Big Society

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The Big Society was a political ideology[1] developed in the early 21st century. The idea proposed "integrating the free market with a theory of social solidarity based on hierarchy and voluntarism". Conceptually it "draws on a mix of conservative communitarianism and libertarian paternalism".[2] Its roots "can be traced back to the 1990s, and to early attempts to develop a non-Thatcherite, or post-Thatcherite, brand of UK conservatism" such as David Willetts' Civic Conservatism and the revival of Red Toryism. Some commentators have seen the Big Society as invoking Edmund Burke's idea of civil society, putting it into the sphere of one-nation conservatism.[3]

The term Big Society was originated by Steve Hilton,[4] director of strategy for the Conservative Party, and the idea became particularly associated with the party's leader David Cameron who was a strong advocate for it. The idea formed the flagship policy of the 2010 UK Conservative Party general election manifesto and was part of the subsequent legislative programme of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition agreement.[5] The stated aim was to create a climate that empowered local people and communities, building a "big society" that would take power away from politicians and give it to people.[6]

In UK politics the Big Society concept applied to domestic policy in England only. The relevant 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.


Following the election of a Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government at the 2010 general election, the new Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron launched the initiative in July with a speech at Liverpool Hope University[7] accompanied by screenwriter and television producer Phil Redmond.[8] The stated priorities were:

  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)

The plans included setting up a Big Society Bank and a Big Society Network to fund projects, and introducing a National Citizen Service.[9] The Lord Wei, one of the founders of the Teach First charity, was appointed by David Cameron to advise the government on the Big Society programme. He carried out the role until May 2011 when Shaun Bailey and Charlotte Leslie were moved into the Cabinet Office to work on the project.[citation needed]

Four initial 'vanguard areas' were selected:


  • The Big Society Network was set up in 2010 in order "to generate, develop and showcase new ideas to help people to come together in their neighbourhoods to do good things."[14] It was owned by a charity called The Society Network Foundation.[15] During its first four years of existence the Big Society Network was funded with approximately £2 million of National Lottery funding and public-sector grants. In July 2014, a National Audit Office report criticised the way that money was allocated to and used by the network[16] and The Independent newspaper claimed that and the Charity Commission had begun an investigation into alleged misuse of funds by the network.[17][18] In 2014 the Big Society Network was put into administration owing money to the government and an application was made to the Charity Commission to have the organisation wound up.[19]
  • Big Society Capital, the Big Society Bank, was launched in 2011. Major UK banks agreed to provide £200 million in funding for the organisation[20] in addition to money made available from dormant bank accounts under the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act 2008.[21] The UK government's intention was to unlock £78bn in charitable assets for big society. To create a demand for the funds, it was announced that up to 25% of public service contracts were to be transferred to private and voluntary sector.[22]
  • The Big Society Awards were set up in November 2010 to recognize community work done in the UK that demonstrates the Big Society. Over fifty awards had been presented by the start of 2015.
  • The National Citizen Service is a voluntary personal and social development programme for 16- and 17-year-olds in England. It was piloted in 2011 and by 2013 there were 30,000 young people taking part.
  • The Localism Act 2011 contained a section on community empowerment. New rights were created for charitable trusts, voluntary bodies and others to apply to councils to carry out services provided by the council. In addition, lists of Assets of Community Value were compiled. These were assets such as shops, pubs and playing fields, which were privately owned, but which were of value to the community. If such an asset was later sold, the Act made it easier for the community to bid for and take over the asset.
  • Free schools (otherwise known as charter schools) were introduced by the Academies Act 2010 making it possible for parents, teachers, charities and businesses to set up and run their own schools. Between 2010 and 2015 more than 400 free schools were approved for opening in England, representing more than 230,000 school places across the country.[23]


While some responded to the policy favourably and David Cameron continued to defend it,[24] its aims were queried and disputed by other commentators from all sides of the political spectrum.

Initial press reaction[edit]

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".[25] In April 2010 The Times described the Big Society as "an impressive attempt to reframe the role of government and unleash entrepreneurial spirit".[26] 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".[27]

Questions concerning originality[edit]

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".[28]

Simon Parker, Director of the New Local Government Network, argued 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.[29]

David Cameron responded that the policy's lack of novelty does not detract from its usefulness and that it should be judged on its results.[24]

Small state criticism[edit]

The implementation of the policy coincided with large-scale cuts in public expenditure programs which were implemented to address macroeconomic concerns. In 2010 David Cameron indicated that such cuts were temporary and to be enacted purely from economic necessity. However, in 2013 he said that he had no intention of resuming spending once the structural deficit had been eliminated, since his aim was to create a "leaner, more efficient state".[30] This led critics to conclude that the Big Society is intended primarily as a mechanism for reducing the size of the state. Labour's leader 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"[31] and suggested that the Big Society is a "cloak for the small state".[32]

Of the political weeklies, the 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".[33] 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".[34][35]

