ESSAY: ‘The Big Society’ (or ‘Compulsory Voluntarism’)

Austin Williams | 24 July 2010 | Muslim Institute Summer Conference, Cardiff

The Big Society is being promoted as the flagship government policy even though no-one seems to have the first idea what it means. Commentator, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian has described it as ‘incomprehensibly vague’. Government minister, Francis Maude is quoted as saying that it is “an idea, not a plan” (ref 1); while Eamonn Butler, director of the Adam Smith Institute says he isn’t sure if it’ll be a “Big Disappointment or a Big Bully” (2). Whatever it is, it is now the central plank of government policy.

“The Big Society” is a bit like the phrase “sustainable development” – nobody can really define it, but we kind of know what it means. The official website says: “The Big Society is a society in which we as individuals don’t feel small” (3). Such weasel descriptions are deemed to be its strength. Co-founder, Nathaniel Wei says “For many of us the idea of Big Society can be confusing. This is not necessarily a bad thing” (4).

In essence, the premise (stated as a matter of incontrovertible fact) is that society has fallen apart and therefore we have to rebuild it? Iain Duncan Smith suggests that: “Instead of arguing about whether British society is broken, we as politicians should commit to a programme to fix it.” (5) Back in 2007, David Cameron vowed to ‘fix Britain’s broken society’. It all sounds so reasonable. Social capital has fallen apart and we need a mechanism to mend it. Philip Blond, the self-styled architect of the Big Society, subtitled his book “How Left and Right Have Broken Britain and How We Can Fix It”.

But it is worth reflecting on Colonel Tim Collins’ maxim about Western responsibilities in Iraq: “If you break it, you fix it.” When it comes to Britain’s role in the Middle East, many people can easily recognise that it is a little ironic – if not illegitimate – to argue that one can be instrumental in “breaking” a country and then claim the moral authority to rectify it. Why is it then that so many more people are willing to accept the government’s Big Society agenda? Answer: because the government is purporting to step aside and let us sort it out for ourselves.

As we shall see, the state and its functionaries are still very nervous about it and may not be able to let go of the controls. Whichever way that the Big Society unfolds, it is worth remembering that the devil is not only in the detail, but also in the lack of detail.

The trick has been to suggest that Cameron, in order to maintain credibility in his manifesto commitment to fix Broken Britain is not going to fix it through government mandate, but will roll back the government’s involvement and hand power to the people. Apparently this shows that it is not “big government”, but “big society”. He wants ordinary people to be “your own boss, sack your MP, run your own school, own your own home, veto council tax rises, vote for your police, save your local pub or post office, and see how the government spends your money”. The rhetoric of people-power, local empowerment, double-devolution, etc genuinely sounds more radical when Cameron says it than when the previous Labour government said it. As a result, some left-wing critics have been baffled by it [just as they were confused when Boris Johnson described his bicycle share scheme as “a partially Communist experiment.” (6)]


Prime Minister Cameron says that the country should be “inspired by the Big Society, not crushed by the effects of big government” (7). He wants us all to “join the government of Britain” (8) [as a point of information, surely that would be a very Big Government]. And he claims to recognise that “we need to turn government completely on its head.” (9)

It is slightly ironic then, that Nat Wei, the founder of the Big Society was almost immediately enobled for his efforts, becoming Baron Wei and taking his seat in the Lords; and that the Minister for Civil Society charged with bringing these policies into effect is Nick Hurd MP, son of Douglas Hurd – also a Baron. Turning top down government on its head isn’t going to begin from the top down, it seems.

Some of the biggest criticism has come from commentators, especially those of the left, who have pointed out that the Big Society is a con. This is because, they say, it is merely an excuse for austerity cuts. This is hardly an earth-shattering criticism, especially since the fact that the Big Society agenda will result in public services on the cheap, hasn’t really been denied, even by the proponents of the policy.

As it happens, much of the Big Society agenda originated in New Labour’s policies on Sustainable Communities in 2002, or Robert Putnam’s much-praised essay on the decline of social capital first drafted in 1995 (10). In fact, Tessa Jowell, shadow Cabinet Office minister said of Cameron’s Big Society speech that it was “simply a brass-necked rebranding of programmes already put in place by a Labour government.” (11) As we can see, the essence of the Big Society predates the recession, and so the driver for the Big Society seems not to have been – predominantly – a cost-cutting measure (although, such penny-pinching will undoubtedly benefit the government’s coffers while making the unemployed suffer). Instead, it seems that this is a mechanism to judge social order. And herein lies the problem.

The rhetorical drive of the Big Society agenda: to engage people, to build a sense of solidarity, to give them a sense of purpose is powerfully appealing and is something that many – on the left and right – have signally failed to do. So the charge of hypocrisy, or con-artistry, is either “sour grapes” or “mea culpa”. However, while Cameron, Gove et al are happily rolling back the state from running schools and services, they seem intent on enlarging the state’s self-proclaimed new role “as an agitator for social renewal” (12). To assess the agenda behind the Big Society, it’s worth scratching the surface of what is being presented: differentiating between Form and Content.

