The return of the Big Society? Why David Cameron’s long abandoned ideal is due for a comeback

Previously a Trojan horse for the small state, 2020 is showing how the Big Society should have worked all along

June 18, 2020
Photo:  Eddie Keogh/PA Archive/PA Images
Photo: Eddie Keogh/PA Archive/PA Images

Do you remember the Big Society? Despite being mocked as vacuous, vague or both, David Cameron’s big idea was at the heart of the 2010 Conservative manifesto and survived into the coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats. In his book The Big Society, the Conservative MP and philosopher Jesse Norman wrote that “Most political slogans have a life-cycle of days to hours. Yet it is already clear that the idea of the Big Society is taking root in the public mind.”

Ten years later, it looks more like the Big Society was nipped in the bud. Cameron last used the phrase in 2013. The charity The Big Society Network, which 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,” collapsed in 2015 following a critical National Audit Office report. Big Society Capital, an independent social investment company set up by the Cabinet Office in 2012, does still operate but seems to be living up to its billing by the FT as “a tiny acorn from which it is far from certain that a giant oak will grow.”

The Covid-19 crisis, however, suggests that the Big Society has legs after all. If it failed the first time, it was not because of any inherent flaw, but the disingenuousness of those who championed it. Officially an attempt to redraw the social contract between state and society by empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives, for many Conservatives it was primarily just a more palatable way to sell the shrinking of the state than a Thatcherite rolling back of its frontiers. Shorn of this not so hidden agenda, the Big Society has life in it yet.

Cameron launched his Big Society agenda in his Hugo Young lecture in November 2009. What is striking about the speech is how seriously it took the concerns of the centre-left. Cameron cites Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work on inequality in The Spirit Level, mentions studies by the Sutton Trust on decreasing social mobility, and even declares that new Labour’s flagship Sure Start programme directed at disadvantaged families “should stay.” 

Cameron’s pitch was that everything the left was worried about was indeed important, but could not be solved by “top-down, fiddling, micro-managing.” He rejected the Fabian narrative “in which every issue demanded government intervention and every problem could be solved by a state solution.”

But importantly, Cameron insisted “Our alternative to big government is not no government—some reheated version of ideological laissez-faire.” It was a switch from the state as provider to enabler, “an instrument for helping to create a strong society.”

The Big Society was a classic attempt at the kind of triangulation so deftly achieved by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. A Conservative approach which emphasised individual freedom and responsibility was sold as the solution to the left’s concern for social justice. In the coalition agreement, it was claimed that “when you take Conservative plans to strengthen families and encourage social responsibility, and add to them the Liberal Democrat passion for protecting our civil liberties and stopping the relentless incursion of the state into the lives of individuals, you create a Big Society matched by big citizens.”

The problem was that when you read the small print of the new contract between state and society, the state signed up to almost nothing. Far from having a different role, it had little role at all. A decade of austerity followed in which the government withdrew as much as it could from supporting civil society to tackle social problems.

This could have been foreseen. All the while Cameron was reassuring us that “the re-imagined state should not stop at creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives” and that it should be “directly agitating for, catalysing and galvanising social renewal,” he was also making it clear that “The era of big government has run its course” and that we needed “a clean break with the current big government approach.” Perhaps in their minds the Conservatives had persuaded themselves that the state should be part of the solution, but in their hearts too many saw it as the whole of the problem.

Could the Big Society ever have been more than a Trojan horse for the small state? I think it could, and 2020 is showing us how. Civil society is showing itself to be more capable than ever of coming together and working for the common good. This has not been accompanied by the state doing less, but the opposite. The government has been more active than at any time since the war. It turns out the Big Society and the Big State not only can live together—they must.

How does it work? In 2018, writing for the ConservativeHome website in response to the question “Whatever happened to the Big Society?” Jesse Norman summed up the idea as “a focus on human beings not as economic atoms, but as bundles of capability; a focus on intermediate institutions between the individual and the state; and a focus on society and individual rights as such, rather than as mediated by the state.”

The first of these is not a corrective to state socialism but to the free market economist’s fiction of homo economicus, the human being concerned only with their own economic advancement. Covid-19 has seen society as a whole set aside economic growth, both national and private, as the overriding goal. In its place we have seen an emphasis not just on health and survival, but social support and care for the most vulnerable. Many restaurants that have become incapable of turning a profit have not simply shut up shop, they’ve helped feed front-line workers and the socially isolated. People are not just securing their own grocery deliveries but coming together to support food banks. 

Human nature has not changed overnight. The crisis has made it plain that no one ever thought raising GDP or even their own household income was an end in itself. The insight of the Big Society was that for too long governments had treated citizens as consumers, believing that they could only be motivated by crude economic instruments, such as financial incentives to move off welfare.

Norman’s second feature of the Big Society is the focus on intermediate institutions between the individual and the state. Under the Conservatives, these were not so much intermediate as independent. Take those food banks. These have nothing to do with the government except that they clean up some of the mess created by its neglect. They are not the solution to food poverty and no substitute for good government policy.

Genuinely intermediate institutions would be supported by the government working with them coherently to achieve common objectives. Right now huge swathes of society have been in effect converted to such institutions. Every business being kept afloat by furlough schemes and other forms of government support is working independently of the state but with its critical support for the common goal of sustaining viable work. Industries such as pharmaceuticals, groceries and transport are working with the enabling state to keep society going. Many have stepped up, but they have only been able to do so because the state has not stepped back.

Norman’s final piece of the Big Society jigsaw is “a focus on society and individual rights as such, rather than as mediated by the state.” Society legitimises the state to act, not vice versa. Sovereignty ultimately lies with the people. At a time when the government has exerted more control over our daily lives that at any time since the war, this might seem to be the opposite of what’s happening now.

But you cannot determine where sovereignty lies simply by seeing how much government does. You have to look at how it is able to do so. In China, the government could take strict measures because it had absolute authority to do so. In Britain, the government has had to bring the people along with it. From the start, we were not just told to social distance or else we’d be locked up: we were implored to do it for the common good. It has been clearly understood that we follow the rules not out of obedience but because we collectively support them. We have largely policed ourselves. If it turns out that we were misadvised by the government, or that it has handled things badly, it will be kicked out.

Cameron failed to bring about the Big Society because he thought he had to make room for it by shrinking the state. Today we can see that the Big Society needs an active, large state. This is not, however a state which takes control away from people and dictates exactly how they act. It is one which gives them the money to spend however they think they need to to keep their businesses or households afloat. It gives people the information and guidance they need to act for the common good, even though there is nothing in it materially for them and it might actually require sacrifice.

As we emerge from the crisis, financially broke, we need to make sure this better version of the Big Society has a better chance of success than the first one. The state cannot give power to the people if it simply gives up its own. It has to find smarter ways to make sure that it uses its unique capacity to enable civic society to do its best.