What is the big society and why should historians care?

George Campbell Gosling, Oxford Brookes University

Have you ever noticed that when politicians are asked ‘What is the big society?’ they tend to begin their answer ‘The big society is about…’? The term was coined by the Prime Minister’s media guru, Steve Hilton, and it has intelligent and eloquent supporters including Jesse Norman and Phillip Blond. Yet, for all the relaunches, answering that simple question seems to be an endless struggle.

In the Commons debate on the topic in February 2011, various MPs offered contrasting and sometimes contradictory definitions. The big society was said to be a cover for Tory cuts, a revival of civil society as an alternative to the nanny state, by Jon Cruddas a welcome return to thinking about rights and responsibilities, by Paul Flynn ‘a millionaire’s view of helping society’, and perhaps most bizarrely by Charlie Elphicke a solution for the fear of being sued stopping someone jumping in a river to save a drowning child.

Part of the difficulty is that the big society is two things at once. It is both social commentary and political agenda, both description and prescription.


David Cameron has described the big society agenda as having three strands: social action, public service reform and community empowerment. The debates around the best way to approach or support these three will not be settled on this or any other blog. Furthermore, as historians, it is not our place to support or oppose them – at least not in our research and teaching.

What we should do, however, is recognise that they are part of a longer trend, and one that has defined much of British politics and governance in recent decades. The 1960s and 1970s saw the onset of widespread disillusionment with the postwar settlement that had not abolished poverty and could not guarantee prosperity. A simple explanation (perhaps too simple) took hold: the state had failed because too much was asked of it.

The 1978 report of the Wolfenden Committee on the Future of Voluntary Organisations brought this into focus and proposed a greater role in future for the private and voluntary sectors. It was an agenda that sat well with Mrs Thatcher, but it was not a narrowly Thatcherite one. We saw this, for example, in New Labour’s attitude of ‘partnership’ with what it called the ‘third sector’.

In the past three decades this has been the direction of travel: away from statist provision, with ever greater networks and contracts for the private and voluntary sector to provide public services. Historians and students of modern Britain should be as aware of this trend as they are of the growth of public welfare in the early-mid twentieth century.

This is the latest chapter in the history of the British welfare state. Despite the recent PR disasters of the AHRC, this is a major theme for researchers wanting to understand this area of Britain’s recent history and current political and social landscape. The real problem is not the use of one or another phrase, but letting the politicians define the debate.

Steve Hilton coining the term ‘big society’ so David Cameron could talk about it without risking his detoxification of the Conservative Party is a footnote in this story. However, we should not shy away from the term. We should bring the phrase and the debate into our discussions of recent British history and society, not least in teaching. The place of voluntarism within the governance of this country is a major political debate. If history graduates are not able to understand and engage with it critically, then who?

By entering the discussion on the big society, we can place it within this trend away from statism in recent decades. It is only once that is done that we can challenge the ahistoricism of the big society commentary. Here we can follow the leads of the University of Birmingham’s post-1945 NGO research group that civic participation has increased in recent years, and Pat Thane who has made the case the case that “there has always been a ‘big society’”.

For as well as the political agenda, the big society is a social comment – and one that is heavily value-laden. As historians we will see a resonance with Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that civil association is an essential element of a functioning democracy. However, the description is poorly defined, despite Cameron’s contribution that he wants to see ‘communities with oomph’.

What is not clear is whether the Cameroons want to revive some past golden age of voluntary action or whether they think there never was one and therefore want to create it. Either is certain to make historians shuffle uncomfortably in their chairs. As Lawrence Black has noted, Anthony Crosland was active in the co-operative movement even while he said the following in 1956:

“We do not want the entire population to ‘participate’ or feel responsible for all the world’s ills … constantly attending meetings. An evening, for the ordinary citizen, is something which should be spent at home or with friends, private and quietly drinking. An active minority of 3 per cent is quite sufficient. Let the rest of us cultivate our gardens.”

Despite the unwillingness of most academics to engage with the topic of the big society, there has been an impressive amount of quality work in recent years that undermines the idea that civil society was crowded out by the rise of the welfare state. The Voluntary Action History Society’s seminars, and the podcasts of them, are an excellent starting point for anyone interested in this growing body of work.

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5 Responses to What is the big society and why should historians care?

  1. Vicki Bolton says:

    That Crosland quote is fabulous. Is it from Black’s recent consumer politics chapter? I’d love to be able to use it and reference it properly.

    • George Campbell Gosling says:

      Yes Vicki, I think it is from Kerstin Brückweh’s 2011 edited volume. I haven’t read that chapter yet, but he used this quote in a version of the chapter given as a paper at the 2010 Western Conference on British Studies in the Texas. I can tell that his reference for the quote is:

      British Library of Political and Economic Science, London, Anthony Crosland Papers, 14/1, ‘Co-operative First Principles’, 28 Feb. 1956.

      Hope that helps.

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