Lorie Charlesworth, an academic from the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies,[36] compared the system to the Old Poor Law, and suggested that "any voluntary system for the relief of poverty is purely mythical".[37]

Anna Coote, head of Social Policy at the independent think-tank NEF, wrote in July 2010 that "If the state is pruned so drastically ... the effect will be a more troubled and diminished society, not a bigger one".[38] 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"[39]

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber concluded that "the logic of this is that [Cameron's] ideal society is Somalia where the state barely exists".[40]

David Cameron's response was that the Big Society ideology pre-dated the implementation of cuts to public services, that the reduction in the size of the state had become inevitable, and that Big Society projects are worthwhile whatever the state of the economy.[24]

Concerns over implementation[edit]

The Daily Telegraph's Ed West predicted in 2010 that "The Big Society can never take off", placing the blame on the socialist ideology held by some of the British public.[41] Also writing for The Daily 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"[42] 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".[43] Sir Stephen Bubb, Chief Executive of ACEVO, welcomed the idea of the Big Society but claimed that David Cameron was "undermining" it.[40] His concerns were about cuts in government money going to charities coming "too far and too fast". He later said the project had become a "wreck".[44] Steven Kettell of the University of Warwick has written of the intrinsic "problems surrounding the government's call to put religious groups at the centre of the Big Society agenda".[45]

In April 2012 criticisms were raised concerning the shortage of Big Society policies across Government, such as the lack of employee-owned mutuals and social enterprises in public sector reforms as well as the introduction of a cap on tax relief for charitable giving in the 2012 Budget.[4] A report published in May 2012 suggested that the £3.3 billion cuts in government funding to the voluntary sector between 2012 and 2015 had greatly reduced the capacity of voluntary groups to implement Big Society projects.[46] Bernard Collier expressed concern that the policy's lack of localism was "favouring big charities" and ignoring the "potential contribution of local voluntary and community organisations".[47]

In 2014 former Cameron aide Danny Kruger said that although the relevant legislation had been put in place, the policy had been downgraded from its original role due to a lack of leadership. At the same time a Centre for Social Justice report suggested that the policy was having least effect in the poorest in the country where it would be most useful.[48]

David Cameron responded that the public sector had already failed to prevent the poorest parts of the country becoming so, and that there were examples of the Big Society having been effective in poor areas.[24]


During the course of the 2010–15 government the Big Society declined as an instrument of government policy. David Cameron did not use the term in public after 2013 and the phrase ceased to be used in government statements.[49] The collapse of the Big Society Network in 2014 and criticism of the Prime Minister's relationship with it[19] were followed by a critical final Big Society Audit published by Civil Exchange in January 2015.[50] The audit highlighted cuts in charity grants and restrictions on the right to challenge government policy through the courts as undermining Big Society ideals. It noted that charities have had a decreasing role as government contractors due to policies which favoured the private sector and it pointed out that the centralisation of the British political system has not significantly decreased, with no noticeable upsurge in volunteering and social action concentrated in the wealthiest places. The Cabinet Office responded that the Civil Exchange report did not fairly reflect "the significant progress made". In response to a parliamentary question claiming that the Big Society had failed, the Government said that "cynics" were "entirely wrong" and that "some of the changes we have introduced are irreversible".[51]

