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The Big Society Five Years On

In Defence of Welfare 2
‘We need a social recovery to mend the
broken society. To me, that’s what the big
society is all about’ (David Cameron, 2011).
Introduction: The Big Society idea
The big society’s origins lay with Philip Blond’s
Red Toryism, which proclaimed that over the
previous three decades both the New Labour
Left and the Thatcherite Right embraced a form
of liberalism that disintegrated the communitar-
ian basis of society, producing ‘an authoritarian
state and an atomised society’. Blond reserved
extra opprobrium for the role of the state in the
destruction of associative forms of community
organisation (such as friendly societies, trades
unions, mutuals), but he was also critical of the
corrosive effects of extreme neoliberal individu-
alism on community association.
In the concept’s journey into a political project,
via Jesse Normans anti-‘Fabian paternalism’
take on the idea, David Camerons Conservatives
dropped the neoliberal market critique, focus-
ing their ire in the slogan ‘big society, not big
government’. This was seen as a corrective for
the notion of the ‘broken society’ and as a per-
sonal mission of David Cameron. It was a central
theme in the Conservatives’ 2010 election cam-
paign, and also attempted to de-toxify the Tory
brand by disassociating Cameron from Margaret
Thatchers infamous ‘no such thing as society’
legacy, by recognising a version of ‘the social’.
A deeper examination of the concept revealed
two strands to the project: Red Toryism and
libertarian paternalism (Corbett and Walker,
2013). The Red Tory strand sought to reclaim
an idealised conservative communitarian vision
of organic solidarity, voluntarism, self-help and
natural hierarchy, where the intermediate insti-
tutions of the family and ‘little platoons’ safe-
guard a Disraelian paternalist society. On the
other hand, libertarian paternalism (associated
with Thaler and Sunstein’s ‘nudge economics’)
was enthusiastically embraced by big society
acolytes as compassionate economics’. This is
a free market perspective which recognises the
inability of people to act rationally in the mar-
ket. The approach attempts rather awkwardly
to marry the libertarianism of consumer choice
with state paternalism in promoting welfare, by
‘nudging’ people towards desired ends.
The thesis of the big society is that people can be
‘nudged’ into retaining the public services that
they most desire, using their ‘freedom of choice’
to become empowered by setting up public or
voluntary sector mutuals, co-operatives and
social enterprises. Otherwise, formerly public-
ly-provided services would be left to the market
as ‘big government’ is downsized.
The Big Society in action
Once in power, Cameron occasionally repeated
his commitment to the big society, despite the
quiet downgrading of the concept as the Gov-
ernment focused its efforts primarily on the
neoliberal austerity strategy of cutting public
funding and reducing taxation. There was, how-
ever, early policy change on big society themes.
The Open Public Services White Paper provided
three key objectives: to improve public services
while reducing expenditure; to devolve powers
and autonomy to individuals and local commu-
nities; and to open up public services to new
providers. Similarly, the Localism Act legislated
for devolution of decision-making over services
to communities and individuals. Further, the
Behavioural Insights Team was set up to devise
‘nudge’ policies, and the Big Society Network
was established as a consultancy-type organisa-
tion for the furtherance of the project.
Despite moderate success for the National Cit-
izen Service, which seeks to instil the values of
volunteerism amongst 16 and 17 year olds, the
The Big Society five years on
Steve Corbett, University of Sheffield
Looking ahead
In Defence of Welfare 2
ambitious objectives for creating community
co-operatives and increasing local control by
voluntary organisations of functions previously
performed by the state have been compromised
by austerity. A key part of this was the capital-
isation of the Big Society Capital social invest-
ment bank with around £200 million in order to
harness social investors in big society projects.
Big Society Capital commissions the whole-
sale of projects to organisations which expect
to see financial returns, suggesting a social
investment market from which profit can be
extracted, extending the reach of private com-
panies and increasing a reliance on loans, rather
than the state, by voluntary and community
Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 2012, as the austerity
agenda began to bite, Blond wrote in the Observer
of the death of the big society ideal, citing the
uncritical embrace of market solutions as part of
the problem: ‘Make no mistake: a radical Toryism
has been abandoned, the once-in-a-generation
chance to redefine conservatism on something
other than a reductive market liberalism has
been lost’.
The consequences of allowing private compa-
nies to compete with voluntary and community
organisations (VCOs) and local communities for
the provision of public services that have been
offloaded from state responsibility are clear.
