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Lost in translation? The framing and implementation of David Cameron’s Big Society agenda

Nicholas Deakin
p. 27-47


David Cameron was personally responsible to introducing the term “Big Society” into English political discourse. The concept has roots in Conservative social policies and draws on some classic texts. However, he has had difficulty both in defining what it actually means and on how to put it into practice.  Despite a failure to communicate its significance successfully to the electorate, the Coalition government committed itself after the inconclusive 2010 General Election to implementation. However, there is no single master plan, rather a series of disparate initiatives conducted at different levels in government - a modest programme of financial support and promotion of volunteering based in the Cabinet Office and wider political initiatives sometimes branded as “Big Society”,  involving the engagement of voluntary bodies and volunteers in service delivery - for example, the promotion of localism, reform of government, changes in the NHS. The future of the project remains uncertain but it will continue in some form as long as David Cameron remains committed.

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1From the beginning of his leadership of the Conservative party in 2005, David Cameron was very clear: the key political objective of any administration he led would be the building of what he termed “the Big Society”. As he put it in May 2011 at Milton Keynes:

  • 1  Cameron, op. cit.

‘Is the Big Society some optional extra? No. It holds the key to transforming our economy, our society, our country’s future and that’s why I will keep on championing it and keep on building it, every day that I have the privilege to lead this country’ 1

  • 2  Guardian 10.11.2010

2However, from the outset the problem has been that the public, the media and commentariat and even the political classes have had great difficulty in grasping what this concept means, either on theory or in practice. The general reception of  Cameron’s big idea has ranged from puzzled curiosity through baffled incomprehension to outright derision and caricature. Yet alongside these responses another has emerged - a sense that there may be something in the idea after all, if only it could be pinned down and translated into a coherent programme for action. So rather than simply fading from prominence, the Big Society project remains an as yet unfulfilled aspiration, a work in progress in which the main architects sometimes seem as uncertain as those who it is intended to benefit about what the overall objective is and what the direction of travel will be. As the Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, rather ruefully put in a speech to the Community Service Volunteers: ‘The trouble is that most people don’t really know what the big society really means, least of all the unfortunate ministers who have to articulate it’2

3This paper is intended as a modest contribution towards a better understanding of some of the different strands that have gone into the weaving together of the Big Society project. I will also try to identify the patterns that are emerging as the government launches a series of actions that fall directly or indirectly within the scope of that project. I will conclude by attempting to estimate the chances of success: will the Big Society programme survive as a government priority,  or even flourish?  Or will it be like Tony Blair’s “Third Way” or John Major’s “Back to Basics” - yesterday’s catchphrases that become today’s embarrassment?


4Although explicitly endorsed by the Coalition partners in government in May 2010, the Big Society policy was  conceived and is now being executed from within the Conservative Party. As such, those involved have been keen to stress the intellectual continuities with classic Conservative political philosophy. Burke, de Maistre, and Oakeshott are all called upon to endorse a view of society founded on local institutions, and beliefs naturally formed through participation in common projects based on the same values and sense of responsibility. This natural, organic model of society is contrasted with the artificial collectivist Utopias of their socialist opponents, with their egalitarian dogmas and lack of respect for individual aspirations. (See King 2011 for a summary).

5Burke is, as always, the key figure here, both his general reliance on the stabilizing forces in society - religious faith, individual responsibility and hierarchy underpinned by property ownership - and his specific invocation of the “little platoons” to which all citizens should  owe their primary loyalties.

  • 3  Joseph, Waldegrave, Hurd, Patten, op. cit.

6Over the past thirty years, a number of contemporary Conservative politicians have developed variations on these basic themes. Keith Joseph animadverted in Equality on the socially destructive consequences of socialist egalitarianism. William Waldegrave pronounced on the dangers of ceding too much power for the central state in his Binding Leviathan. In a speech at Tamworth, Douglas Hurd sought to set Burke’s little platoons on the march against the centralizing and bureaucratic tendencies in British governance. And Chris Patten, in his  Goodman Lecture, reflected on the problems that can arise when civil society’s claim to be heard on issues of public policy becomes too assertive - and the consequences of such assertiveness for good decision taking in government.3

7All these contributions and others have helped to create a distinctive Conservative approach to the role of civil society and the way in which it should relate to the state. And as this issue rose slowly up the public agenda in the eighties and nineties, successive Conservative Prime Ministers have used public speeches to develop their notion of what the place of voluntary action and its relationship to government should be.