Shortly before the 2015 election, David Cameron proposed a law that would give some employees the right to three days of paid annual leave to do voluntary work.[52] The proposal appeared in the Party's manifesto, along with a guarantee of a place on the National Citizen Service for all children and an increase the use of social impact bonds.[53] However, the Big Society did not form a significant part of the Conservative Party's election strategy, being replaced instead by an emphasis on economic stability and border controls.[54]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Matthew Scott (2011). "Reflections on 'The Big Society'". Community Development Journal. Oxford Journals. 46 (1): 132–137. doi:10.1093/cdj/bsq057.
  2. ^ Alan Walker and Steve Corbett (8 March 2013). "The 'Big Society', neoliberalism and the rediscovery of the 'social' in Britain". Sheffield Political Economy research Institute. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  3. ^ Andrew Heywood (2011). "The Big Society: Conservatism Reinvented?". Politics Cymru. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  4. ^ a b George Campbell Gosling (30 April 2012). "Charity and the Coalition: Whatever Happened to the Big Society?". Voluntary Action History Society Blog. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  5. ^ "Cameron and Clegg set out 'big society' policy ideas". BBC News. 18 May 2010.
  6. ^ "Government launches "Big Society" programme". 10 Downing Street website. 18 May 2010.
  7. ^ "David Cameron launches Tories' 'big society' plan". BBC News. 19 July 2010. Archived from the original on 19 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "Coalition outlines plans for big society programme". Third Sector Online. 18 May 2010. Archived from the original on 26 July 2011.
  10. ^ "Liverpool withdraws from government 'big society' pilot". BBC Online. 3 February 2011. Archived from the original on 4 February 2011. Retrieved 3 February 2011.
  11. ^ "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.
  12. ^ "What is the Big Society?". Sutton London Borough Council. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  13. ^ "The Big Society Projects". Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council. 1 September 2010. Archived from the original on 11 January 2011. Retrieved 12 October 2010.
  14. ^ "The Big Society Network: who we are". Archived from the original on 7 February 2011.
  15. ^ Andy Ricketts (1 August 2014). "Society Network Foundation denies using political influence to secure £2m of funding". Third Sector. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  16. ^ Paul Allen (28 July 2014). "What happened to government and Lottery funding for big society projects". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  17. ^ Oliver Wright (26 July 2014). "David Cameron's Big Society in tatters as charity watchdog launches investigation into claims of Government funding misuse". Retrieved 9 August 2014.
  18. ^ "Big Society Network under investigation over 'funding misuse'". The Guardian. 26 July 2014.
  19. ^ a b Oliver Wright (27 November 2014). "PM's office ignored official advice to stop funding failing Big Society charity". The Independent.
  20. ^ Merlin Conjures £200m Big Society Bank Archived 13 February 2011 at the Wayback Machine Social Enterprise 9 February 2011
  21. ^ Dormant Bank Accounts to Pay for Big Society Projects The Daily Telegraph 19 July 2010
  22. ^ "Francis Maude vows to unlock £78bn in charitable assets for big society". The Guardian. 11 February 2011. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  23. ^ "Prime Minister announces landmark wave of free schools". Department for Education. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  24. ^ a b c d David Cameron (13 February 2011). "Have no doubt, the big society is on its way". The Observer. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  25. ^ Brogan, Ben (31 March 2010). "Eureka! At last, I can see what David Cameron is on about". The Daily Telegraph.
  26. ^ "The big society". The Times Online (subscription only). 14 April 2010.
  27. ^ Blackburn, David (19 July 2010). "The age of philanthropy". The Spectator. Archived from the original on 22 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  28. ^ "Can Cameron's big society be a profitable place?". Liverpool Daily Post. Retrieved 4 February 2011.
  29. ^ Cameron's speech strongest on Big Society Financial Times 6 October 2010
  30. ^ Nicholas Watt (12 November 2013). "David Cameron makes leaner state a permanent goal". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  31. ^ 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 19 July 2010.
  32. ^ The Big Society: a cloak for the small state The Independent 12 February 2011
  33. ^ Eaton, George. "The "big society": new doubts emerge". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 20 July 2010. Retrieved 19 July 2010.
  34. ^ Bell, Steve (28 January 2011). "Comment & Debate". Guardian Weekly. London: Guardian News and Media Ltd. p. 21.
  35. ^ The Steve Bell cartoon from the Guardian, 21 January 2011, can be seen here
  36. ^ "Dr Lorie Charlesworth PhD, LLB, BA, Cert LH, MITL". Liverpool, United Kingdom: Liverpool John Moores University. Archived from the original on 25 November 2010. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  37. ^ Charlesworth, Lorie (November 2010). "England's early 'Big Society': parish welfare under the Old Poor Law". History & Policy. United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  38. ^ 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 19 July 2010.
  39. ^ Cutting It: The 'Big Society' and the new austerity Archived 15 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine New Economics Foundation 4 November 2010
  40. ^ a b "Big Society: reactions to David Cameron's project". The Daily Telegraph. 14 February 2011. Archived from the original on 17 February 2011. Retrieved 13 August 2014.
  41. ^ 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 19 July 2010.
  42. ^ 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.
  43. ^ 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.
  44. ^ Stephen Bubb (18 April 2012). "Wet and windy". Sir Stephen Bubb's blog. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  45. ^ Steven Kettell (19 June 2013). "Let's call the whole thing off". Public Spirit. Archived from the original on 14 August 2014. Retrieved 14 August 2014.
  46. ^ Patrick Butler (7 May 2012). "Cameron's 'big society' undermined by cuts and distrust, says study". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  47. ^ Bernard Collier (16 July 2012). "The big hole in 'big society'". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  48. ^ Toby Helm (4 January 2014). "David Cameron 'has devalued the big society idea' says his former adviser". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 August 2014.
  49. ^ Patrick Butler (20 January 2015). "Why the 'big society' is now just a hashtag for coalition hypocrisy". The Guardian.
  50. ^ "Whose Society? The Final Big Society Audit" (PDF). Civil Exchange. January 2015.
  51. ^ John Woodhouse (26 March 2015). "The voluntary sector and the Big Society" (PDF). House of Commons Library.
  52. ^ George Parker; Elizabeth Rigby (9 April 2015). "Cameron harks back to Big Society with voluntary work proposal". Financial Times.
  53. ^ "Tories promise to build on big society in general election manifesto". Third Sector. 14 April 2015. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  54. ^ Liam Halligan (7 March 2015). "We need to bring back the Big Society – but without Government meddling". The Daily Telegraph.

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