Take, for example, typical “criticism” by The Economist that marries its moral contempt for ordinary people, with faux outrage:

“The vomitous binge-drinking mainly by the young, the drug abuse and teenage pregnancy that are still higher than in most west European countries and the large proportion of single-parent families all tell a tale…(but t)he broken-Britain myth is worse than scaremongering. (13)

So let’s take a look at a couple of the big ideas on offer. Firstly, volunteerism.

Cameron’s desire for “platoons” of volunteers – a National Citizen Service for all 16-year-olds to “make a difference in their local community” – harks back to New Labour’s Community Service Volunteers [as well as Edmund Burke’s “little platoon we belong to in society”] (14). In 2005, Gordon Brown said: “There is such a thing as society… a Britain energised by a million centres of neighbourliness and compassion that together embody that very British idea – civic society.” (15)

In fact, Britain’s neighbourliness and civic engagement seems to be in rude health with around 500,000 to 900,000 community groups in operation around the UK in 2008 (16). The government prefers to use figures for the numbers employed in the voluntary sector – up from about 730,000 in March 2009 to 778,000 in March 2010 at the same time that employment in the public and private sectors fell by 0.5 per cent and 2.3 per cent respectively over the same period.

This dynamic rise in the volunteering sector, which goes against the grain of the recessionary decline in the public and private sectors was used by Cameron’s government to show how robust and economically beneficial the voluntary sector is, and could, be. But to be “employed” in the voluntary sector makes a bit of a mockery of volunteering. Moreover, it has become easier for the government to blur the distinction between volunteering that is rewarded, and that which is encouraged, coaxed or even compelled.

The official definition of volunteering is of “an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment or individuals or groups other than (or in addition to) close relatives” (17). This definition noticeably skims over the unpaid army of home carers (that selfless group of people who tend to ill, frail or disabled family members, who have propped up the healthcare service for years), providing an embarrassing snapshot of what the Big Society might look like. “The Compact Code of Good Practice on Volunteering” continues: “The key element (of volunteering) that it is freely undertaken.”(my italics). Maybe the government thinks that this simply means “done for free” but in fact it describes an activity “willingly, uncoercedly or generously” given. As such, it is about the rights of the person who gives up his/her time, After all, the act is not done for personal or commercial gain but is done from personal choice and individual free will. By making voluntary engagement into a duty – or a responsibility – rather than an act of free deliberation, they are making volunteering – something that, by definition, has no legal obligation or consideration – into a contract.

Localism: “the voice of the citizen” (18)

Localism tends to atomise the national, collective experience and encourage more isolated, pragmatic, responses to problems. Whatever Prescott thought, here we have the reality of Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 dictum: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”. While this might appear to be empowering, it silos off our social networks and pigeonholes our experiences. As such, there is something profoundly undemocratic about the Big Society agenda.

The Big Society promotes localism; whereby “neighbourhoods who are in charge of their destiny who feel as if they club together and get involved they can shape the world around them.” (19) This could only be true if we perceive the “world” to be our immediate locality. We might influence others to be equally concerned about cleaning up our locality, but this is not the same thing as shaping the world. We are creating a nation of mop-keepers; because “acting locally” tells you nothing about the world. If we want to be politically-informed, critical, opinionated, truly engaged, and genuinely active – in the sense that we become subjects rather than objects of history – then we have to move beyond local concerns.

Before I go on, I just want to make clear that my criticism of communities is on a political level. Communities are important building blocks of society. The idea of trust networks – of people working and supporting others is a very valuable thing. Informal relations between people mediated by themselves is the essence of what makes us a humane, civilised civil society. After all, for all the criticisms about the fragmentation of society and the decline in community – there are still around 22 million people doing voluntary and community work. Communities are important things – like families – but in the same way, you might not want to stay in one all of your life. Effectively, people who want to “shape the world” actually want to move out.

So let’s assume that civil society has fragmented to the extent that the government believes: that is a real political problem. But pretending that it can be rebuilt by local action plans and narrow community engagement will exacerbate the very problem that it seeks to resolve. The problem, you see, is the lack of subjectivity within society as a whole and that needs to be addressed on the political level. A comparable example would be the issue of “risk aversion”, which is commonly recognised to be an all-pervasive influence within society. As such, official attempts to challenge society’s overcautious approach to risk – by taking away safety nets – actually makes people more nervous. Unless you can convince people that risks are worth taking then everyone will retreat into their shells.

So, in terms of the Big Society, identifying society’s fractiousness is a good starting point but trying to solve it by encouraging localism – a retrenchment into locality – is going to further increase our sense of alienation. Unfortunately, the government is steaming ahead. Eric Pickles MP states: “Be in no doubt about our commitment to localism. I know I look like an unlikely revolutionary, but the revolution starts here.” (20)

But this is not local activism as we know it. This is sanitised localism. The Big Society Network provides us with the model: apparently, we should “be there fighting a campaign like saving a park, or a post office”(21). Presumably, this might be one of the parks or post offices closed down by the government’s budget cuts. The community, in this example, is presumably not fighting to save the post office, but rather it is simply meant to revel in its closure as thanks for providing them with an opportunity to bond. Cutbacks and limits thus become transformed from causes of anger or despond, to a source of happiness and activism. The targets of public sector cuts are thus transformed into totems, around which the community can dance.