  • 4  Speech at Cumberland Lodge June 2011, op. cit.

8  I have suggested elsewhere that the general direction of Conservative social policy towards the voluntary sector could be summarized as falling under three different headings: Modernisation, Marketisation and Moralisation4.

9  All these themes are present in the speeches and other documents to which I have referred but their relative significance has varied at different stages  of Conservative government.

10Modernization is a motif common to most of these statements, but the emphasis and its relevance for civil society is presented rather differently over time. It becomes more significant as a result of the  policy innovations and institutional changes made over the second and third terms of the Thatcher government. Much of this is due to the increasing influence of business models of organization and relationships. This links to…

11Marketisation. The need to build and sustain a dynamic economy based on private enterprise is a common factor in all Conservative analysis, as one would expect.  But it is that basic condition part of a wider agenda directly involving civil society? Do voluntary organisations need to acquire the skills that would enable them to operate in a competitive, commercial environment or do their distinctive values still set them apart?

12Moralisation. This is a key feature of the policy pronouncements at all stages of the Conservative government’s time in office.  Participation in voluntary action in some form is presented as a moral imperative and by helping to promote social cohesion forms a crucial supplement to economic policies - or perhaps even a precondition for real success.

  • 5  Blond, op. cit.

13Cameron inherits this legacy of his predecessors’ previous approaches to the issues with which he is concerned and  his Big Society agenda draws on some of this past thinking. But the series of speeches that he made as Leader of the Conservative Party when in opposition (Scarman and Chamberlain lectures, op. cit.) also shows the impact of some fresh thinking, in particular that of Philip Blond’s influential polemic Red Tory, the first in a series of multi-coloured policy pronouncement from all sides of politics5 .

14One surprising omission has been the lack of any clear evidence of influence from the United States (unlike the impact Robert Putnam’s ideas on social capital made on New Labour). The solitary and surprising exception has been Cameron’s taking up of the ideas of the radical Chicagoan community organiser Saul Alinsky.

15It is also perhaps worth commenting that the general line of development of the Big Society concept has been distinctively English - there has been no attempt to extend either analysis or proposed remedies to other parts of the UK. Given that most social policies, with the conspicuous exception of social security, are now devolved, this may have been prudent. However, it leaves open the question of whether the Big Society, which is in Cameron’s conception certainly multi-faith can also function successfully in a multi-ethnic society.

  • 6  Conservative party, op. cit.

16The manner in which Cameron set out his case also shows clear evidence of his intention to “detoxify” the Conservative brand. The tone of reasonable open mindedness was also reflected in the policy papers produced by his party on the future role of the voluntary sector - notably the policy Green Paper: A stronger society: voluntary action in the twenty first century6.

17In sum, the Conservative approached the 2010 election apparently well prepared for power, with an overarching vision set out by the leader for the future of social policy and the role of civil society within it, and much work already done on some detailed policies. The only fly in the ointment was the distinct impression that candidates formed on the doorstep that the Big Society theme - the formula under which the policy were being promoted - was not playing well with the voters.

After the General Election: the new context

18The inconclusive result of the general election seemed at first as if it might throw all this work into doubt, leaving the Conservative proposals on Big Society without the (perhaps rather dubious) legitimacy that a manifesto commitment from the winning party normally confers.  Nevertheless, the broad lines of Conservative policy were endorsed in the Coalition agreement drawn up after negotiation between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. It stated that:

We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society - the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives - to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.

  • 7  Coalition Agreement, op. cit.

Building this Big Society isn’t just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of government and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together7.

19No significant Liberal Democrat involvement is detectable in the wording of the agreement and the party has not so far been actively engaged in shaping policy implementation. The policy remains one crucially dependent on the personal commitment of the new Prime Minister and he has made repeated attempts to promote it with the public as the government’s key social policy priority, in a further series of speeches and events.

