Why David Cameron’s Big Society failed

The term Big Society was coined by Steve Hilton, the director of strategy for David Cameron. It was one of the core policies in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto aiming to create an active civic community through a massive devaluation of the central power to a more local level. The three main objectives of the Big Society were more social action, public service reforms and community empowerment. They framed Cameron’s response to Thatcher’s laissez-faire and to Labour’s own failures on social policy. Citizens would be empowered to take responsibility for their own lives and were expected to help individuals unequivocally. The former Prime Minister identified the social evils he intended to thwart through solidarity and social progress: poverty, inequality and injustice. This article will first present the Big Society project before tackling the related issues to this audacious proposal, leading to its slow demise. 

The Big Plan

Even if such altruism coming from the Conservatives seems at first startling, it turns out to echo a traditional Conservative tenet: the civil society. The moral duty notion had already been advocated by Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in his ‘little platoons’ rhetoric. To him, family, the church, and local community are the foundations and the stabilizing forces of a healthy and strong society. Moreover, the concept is also affiliated to the One Nation Conservative ideology, which promotes the theory of an organic society revolving around local institutions (church, libraries) that glue the whole nation together. 

The Big Society was to be carried out through a series of actions led by the Office for Civil Society (former Office for the Third Sector). They strove to reinforce civic responsibilities and to foster an active sense of community endowed with a solid culture of volunteering and charities. Community groups would have taken charge of parks, post offices, libraries or even local transport services. David Cameron planned to set up a Community First programme to stimulate social action within small communities and give them a more engaged role in society. They also promoted the creation of a National Citizen Service (for sixteen- to seventeen-year-olds over summer) done on the basis of moral obligation. The Big Society Bank, funded with dormant bank accounts, meant to bring more support for social entrepreneurs, as well as financing charities and voluntary groups. The mutualisation of public services was at the core of the project. Public service reforms would have given charities, social enterprises and private companies the right to compete in delivering the best services. One of Cameron’s main objectives was to delegate welfare provision to local groups. Thus, individual responsibilities would be complemented by associations rather than by the state. The devaluation of power bestowed upon neighbourhoods would have given a sense of ownership. The former Prime Minister insisted on the importance of the City Council’s role within communities. The social agenda included the set up of the Community Organisers programme, designed to help 5,000 community workers. A reward points plan was also on the table, to encourage a stronger volunteering spirit among communities. In exchange for good deeds (litter-picking, holding tea parties for isolated pensioners), citizens would have been entitled to discounts redeemable in shops and restaurants. Some welfare rights (access to council housing) would also have become conditional on people demonstrating their active citizenship. This whole scheme echoes the Conservative ideology to make people bear responsibilities (they should run local institutions themselves) instead of relying on the state. Hence, citizens would have been accountable for the improvement of the services they run, yet it would also have implied they should be able to address the future issues on their own. 

Once David Cameron was in power, at the head of a coalition government (made of the Conservative and Liberal-Democrat parties), some initiatives were launched in accordance with his Big Society’s tenets. First, The Localism Bill was passed in 2011. The act facilitated the decentralisation of decision-making powers from central government control to individuals and communities, giving them the opportunity to initiate more action. Local authorities were also given greater autonomy. In addition, the act contained some planning systems at local or neighbourhood level. (The Localism Bill introduced the Neighbourhood Development Plans (NDPs), Neighbourhood Development Orders (NDOs) and, one specific form of NDO, the Community Right to Build Order, to influence housing development.) Then the Open Public Service white paper was published in 2011. It draws upon the idea that users of public services could legally choose their provider; it therefore expanded the range of choice they were offered. David Cameron meant to encourage the development of the third sector, in which private ‘social’ companies and charities could compete with the public sector to offer their services to users. Under the coalition agreement, the setting up of free schools run by parents, teachers, charities and education experts in 2010 was a meaningful shift towards Cameron’s model. Nonetheless, the free school’s autonomy was limited due to their state-funded system.

The Big Society was an asset part of an ambitious modernisation agenda. Cameron planned to move away from the ‘nasty party’ image inherited from Margaret Thatcher. The Big Society would, by definition, go against her view that “there is no such a thing as society”, a firm stance she famously shared in an interview in Women’s Only in 1987. In opposition to this, Cameron sharply declared, “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state,” in a speech as the Conservative party leader, in December 2005. By purposefully crushing this burdensome legacy, Cameron hoped to appeal to more voters in the name of the compassionate Conservatism’s return. The former Prime Minister intended to use social reform to put his stamp on the Conservative party and to be “as radical in social reform as Mrs Thatcher was in economic reform […] to mend the broken society”, as he claimed in 2008. The Broken Britain he refers to is a theory characterised by a tax and benefits system entailing dependency and worklessness. Cameron attempted to castigate the Blair-Brown years, holding them responsible for the financial debt, a too powerful big state which destroys personal responsibility. To encourage a trust-based relationship between people and this fresh, progressive and earnest Conservative party, the former Prime Minister committed himself (and his party) to regularly publish government data. Hence, such accountability and transparency would reassure people and let them think they could constantly have a say in politics. 

Despite all his effort and dedication, Cameron’s initiative remained unsuccessful and was never fully implemented in the course of his prime ministership. He had to admit his failure and to give up on his project for several reasons: ones that he stubbornly seemed to have turned a blind eye to (lack of enthusiasm from citizens), and ones that befell him due to poor strategy (economic hardship demanding drastic austerity measures). 

