Government and Politics


The Big Society

Andrew Heywood

The Big Society is the most significant ideological theme to have emerged within the UK Conservative Party in recent years. But what does the Big Society mean? Why has so much prominence been given to the idea, and what does this tell us about the continuing importance of political ideology? How, if at all, is the Big Society linked to conservatism? Finally, is the Big Society an attempt to reinvent UK conservatism, or merely to rebrand the Conservative Party?


The notion of the Big Society was the central ideological theme in the Conservative Party's May 2010 general election manifesto. Although Big Society thinking can be traced back to the 1990s, and to early attempts to develop a non-Thatcherite, or post-Thatcherite, brand of UK conservatism, such thinking gained growing prominence once David Cameron became party leader in December 2005.


What is the Big Society?


Although the term has attracted considerable controversy - not least because of allegations that the Conservative-led coalition has used it as a ruse to disguise spending cuts - the idea itself has a relatively straightforward meaning.


As used by Cameron and other leading figures in the coalition, the Big Society refers to the transfer of power and responsibility for providing some key services from the state to community groups and charities, particularly ones that operate at a neighbourhood level. Society therefore gets bigger, in the sense that citizens get more involved in their communities, by, for instance, volunteers taking over the running of post offices and libraries, parents setting up 'free schools' and charities taking over public services.


The Big Society project seeks to open up public services to new, and often community-based, forms of social organisation. This goal is also reflected in the proposal that employee-owned cooperatives should be encouraged to take over the work of public agencies, hence the idea that the Big Society is constructed on the basis of the John Lewis model.


In all its forms, however, the Big Society has an unmistakeably anti-statist character. The Big Society is contrasted with 'big government'. From this perspective, government is the enemy of society, in that, as it has expanded, it has (supposedly) robbed citizens of their sense of civic responsibility and rendered them impassive. As Cameron puts it: 'There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as the state'.


This critique of disempowering government is based on two assumptions:

  • that rolling back the state will lead to an upsurge in volunteering and civic activism, as charities, community groups, employee-owned cooperatives and suchlike assume a wide role

  • that such bodies will be able to deliver services both more efficiently (more cheaply) and more effectively (more responsively to the community) than the state


Why ideology refuses to die


Why do politicians feel the need to develop such 'big ideas'? Why have Cameron and the Conservatives sought to articulate their goals and beliefs by setting out an ideological vision, in this case, one built on the Big Society? The short answer to this question is that ideas matter, and that ideology - despite frequent proclamations of its death - continues to play an important role in politics. But what is that role? Ideology serves at least two important purposes in modern politics: as an intellectual framework and as a marketing device.


Ideology as an intellectual framework


Ideology provides politicians, parties and other political actors with an intellectual framework within which to operate. It is a set of ideas, beliefs and assumptions that shape how people understand the world and, thereby, structure their goals and actions.


Ideology can never die because all of us look at the world through a veil of theories and presuppositions. Our actions cannot be understood without reference to this ideological dimension. This is what the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) meant when he referred to ideology as the 'common sense' of the age, highlighting the extent to which ideological beliefs are embedded at every level in society, in its art and literature, in its education system and mass media, and in everyday language and popular culture.


Ideology as a marketing device


In contrast, ideology as a marketing device or electoral tool is an all too conscious creation. This aspect of ideological politics has become more significant due to the greater importance of the mass media in politics and the linked trend in favour of personalised leadership (often seen as the presidentialisation of UK politics).


Leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were particularly adept at projecting themselves in ideological terms, hence the rise of Thatcherism in the 1980s and, from the mid-1990s onwards, of Blairism.


However, not all politicians are so adept at articulating, or even embodying, an ideological vision. One of the key failings of Gordon Brown was that he struggled to develop or project a coherent ideological vision. This damaged his credibility as a leader and made his premiership appear, at times, without direction. In placing an emphasis on the Big Society, Cameron has demonstrated both that he is the 'heir to Blair' and that he has learnt at least one of the lessons of Brown's failure.


Nevertheless, simply articulating an ideological vision does not in itself either bolster leadership or ensure electoral success. Ideology as a marketing device is effective in two sets of circumstances:

  • It has to be rooted in, or at least to be consistent with, the ideas and beliefs that in practice shape government policy. It must therefore correspond to ideology as an intellectual framework. When the two are divorced, the former risks being viewed as a fairly crude exercise in rebranding. This is what happened, for example, in the case of George W. Bush's avowed commitment to 'compassionate conservatism'.

  • An ideological vision has to resonate with the public at large - it must articulate widely held concerns or aspirations. In many ways, this helps to explain the potency of Thatcherism in the 1980s, but it also sheds light on the difficulties that confronted the Conservative Party from the 1990s onwards, as attention increasingly focused on the electorally less attractive features of Thatcherism.

Edmund Burke: the father of the Big Society?


As Big Society themes gained greater attention, interest grew in the ideas of the British statesman and political theorist, Edmund Burke (1729–97), commonly viewed as the father of Anglo-American conservatism. This occurred particularly because of his reference in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) to people's love of the 'little platoon' they belong to in society. Community groups, charities, neighbourhood and other organisations were quickly thus reinterpreted as examples of society's 'little platoons'.