20However, progress has been complicated from the outset by the economic priorities laid down by the Chancellor, George Osborne, which has involved making speedy and drastic cuts across the board in public expenditure. These have applied right across the public services, including those now being delivered by voluntary and charitable organizations. In particular, local authorities, on whom many local voluntary organisations depend for much of their income, have had to cut back drastically on the grants that they are able to make  and any contracts that they can issue.

21This has meant that the Big Society programme and the attempts to portray it as a major new development in policymaking has had to contend from the start with the reality on the ground. This is that resources are now often being taken away from exactly those organisations that have been presented as the crucial actors in delivering Big Society programmes. The loss of jobs in the public sector also affects those voluntary organisations that are delivering services under contract;  so that the rapid rise in unemployment, now approaching levels last seen in the 1980s, also directly affects the voluntary sector workforce (now estimated at around 700,000 FTEs).

Big Society: an agenda for implementation?

22There is no single Master Plan for implementation of the Prime Minister’s Big Society agenda.

23The main responsibility for securing the implementation of the Big Society programme rests with the Cabinet Office. As the Cabinet Office website puts it:

24‘ There are three key parts to the Big Society agenda:

  • Community empowerment, giving local councils and neighborhoods more power to take decisions and shape their areas.

  • Opening up public services, our public service reforms will enable charities, social   enterprises private companies and employee-led cooperatives to compete to offer people high quality services

    • 8  Cabinet Office website, op. cit.

    Social action encouraging and enabling people to play a more active role in society’ 8

25The responsibility for these overarching activities extend across government, as the Coalition Agreement requires. The result has been that there are series of different levels of initiatives, which although they interact can be  divided for the purposes of analysis into four levels.

26First, there is the core programme based at the Cabinet Office, in the renamed Office of Civil Society. This is a relatively modest set of actions, most of them essentially a continuation of the activities introduced by New Labour.

27Then there are two major programmes whose significance is reinforced in the Coalition Agreement. These are the government’s localism initiative, designed to simplify the planning system and move power downwards to localities and the Open Public Service White Paper, intended to lead to the break-up of large public sector bureaucracies and introduce mixed styles of management, including a substantial engagement by mutual and cooperatives, sometimes formed from  existing public sector organisations.

28At the next level there are social policy programmes which are legitimated by reference to the overall Big Society objectives but which in terms of content are only marginally related to the Big Society goals of strengthening and empowering civil society. In the fashionable term, they are “kite-marked” with Big Society symbolism.  Finally, there are incipient policy developments not explicitly formulated as part of the Big Society programme but which that are directly relevant to the wider objectives of Conservative policy, as defined earlier.

29There has also been an attempt by government to market the concept to a wider audience. Apart from the Prime Minister’s own repeated attempts to launch and then relaunch the product there is also a Big Society Network with all the campaign and communication trappings that go with such initiatives (tweeting and twittering). For a while, there was also a Big Society Tsar, a City man with experience as a community organiser, appointed a life peer for the purpose; but he found that the pressure of voluntary work conflicted with his need to earn a living and he resigned the post in February 2011. He has not been replaced.

30Taking these four different levels of activity in turn.

The basic programme

31Within the Cabinet office itself sit the limited range of initiatives for which with the renamed Office for Civil Society (formerly Office for the Third Sector) is responsible. These include:

  • Setting up a Big Society Bank to give social enterprises, charities and voluntary organisations access to greater resources. This is to be funded from “dormant” bank accounts.

  • A National Citizen Service. This is a pilot scheme to bring 16 year olds from different backgrounds together over the summer. It is intended to involve 10,000 young people in the first pilots, before extending the schemes.

  • Community Organisers. A scheme designed to identify train and support 5,000 community workers, operating on Alinskyan principles, at least as understood by British politicians.

  • ‘Community first’: a new scheme to encourage social action through neighbourhood groups.

