic donations in the 2012 Budget have been especially noted. This has been seen by some as vindication of the view that the big society was little more than a cover for cuts. Some other previously more positive commentators have seen the first two years of the Coalition as a missed opportunity for the big society agenda.[35]

The Big Society envisions a greater role for faith-based organisations in the provision of welfare services. Research has cast doubt on the likelihood of this being successful.[36]


In March 2010, The Daily Telegraph wrote: "We demand vision from our would-be leaders, and here is one who offers a big one, of a society rebuilt from the ground up".[37]

Later in the same year, The Spectator said that "Cameron hoped to lessen financial shortfalls by raiding dormant bank accounts. It’s a brilliant idea in theory".[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cameron and Clegg set out 'big society' policy ideas BBC News 18-May-2010
  2. ^ Government launches “Big Society” programme 10 Downing Street website 18-May-2010
  3. ^ The big society The Times 14-Apr-2010
  4. ^ Coalition outlines plans for big society programme Third Sector Online, 18 May 2010
  5. ^ The Big Society Network: who we are
  6. ^ "David Cameron launches Tories' 'big society' plan". BBC News. 19 July 2010. Archived from the original on 19 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  7. ^ Hawkins, Ross (19 July 2010). "Will the "big society" help big cuts?". BBC News. Archived from the original on 23 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  8. ^ "Liverpool withdraws from government 'big society' pilot". BBC Online. 3 February 2011. Archived from the original on 4 February 2011. Retrieved 3 February 2011. 
  9. ^ "Big Society: Eden as a Vanguard Area". Eden District Council. 10 August 2010. Archived from the original on 9 September 2010. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  10. ^ "What is the Big Society?". Sutton London Borough Council. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  11. ^ "The Big Society Projects". Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council. 1 September 2010. Retrieved 12 October 2010. 
  12. ^ Merlin Conjures £200m Big Society Bank Social Enterprise 9 February 2011
  13. ^ Dormant Bank Accounts to Pay for Big Society Projects Daily Telegraph 19-Jul-2010
  14. ^ David Cameron: Have no doubt, the big society is on its way The Observer 13-Feb-2011
  15. ^ Francis Maude vows to unlock £78bn in charitable assets for big society The Guardian 11-Feb-2011
  16. ^ The Big Society: a cloak for the small state The Independent 12-feb-2011
  17. ^ Ramming speed! Cameron goes to war to rescue the Big Society by James Forsythe Daily Mail 12-Feb-2011
  18. ^ Sir Stephen Bubb's blog. Retrieved 24-Apr-2012
  19. ^ Big Society: reactions to David Cameron's project Daily Telegraph 14-Feb-2011
  20. ^ Cameron’s speech strongest on Big Society Financial Times October 6, 2010
  21. ^ Watt, Nicholas (19 July 2010). "Cameron promises power for the 'man and woman on the street'". The Guardian (London: Guardian Newspapers Ltd). Archived from the original on 21 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  22. ^ "Can Cameron's big society be a profitable place?". Liverpool Daily Post. Retrieved 2011-02-04. 
  23. ^ Coote, Anna (19 July 2010). "Cameron's 'big society' will leave the poor and powerless behind". The Guardian (London: Guardian Newspapers Ltd). Archived from the original on 22 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  24. ^ Cutting It: The 'Big Society' and the new austerity New Economics Foundation 4-Nov-2010
  25. ^ West, Ed (19 July 2010). "Why socialists and egalitarians hate the Big Society". The Daily Telegraph (London: Telegraph Media Group Ltd). Archived from the original on 20 July 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  26. ^ Riddell, Mary (19 July 2010). "It will need more than jam and Jerusalem to create a Big Society". The Daily Telegraph (London). Archived from the original on 22 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  27. ^ Warner, Gerald (19 July 2010). "Dave's Big Society is not a top-down project – that's why it was launched by the Prime Minister". The Daily Telegraph (London). Archived from the original on 21 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  28. ^ Maskell, Rachael. "Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is an ‘intellectually flawed pipe dream’ for a 1950s Britain, says Unite". Unite. Archived from the original on 13 August 2010. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  29. ^ (Press release). "Big Society - Big cop out - Warns UNISON". UNISON. Retrieved 2010-07-19. 
  30. ^ Eaton, George. "The "big society": new doubts emerge". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 20 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 
  31. ^ Bell, Steve (28 January 2011). "Comment & Debate". Guardian Weekly (in English) (London: Guardian News and Media Ltd.). p. 21. 
  32. ^ The Steve Bell cartoon from the Guardian, 21 January 2011, can be seen here
  33. ^ "Dr Lorie Charlesworth PhD, LLB, BA, Cert LH, MITL" (in English). Liverpool, United Kingdom: Liverpool John Moores University. Retrieved 9 December 2010. 
  34. ^ Charlesworth, Lorie (November 2010). "England's early 'Big Society': parish welfare under the Old Poor Law". History & Policy (in English). United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 9 December 2010. 
  35. ^ "Charity and the Coalition: Whatever Happened to the Big Society?". Voluntary Action History Society Blog. Retrieved 2012-04-30. 
  36. ^ “Kettell, Steven (2012), Religion and the Big Society: A match made in Heaven? Policy and Politics, 40(2).”
  37. ^ Brogan, Ben (31 Mar 2010). "Eureka! At last, I can see what David Cameron is on about". The Daily Telegraph. 
  38. ^ Blackburn, David (19 July 2010). "The age of philanthropy". The Spectator. Retrieved 19 July 2010. 

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