The 2013 Big Society Audit produced by Civil
Exchange remains positive about the efforts of
VCOs, but points out that outsourcing public
services is dominated by large private sector
companies’. In 2012, Civil Exchange reported
that 90% of prime big society contracts had
been won by private companies. A tendency
towards monopoly is emerging, as £4 billion of
outsourced public sector contracts are with just
four private companies; Atos, Capita, G4S and
Serco, and concerns about a lack of choice, com-
petition and transparency, and a ‘race to the bot-
tom in both standards and working conditions
have been raised.
According to Civil Exchange (2013), many VCOs
are ‘experiencing financial difficulty due to rising
demand and falling income’. For example, in the
North East in 2013, 56% of voluntary organi-
sations relied on cash reserves to support their
activities and nearly 25% had no reserves left.
£6.6 billion is estimated as the cumulative loss
of public funding by 2017/18 by Civil Exchange.
In addition, the rise in food banks reflects an
increasing reliance on VCOs to provide essential
support to people in vulnerable circumstances,
a deep and widely-held concern reflected by a
cross-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in
Britain in 2014.
Even though volunteering has risen back to
levels prior to the financial crisis, this is contro-
versial given the ‘increasing use of compulsory
volunteering in welfare programmes’. Moreover,
Civil Exchange also identifies a ‘big society gap’
along class lines and between geographical areas,
along with disproportionate negative effects
of cuts felt by disabled people, lower trust felt
by ethnic minority people, and ‘worrying’ levels
of political disengagement. This indicates that
the potential benefits of the big society are
weighted towards the more privileged, a reflec-
tion of the continued rise in inequality in Britain.
Civil Exchange reflected in their final Big Society
Audit in early 2015 that rather than uniting and
improving society, these trends have produced a
more divided society.
This suggests that the neoliberal ideology driv-
ing the Coalition Government’s programme has
won out, and while the big society concept at
face value appears to address the sense of social
dislocation, it actually creates ‘a vocabulary
for the promulgation of a neoliberal fantasy in
which social equality is disregarded as a policy
objective. It offers an idealised view of the com-
munity and ignores power and conflict’ (Jacobs,
2014: 11). While community groups are elevated
in the rhetoric, private businesses continue to
profit from the dismantling of the functions of
the public sector. The big society has provided
a key justification for shrinking the public realm
and putting formerly public concerns at the
mercy of private interests.
The big society has been used to reassert the
crowding out thesis’ last employed in the 1980s
by Thatcher. Where previously it was the market
Looking ahead
In Defence of Welfare 2
that was being crowded out by the state, this
time it is civil society. However, all the evidence
of the big society thus far suggests that ‘society’
has really served as a proxy for the neoliberal
market and private profit. This indicates that, far
from mending the ‘broken society’, the big soci-
ety is contributing to increasing damage to the
social fabric of Britain.
The bankruptcy of this ideological project has
not been recognised by the largest political par-
ties, with more of the same public sector cuts
and welfare state outsourcing promised for the
next parliament by the Conservatives under
the guise of a ‘long term economic plan, and
Labour’s ‘Tory-lite’ offer of slower deficit reduc-
tion, with some concessions to addressing rising
inequality, such as minimum wage increases,
‘mansion taxes and freezing increases in utility
bills. This suggests that mainstream right and
left wing parties continue to operate within a
neoliberal framework.
Piketty’s (2014) analysis of inequality moves
beyond neoliberalism and recognises the fun-
damental requirement for a significant redis-
tribution of wealth and opportunity in society.
This could become part of a political project
to better promote community empowerment,
local autonomy, social justice and sustainability.
A democratic economy underpinned by work-
er-ownership, land-value taxation, strong legis-
lation against corporate tax avoidance, nation-
alisation of utilities and public transportation,
mutualisation of the housing market, significant
green investment, supported by a citizens’ basic
income, can help to make the economy serve
society, not the other way around (Sayer, 2015).
This would be a better strategy to realise the big
society’s professed aims of community empow-
erment and localism.
These are amongst a raft of alternative propos-
als, notably present in some of the Green Party’s
proposed policies, which are being developed to
counter the failed thinking of recent political
projects. The task for those who are concerned
with empowerment, sustainability and social
justice is to develop a social policy and political
programme, both nationally and internationally,
that articulates these ideas.
Civil Exchange (2013) The Big Society
Audit 2013, available from: http://www.
Corbett, S. and Walker, A. (2013) The Big
Society: Rediscovery of ‘the social’ or
rhetorical fig-leaf for neo-liberalism?’,
Critical Social Policy, 33, 3, 451-72.
Jacobs, K. (2014) ‘The Allure of the ‘Big
Society’: Conveying authority in an era of
uncertainty’, Housing, Theory and Society,
available from:
Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the Twenty-First
Century, London: Harvard Belknap Press.