32In addition, the OCS is responsible for the funding of ‘strategic partner’ organisations in voluntary sector, mostly large national voluntary bodies. The government has also published a White Paper on facilitating charitable giving.

33None of these initiatives is in any way novel. Many of them, like the Big Society Bank, stem from work done before the election under the Labour government. The Compact between government and voluntary sector setting out basic principles for their relationship, first put in place under Labour, has been renewed. The importance of community organisation is a common theme to all political parties. Apart from the change in the name of the central coordinating unit (the Prime Minister has pronounced that the term “third sector”  is to be abolished) there is nothing original here. I would describe these policies as “narrow gauge” Big Society programmes.

34If there is any originality in content it lies in the actions now being taken in the next category.

Major initiatives

35Two activities now taking place are designed to implement the basic Big Society agenda, as set out in the Coalition Agreement. First, the Localism Bill, led by the Department of Communities and Local Government and linked to the draft National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF). This is currently (2011) before parliament and offers a drastic reduction in the scope of the planning system with more power at the neighbourhood level to initiate new development - and more scope for new developments on greenfield sites.

36Second, the Open Public Services white paper, published in July 2011, sets out new principles for the implementation of public policy, as already indicated. The White Paper also seeks to provide a legal right for the user of public services to choose their provider. There will be encouragement for out-sourcing of services to the private sector, charities and mutuals but no one sector will be favoured. This is intended to increase competition, which (it is argued) will improve standards. There will also be experiments in giving new powers to neighbourhood councils to run services at a “hyper-local level”.

  • 9  Reynolds, op. cit

37Both these measures have proved controversial. The new planning framework has been criticized for providing too much scope for developers to build on land of high amenity value. The Director-General of the National Trust has been particularly vocal in her criticisms. She has about as good a claim as anyone to represent Big Society in action, with a Trust membership of four million (approximately four times the joint membership of all the main political parties) who are now being encouraged to sign a petition against the Bill.9

  • 10  Guardian 12.11.2011

38The public services White Paper was delayed for some while to take account of the “listening exercise” on the reforms of the health service but whereas it was once apparently  intended to pave the way for a comprehensive Big Society Bill it is now more modest in scope and indeed mentions big society only once.10

Endorsement for wider government policies

  • 11  Cameron, op. cit.

39The Big Society “kite-mark” has also been employed as endorsement of other government initiatives. One recent example has been the highly controversial Health Service and social care legislation. In his Milton Keynes speech, David Cameron pointed to the ‘the incredible passion there is among patients, professionals and charities to take more control and improve our health service’ as ‘the Big Society way to improve the NHS’.11

40Also invoked by Cameron - and also controversial - has been the new “free school” programme - that is, schools set up within the state system by groups of parents, charities and privately financed networks and funded by top-slicing the education budget.

41Another episode in which the Big Society theme was prayed in aid had a less fortunate outcome. The plan to sell off publicly-owned woodlands and turn over responsibility for management to local voluntary groups was hastily withdrawn in the face of widespread opposition. And the suggestion that some local public services, like libraries, could be handed over to volunteers to manage was the focus of a vigorous campaign in opposition, in which many well known authors were involved.

Some other objectives

42In all these cases, the links made to Big Society policy objectives were explicit.  There has, however, been some evidence that some of the traditional Conservative themes, as I have defined them above, are now reemerging as themes underlying and informing the Big Society reforms.

  • 12  KPMG report, op. cit.

43Modernisation and marketisation provide the foundation for the smaller state agenda once set out by Waldegrave and now being strongly promoted within the Prime Minister’s personal team in Downing Street: Steve Hilton, and Paul Kirby newly arrived from KPMG and co-author of Payment for Success; how to shift power from Whitehall to public service customers. 12 Their approach may provide the intellectual content so far lacking in the Prime Minister’s scattergun dismissive references to “bureaucrats”.

  • 13  Jesse Norman, op. cit.

44Right wing think tanks have also promoted a critical line on the state’s actions ‘crowding out’ voluntary bodies. And the localism policies can be presented as a coded way of promoting the anti-egalitarian agenda, reviving Burke’s emphasis on hierarchy as a condition for social stability 13.