The Big Mistake

The decline of the Big Society was due to several factors, both internal and external, that crushed the former Prime Minister’s hopes. One could criticize the brazen paternalism of assuming with confidence what is fundamentally better for citizens, even though they were not particularly keen to follow a lead which required more clarity. It was rather bold of Cameron to persist in convincing the electorate that his proposal would actually benefit them all. The Big Society did not work because the individuals were not willing to take a more active part in the civic communities. According to the IPSOS Mori poll in 2009, only one in twenty of the public wanted “involvement” in the provision of local services, whereas one in four merely wanted “more of a say” and half just wanted “more information”. Had the Prime Minister overlooked what people actually demanded and over-estimated their political participation? He might have advocated too passionately for his idea, which raises suspicion about his genuine motives. Would his proposal ultimately only serve his (and his party’s) interests ?

Equally, the concept may have failed because it would have entrenched inequalities instead of closing the gap. When asked who would be the most likely to take up more responsibility in a neighborhood applying the Big Society principles, the most politically involved individuals were often the better off. The most willing citizens to volunteer in their free-time are either those who are already well educated or skilled, those belonging to the majority ethnic group, or the retired. Participation (civic or voluntary work) is then determined through socio-economic factors and through social capital. The risk that minorities’ interests would not have been equally represented and defended in decision-making was remarkably high. What then were the solutions designed to fight social exclusion at local level ?

The Big Society was also massively criticized for its lack of coherence: how could local communities be empowered to run local institutions and take a more active part in politics if their funds were being cut? It was quite contradictory to push for more voluntary and charity action while the coalition government carried out their austerity measures. They enforced drastic public spending cuts in the third sector to cope with the economic hardship the country was facing. Yet, many charities and even social enterprises relied on grants and contracts from local governments. Consequently, this third sector funding shift would have highlighted the tremendous role the state played in supporting local authorities, public sector and charities. Hence, it would have been onerous and strenuous to compensate for the financial aid the state usually provides them. For instance, an approximate loss of between £3.2 and £5.1 billion in public funding for charities had been estimated. One major example of the poor viability of the project in the long run was illustrated by the withdrawal of the Liverpool City Council from the Big Society vanguard project in 2011. They justified their U-turn with the £141 million save they made in their budget. At first, Cameron was so keen to promote his scheme to local people, organisations and social entrepreneurs that he launched a town-hall meeting programme across the country. However, the very first meeting turned out to be a failure and the other meetings were immediately cancelled afterwards: the audience there was angrily protesting over cuts in voluntary and public sectors. The growing indignation and resentment could not be ignored anymore. Consequently, some of Cameron’s critics claimed that he only upheld the Big Society to make up for the massive public spending cuts he intended to pursue once in government. But this point is up for debate, since David Cameron introduced his idea for the first time in 2008, before the financial recession serious hit which called for dire austerity measures. Furthermore, the former Prime Minister directly addressed those critics in his party conference speech in Birmingham in 2010: “The Big Society is not about creating cover for cuts”, “I was going on about it years before the cuts.”.

Another reason for the failure of the Big Society could be the side effects of the public services marketisation it would have entailed. How could charities possibly compete with the private sector to offer the best services to users ? Did they need to endorse a more commercial and business driven strategy? It would have been pretty hard to keep up the pace when their funds would have been severely cut. Is there an underlying desire for privatisation behind these seemingly socially cohesive economic policies? The creed “Big Society, not Big Government” explicitly implies that fewer state regulations would have been carried out. The motto illustrates the Conservative and Liberal Democrats’ principles of securing a deregulated free market with less state interference and in which individual freedom prevails over a strong government. 

The proposal was eventually buried down because of the inconsistency it raised. For instance, to what extent would the communities be empowered with autonomy? The prospect of local groups challenging the power of banks or campaigning against government policies was undesirable, and would go against the vision of the government working hand-in-hand with local communities. How would they cope with citizens’ desires and initiatives when they would clash with the government’s own? Another example of paradox lies in politics. How could a system claim to favour fairness if it deliberately turned a blind eye on its macroeconomic causes? Same goes for its direct democracy promise, which appeared very appealing, but turned out to lack serious constitutional reform. Mutualism and co-operatives were praised and encouraged but market transactions remained dominant. Moreover, a compassionate Conservatism was advertised in speeches, prioritizing the fight against poverty, inequalities and injustice, yet the solutions remain fundamentally neo-liberal. In reality, Cameron mainly sought to shrink the State to both maximize the economic mechanisms of a market economy and enhance individual freedom and responsibilities. 

Did the project ultimately fail because of the period (not viable for the 2010-2015 Britain?), or because of the massive lack of support (both from politicians and civilians) and finance resources (austerity measures which cut the third sector budget, and hence jeopardised any possible successful autonomy from the state)? Or was it doomed from the beginning due to its inconsistency and to individuals’ distrust – how legitimate and genuine could an alternative be if it comes from the establishment itself? Voters wondered whether this plan was honest in its goal to improve citizens’ living conditions, or whether it was just another smokescreen to fool the electorate and convince them to vote for the Conservatives. People may also have been deterred from this plan because it was not radical enough; it appeared like nothing more than buzzwords, built on rusty old recycled ideas from the establishment.

 Océane Guyard