Sayer, A. (2015) Why we cant afford the rich,
Bristol: Policy Press.
Looking ahead
... In the specific context of austerity policies, volunteering was seen as one part of the 'Big Society' agenda that, according to supporters, offered a 'human face' to the necessities of fiscal retrenchment. However, for its critics, it provided ideological cover for brutal cuts while reflecting rhetorical vacuity (Ishkanian and Szreter, 2012;Corbett, 2015). Furthermore, speaking symbolically and at the macro level, the very language of 'the voluntary sector' that has proved so persistent in this sphere in the British case (albeit with varying rhetorical emphases) points to the importance of volunteers for the identity and subjective sense of position of these organisations. ...
Full-text available
This paper considers the situation of the English voluntary sector in relation to austerity-driven social policies. Existing characterisations are outlined and it is argued that the quantitative evidence used to represent the situation of these organisations to date has been partial because it relies too narrowly on financial resource input measures. We argue that the situation of these organisations needs to be conceptualised in a more holistic way and, to initiate a move in this direction, we identify and explicate two relevant dimensions: the perceived capacity of organisations to rely on volunteers for support (a non-financial resource input); and their perception of the effect of the policy climate in shaping their capacity to flourish, including their ability to perform multiple roles beyond service provision alone. We draw on an original mixed methods empirical study undertaken in England in 2015 to operationalise these dimensions, combining qualitative interviews with national ‘policy community’ members with a large scale on-line survey of social policy charities. We find a complex and variegated situation that, while acknowledging the fundamental importance of financial resource pressures, also points to the salience of the volunteering situation, and to the relevance of the challenging policy climate that these organisations have to navigate.
Full-text available
The inception and roll out of the UK Government’s Big Society agenda offers an opportunity to consider the changing modalities of contemporary political engagement. Much of the critical scholarship on the Big Society views it as a rationale to legitimize both a reconfiguration of the welfare state and an austerity programme to reduce government debt. While these interpretations are helpful, they explain only partially the appeal of these agendas for politicians and their political parties. The key question explored in this article is why, despite the hostility and cynicism towards ideological projects such as Big Society, do politicians continue to identify and pursue them? I argue that the Big Society agenda is only in part a rationale for austerity and welfare reform; it also provides a discursive setting for politicians to address societal anxieties by offering a navigable route for the future. Although the Big Society agenda has been roundly derided, its Manichean morality tale offers assurance at a time when politics is being reshaped by neoliberal ideology, changing media practices and globalization processes.
As inequalities widen and the effects of austerity deepen, in many countries the wealth of the rich has soared. Why we can’t afford the rich exposes the unjust and dysfunctional mechanisms that allow the top 1% to siphon off wealth produced by others, through the control of property and money. Leading social scientist Andrew Sayer shows how the rich worldwide have increased their ability to create indebtedness and expand their political influence. Winner of the 2015 British Academy Peter Townsend Prize, this important book bursts the myth of the rich as specially talented wealth creators. It shows how the rich are threatening the planet by banking on unsustainable growth. The paperback includes a new Afterword updating developments in the last year and forcefully argues that the crises of economy and climate can only be resolved by radical change to make economies sustainable, fair and conducive to well-being for all.
This paper subjects to critical scrutiny the idea of the big society' which, at present, is the UK Coalition government's big idea and the personal mission of the Prime Minister David Cameron. First of all the concept is explained, with reference to some of the rhetoric surrounding it. Then the philosophical foundations of the big society' are unpacked, with particular reference to Red Toryism and libertarian paternalism. This is followed by an assessment of the big society and reference to the other major plank in the government's social policy agenda, large cuts in public expenditure, that reflects the neo-liberal engine driving the strategy - the hollowing-out of the state - which has implications for the community initiatives and NGOs favoured by the big society's promoters but which are entirely unacknowledged by them. Then a comparison is made between the present big society idea and Margaret Thatcher's denial of the existence of society, which reveals many similarities in substance despite the rhetorical distancing. The final part of the paper examines the parallel Blue Labour analysis and suggests an alternative participatory democratic approach.
The Big Society Audit 2013, available from: http://www. uploads
Civil Exchange (2013) The Big Society Audit 2013, available from: http://www. uploads/2013/12/THE-BIG-SOCIETY-AUDIT- 2013webversion.pdf.
The Big Society Audit
  • Civil Exchange
Civil Exchange (2013) The Big Society Audit 2013, available from: http://www. uploads/2013/12/THE-BIG-SOCIETY-AUDIT-2013webversion.pdf.