  • 14  Warsi, op. cit

45Moralisation is also reflected in the “Broken Britain” agenda intermittently promoted by David Cameron while in opposition (and revived after the 2011 summer riots). This has helped to justify a reaching out to faith groups, both in the context of the new developments in education policy (free schools) but more generally. Baroness Warsi, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party made a specific point of repudiating the New Labour line of not engaging with religion (as Alastair Campbell famously put it: ‘we don’t do God’) in favour of an undertaking to involve faith groups more closely in new public policy initiatives14 (. This line has found a sympathetic response in the Department of Work and Pensions, where both the Minister, Ian Duncan Smith and his Liberal Democrat deputy Steve Webb make no secret of their personal religious commitment. as one element informing their ambitious programme of welfare reform.

Responses to government policies

“We are already Big Society”

  • 15  cf Coote, New Economics Foundation, op cit
  • 16  NCVO, op cit

46Many of the leading organisations  involved in the framing and execution of voluntary action in England gave a cautious welcome to the government’s initial setting out of the broad aims of the Big Society programme. In doing so, however, they were concerned to stress that many of the activities that the government sought to encourage were in fact already taking place  and most of what were being presented as new ideas were already familiar. 15 Stress was also laid on the fact that the latest statistical evidence gathered by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations showed that civil society was also generally in good health. Their standard statistical profile of the sector showed the number of registered charities increasing, a wider range of activities taking place, including service delivery and substantial levels of volunteering 16.

47Other organisations have made their pitch for inclusion in Big Society programmes, on the basis that they were already providing the kind of community-based action that the government sought to encourage. Faith organisations, notably the Church of England, were prominent among those presenting themselves in this way.

48However, along with a general endorsement of the principle went some detailed criticisms of the ways in which Big Society policies were been framed and put into practice..

Detailed critique of programmes

49Some critics addressed the dangers for civil society in programmes designed to shrink the state. The New Economics Foundation (Anna Coote) comments:

  • 17  Coote, op. cit

50Together, plans for a Big Society and spending cuts on an unprecedented scale seem to mark the end of the postwar settlement. We move from pooling responsibility through the machinery of a democratic state to dividing it between individuals, groups, localities and organisations in the private and voluntary sectors. It is not clear how the rights of individuals will be protected, essential serves guaranteed, or those who are poor, powerless and marginalized defended against those who are better off. If the state is pruned so drastically that it is neither big enough or strong enough to do this, we shall end up a more troubled and diminished society, not a bigger one 17.

51Nor could these critics find any evidence to support the “crowding out” thesis - such views understate the extent to which the different sectors collaborate and their activities overlap and reinforce each other.

52Among other points that has been made are:

  • That citizen participation, upon which the Big Society approach relies,  is now taking a different form, differential by class and age, more individualistic, with the range of activities undertaken more diverse. This implies that there no ‘little platoons’ lined up ready to take on obediently whatever mission they are given - volunteers need not only training and support but a good rationale for the action that is required of them.

    • 18  Mohan, TSRC report, op. cit.

    Next, analysis shows that existing voluntary effort and charitable activity is not distributed in a way that reflects the needs that Big Society programmes hope to meet. Rather,  where it is most needed it is least present. 18

  • The role of business could potentially be problematic - private service delivery agencies like SERCO and equivalents are likely to move in and exploit spaces left ostensibly for voluntary sector engagement, either by winning contracts in direct competition with voluntary bodies or by relegating them to the role of sub-contractor.

  • There are dangers in making size the key descriptor and seeing Big as invariably beautiful. Too much emphasis on large organisations and the big philanthropic donors may lead to the programme being seen as  seen as top-down, “metrocentric”, and  driven by  the City of London and the celebrity culture predominant in charitable activity there.

  • Other policies may have adverse side-effects - for example, the future situation of local government, caught between topdown imposed policies limiting their powers and resources and bottom up aspirations expressed by empowered local groups. Representative and Participatory democracy may be set at odds?

