David Cameron’s Big Society: The Big Idea

by Marc Geddes


‘You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society’ – David Cameron, 19.07.10

The Big Society is David Cameron’s attempt to secure a future legacy. Unfortunately for him, his legacy is more likely to be linked to the effects of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the British economy more generally. Nonetheless, I wish to focus on the Big Society, as it has implicitly underpinned the coalition government and the aims of Cameron, which he has so far pursued with equal vigour as his efforts to tackle the economic deficit. In the coming weeks, I want to evaluate the Big Society, but first I wish to explore the basic tenets of it. I feel it necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of what the idea actually entails before it is possible to analyse the concept in depth.

Essentially, one can argue that there are three crucial themes to the Big Society:

  • Devolution of Power
  • Strengthened Citizenship
  • Social Mobility

Devolution of Power

The pivotal problem for David Cameron is that of big government. A centrally planned economy is no way to organise a society – to which history is a testament. Cameron has said that big government has atomised our society, it has impoverished 900,000 people, and it has made our society more unequal. Government is not the answer to such problems, rather social action can provide the solution.

The Minister for Decentralisation has claimed that localism is ‘the most fundamental building block of the Big Society’. The redistribution of power is crucial for the realisation of the Big Society. In essence, it can be attained through freedom of choice, community empowerment, and the right to transparency. Plans for reform include:[2]

  • Elected mayors in the 12 largest English cities;
  • A return to decision-making powers on housing and planning to local councils;
  • New powers to help save local facilities and services threatened with closure, and give communities the right to bid to take over local state-run services;
  • Give councils a general power of competence;
  • Give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue and the power to veto excessive council tax increases;
  • Greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups.

Strengthened Citizenship

Of course, these political reforms are of little use without a greater sense of belonging to the community to exercise those rights effectively. The Big Society aims to get groups to become more involved in communities, making their own decisions about issues which affect them to create autonomous actors. The ideal of the Big Society is to encourage the citizen to have more freedom in his or her choices and to have the capabilities to do so. Cameron sees citizenship in terms of social responsibilities, duties and obligations; he has mentioned that society must move from ‘state action to social action’. It is intended to fix ‘Broken Britain’ and the anti-social paradigm of recent years.

Therefore, the Big Society will mean the chance for individuals and community groups to run local services such as post offices, schools, libraries and transport services. Decisions about these services will be taken away from unelected managers and back to the communities who will be better placed to make decisions on their own terms. This is at the heart of self-government taken with a strong sense of social responsibility. Cameron said in a speech that ‘it’s about liberation – the biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street’. It will entrench groups, voluntary organisations and local movements in the community.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is an intrinsic part of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat vision. It can be defined as ‘an individual’s social position (upward or downward) either between their own and their parents’ social class (inter-generational mobility) or over the course of their working career (intra-generational mobility)’. It is through the notion of fairness that we can see Big Society policies taking place, enabling them the tools to develop social mobility. Some of the ways that the government plans to implement their proposals for social mobility:

  • Setting up of a Big Society bank, connecting private capital to investment in social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups.
  • Encourage businesses to support volunteering and philanthropy; make their company’s time, skills and resources available to neighbourhoods groups, local arts organisations and for social action.
  • Increase the number of apprenticeships/work experience placements for unemployed.
  • Creation of ‘Free Schools’ whereby state schools would be funded by the taxpayer, but remains non-selective and free to attend. However, local authorities would not control them.

This is instrumental for the interests of society; it will promote corporate responsibility and a much greater sense of a politics based on fairness. Under Cameron’s goals, it will mean more jobs, apprenticeships, protecting the environment, improving the quality of well-being, and supporting the community.

This has largely been a descriptive account, looking at the aims of the Big Society and plans for implementation. The obvious question of course remains: will it work? Will the Big Society actually achieve effective autonomy for the citizen? It is to these issues that I wish to turn in the coming weeks.


[1] Big shout out to Alex Diggles, Jake Bennett, Dom Urmston and NM!

[2] HM Government, The Coalition: Our Programme For Government, (London, 2010); also adapted from the Queen’s Speech: Decentralisation and Localism Bill