Vetted to within an inch of its life with all the spontaneity taken out of it, Cameron’s idea of localism, empowers “officials” to identify local residents “with a particular aptitude for taking part in Big Society projects” so that they can “receive training to become community organisers, motivating their neighbours to take part in action schemes” (22). One can only imagine a new breed of state-sanctioned do-gooders and busy-bodies given authority to nag anyone who dares miss a tenants’ meeting or refuses to join Neighbourhood Watch. In the same way that Gordon Brown had planned a ” national youth community service” (23), Cameron’s “neighbourhood army” (24) or his “communities with oomph” (25) are euphemisms for ways of ensuring that people’s behaviour is compatible with the community norm. It’s worth remembering JS Mill’s conception of what Liberal values should be: “Mankind,” he said, “are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” (On Liberty”) Unfortunately, non-participation in a Big Lunch – something that could be seen as an actual expression of one’s autonomy and discernment – may result in ostracism.

The government’s belief that we can build trust by simply encouraging people to “get involved” in non-specific activities is not the same thing as genuine engagement in political life. Matthew Taylor enthuses about the possibility of a Big Society portal “through which people can join groups, identify local needs and offer help.” Their suggestion that civil society will flourish as long as you are involved/ engaged/ socially participatory is palpable nonsense. Real communities are much more than people thrown together to run a street party or organise a charity fete.

But as we have seen, there are already many hundreds and thousands of pre-existing community and active citizen groups but these may not meet the strictures of Big Society oomphness. As such, these people – who are regularly involved in organising local events – may be superseded by an officially sanctioned “expert organiser and dedicated civil servants to ensure ‘people power’ initiatives get off the ground” (26). The government wants to (feels it needs to) interfere, because it doesn’t believe that we could possibly be doing the right thing on our own. By such condescending interference Cameron could easily fragment existing well-established trust networks and organisational loyalties that are the very bedrock of the civil society he seeks to create.



1. Cited in Polly Toynbee, “The ‘big society’ is a big fat lie – just follow the money”, The Guardian, 6 August 2010

2. Eamonn Butler, “Dr Eamonn Butler: Big Society sounds better than Big Government – but the Government must not try to direct social activism”, July 22, 2010,

3. “We must be the change we want to see in the world”, The Big Society website,

4. Nathaniel Wei, “Why Big Society can be confusing – and why this is alright”, The Big Society blog, June 18th, 2010.

5. Iain Duncan Smith, “We will all pay the price for broken Britain”, (also cited in The Daily Telegraph), 6 December 2008

6. Ross Lydall, “Boris Johnson’s London bike hire hits the streets”, Evening Standard, 30 July 10

7. Cited in Martyn Brown “Brooke Kinsella backs David Cameron as he vows to fix Broken Britain”. Daily Express, Wednesday April 28, 2010

8. “General election 2010: David Cameron says ‘join me and play a part in Britain’s future'”, Daily Telegraph, 13 Apr 2010.

9. David Cameron, Big Society Speech’, 19 July 2010.

10 Robert Puttnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6:1, pp.65-78

11. Tessa Jowell quoted in Nicholas Watt, “Cameron promises power for the ‘man and woman on the street”, The Guardian, 19 July 2010

12. David Cameron, “This is a radical revolt against the statist approach of Big Government”, The Guardian, 18 April 2010

13. “How broken is Britain?” The Economist, February 2010

14. Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Revived Apollo Press (London), 1814

15. Gordon Brown, “Brown encourages young volunteers”, BBC News, 31 January, 2005.

16. The UK Voluntary Sector Almanac, NCVO 2006

17. Volunteering England, “The Compact Code of Good Practice on Volunteering”, 2005

18. Paul Twivy, chief executive, Big Society network, “Big Society Network launch celebrated at Number 10”, 13 July 2010.

19. David Cameron, “Big Society Speech”, Number, 19 July 2010

20. Eric Pickles, MP, ” The Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government”, Queens Speech Forum, 11 June 2010.

21. Nat Wei executive chair of The Big Society Network at the launch on March 31 2010. YouTube video:

22 David Cameron, quoted in Rosa Prince, “David Cameron launches his Big Society”, Daily Telegraph, 18 Jul 2010.

23. “PM plans to compel community work”, BBC News, 12 April 2009.

24. Andrew Grice, “Cameron reveals how he will fix broken Britain (well, you will…)”, The Independent, 1 April 2010.

25. Emma Thelwell, “David Cameron launches Big Society scheme”, Channel 4, 19 July 2010.

26. “Cameron launches Tories’ ‘big society’ plan”, BBC News, 19 July 2010.

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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