Two points, nevertheless, distinguish Burke's thinking from the idea of the Big Society as used by Conservative politicians and theorists in the twenty-first century. First, when Burke used the idea of the 'little platoon' he was referring to the social subdivisions into which people are born. The 'little platoons' are therefore organic groups, such as families and social classes. It is by no means clear that Burke would have used the term to refer to the charities or voluntary groups that are the focus of Big Society thinking.


Second, the social and political purpose of the 'little platoon' was, for Burke, quite different from that of Big Society groups and organisation social conservatism. He highlighted the extent to which psychologically limited and dependent human beings seek security in things such as tradition, authority and a common morality. In this view, the 'little platoons' are the glue that hold society together and make human life tolerable. By providing a focus for allegiance and affection, and by strengthening our sense of belonging, the 'little platoons' help us to know who we are and what is expected of us.


Such thinking does not explain why or how community groups, charities and voluntary bodies are likely to spring up and take over responsibility for delivering services that were once delivered by the state.


The rise of civic conservatism


Much of the thinking that has gone on within UK conservatism since the 1990s has focused on attempts to develop a non-Thatcherite or post-Thatcherite brand of conservatism. The Conservative Party had come to be viewed as the 'nasty party'. This 'nastiness' was encapsulated in Thatcher's oft-quoted statement that, 'There is no such thing as society'. Conservative thinkers who sought to address this problem commonly did so by proclaiming the need to resurrect and strengthen civil society. This placed an emphasis on neither the state nor the individual, but rather on the institutions that stand between the state and the individual.


David Willetts (who was to be appointed minister of state for universities and science in 2010) thus argued in Civic Conservatism (1994) that the free market should be placed in the context of 'the institutions and values that make up civil society', while also highlighting, as he saw it, the threat posed by the advance of the state to the 'network of voluntary groups'. Similar ideas were later advanced by Phillip Blond in Red Tory (2010), and have since been championed by his think-tank, ResPublica. The essence of 'red Toryism' is the attempt to fuse a 'red' commitment to catering to the needs of the disadvantaged and advancing economic justice, with a 'Tory', or social conservative, belief in tradition and what Blond called the 'politics of virtue'.


Why civic conservatism?


The attraction of civic conservatism is that it helps to break, or at least weaken, the link between conservatism and Thatcherism. Instead of being the vehicle for advancing the market, self-striving and 'rugged' individualism, conservatism could embrace (perhaps re-embrace) the ideas of social belonging and civic engagement. In many ways, civic conservatism reflects the growing influence, especially since the 1980s, of communitarianism. Communitarians argue that the community is the principal source of an individual's values and identity. They have warned against the damage done to the public culture of liberal societies by their emphasis on individual rights and liberties over the needs of the community.


Civic conservatism can also be seen to have been influenced, especially in the writings of Blond, by the Christian democracy that is practised in Germany and other parts of continental Europe. Christian democracy is rooted in Catholic social theory, which focuses on the social group rather than the individual, and stresses balance or organic harmony rather than competition. Christian democratic parties can be seen to practise their own version of the Big Society, in that they have traditionally emphasised the importance of intermediate institutions, such as churches, unions and business groups, bound together by the notion of social partnership. Such thinking has ar less lso made them fasusceptible to the attractions of free-market economics than have been the conservative parties in the UK and the USA.


Conservatism reinvented, or more of the same?


This highlights the difficulty confronting Cameron in trying to embrace civic conservatism and develop the Big Society into an ideological project, rather than using it simply as a means of detoxifying the Conservative brand. Civic conservatism may be viewed as an anti-statist philosophy, insofar as it calls for a transfer of power and responsibilities from the state to civil society. However, civic conservatism is, to some degree at least, also an anti-market philosophy. In strengthening competition and encouraging the pursuit of material self-interest, the market cannot but undermine our sense of community and social belonging. This is why both communitarians and Christian democrats have been critical of the economic liberalism that underpins the Thatcherite brand of conservatism.


To embrace civic conservatism fully, UK Conservatives need to develop a new economic model, in particular one that places less emphasis on the free market. However, there is little evidence from the first year in the life of the Conservative-led coalition that this is being done. Indeed, the deficit reduction programme, the hallmark of the government's strategy since May 2010, exhibits clear Thatcherite features. Not only does it reflect a strong commitment to balanced budgets and a rejection of the neo-Keynesianism practised under Brown, as well as by Obama in the USA, but in emphasising spending cuts rather than tax increases it also involves a significant contraction in the responsibilities of the state.


The Big Society may therefore merely be an attempt to give the core Thatcherite desire to roll back the state an ideological makeover. It may thus serve to consolidate Thatcherism rather than replace it. As Blond put it: 'If he is not careful, Cameron risks presiding over the incoherence of a recapitulated free-market economics allied with a compassionate and impotent version of socially concerned conservatism.'