  • And in this context, there may be scope for misunderstanding of the role of community organisers. Saul Alinsky’s now fashionable work in Chicago parallel, referred to earlier emphasised the importance of the campaigning, even confrontational role of the groups that he trained there. Finally,

“This is all about public sector cuts”

53This has been a reaction not confined to the Government’s political opponents or the left-wing press, although it has been frequently advanced by commentators there, like Polly Toynbee. In a more measured form the New Economic Foundation points out:

  • 19  Coote, op. cit.

the cumulative effects of the spending cuts will have a strong influence on the way in which the ‘Big Society’ is realized. there will be many more people out of work, facing a punitive benefits system and drastically pared-down public services, and more polarization between rich and poor neighbourhoods. Unpaid labour and the charitable and voluntary sectors are due to fill the gaps left by public services, providing support to  increasing numbers of poor, jobless, insecure and unsupported individuals and families19.

Big Society in the current political landscape

54By the end of 2011 Labour were showing some signs of concern that they might have missed out on a potentially important development. The think tank Compass has developed a series of conversations around the notion of The Good Society. Maurice Glasman has offered an alternative, “Blue Labour”, which draws on ideas about basic loyalties to family, faith, locality and core working-class values to offer an alternative to what he described as bureaucratic, topdown “Fabian” socialism. However, there are signs that his period in favour with the leadership, which earned him a life peerage, may have ended when his pronouncements about immigration and the European Union became too controversial.

  • 20  Ed Miliband, Hinton lecture, op. cit.

55What Labour has not yet offered, somewhat surprisingly, is a full-blooded defence of their own record in government and the programmes that they developed to reinforce the voluntary and community sector, particularly since the leader himself, Ed Miliband, has previously given an eloquent justification of Labour’s strategy when he was cabinet office minister responsible for the Office of Civil Society 20.

56The Liberal Democrats remain the Coalition’s passengers, on this as in many other policy areas. It might be thought that the wider localism agenda would fit well with their past history of engagement with local government as part of their long march to power; but so far their response has been confined to expressing their concerns about the likely electoral consequences of their own government’s reforms.

57In the Conservative party, the rank and file remain unconvinced of the virtues of the Big Society agenda as such and its electoral value for them seems at this stage dubious. However, there is some appetite for using it to address more fundamental issues. The state shrinking agenda plays well with the party’s outlying supporters in the plethora of right wing think tanks that no exist and in journalism. Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail would go even further. In a detailed analysis of government priorities, she commented that:

the great top-down edifices of health, education and welfare remain in place. The charities that Mr Cameron is so heavily promoting have themselves become an arm of the state upon which they so  overwhelmingly depend for financial support - as demonstrated by their unedifying wailing about cuts in government funding.. The real point, though, is that people only want to contribute to a society which binds them together by a cultural glue. It was no accident that in the Victorian era great voluntary organisations were overwhelmingly Christian - because people were inspired by nothing less than the goal of saving people’s souls. But today Christians find themselves under the cosh of political correctness.

58And she adds:

  • 21  Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail 15.2. 2011

you can’t have a ‘massive transfer of power’ from Whitehall to local communities when Whitehall itself no longer has much power because it has massively transferred it to Europe. All of which is why it is difficulty to find any substance to the Big Society21.

Next stages in policy development

  • 22  Marilyn Taylor, op. cit.

59It is probably safe to predict that what I’ve termed the narrow-gauge Big Society projects for which the Office for Civil Society in Cabinet Office has responsibility will gradually run down and the Office itself will cease to be of much political or administrative significance. The main responsibilities that remain will be managing the state’s relationship with large national voluntary bodies and providing marginal relief from the impact of the cuts in state funding on smaller local groups. The community organisation programmes and the youth volunteering initiatives will be allowed to run their course and will have little impact on the mainstream of policy making unless the projects set up go rogue and start to confront the priorities set by government and campaign for change. This happened once before in the distant past, in the Labour Government’s CDP programme in the 1970, when projects had to be hastily closed down when they provided an analysis of poverty and a programme of action not consistent with the government’s objectives 22. Ironically, such an outcome would be entirely consistent with the general approach adopted by Saul Alinsky in Chicago - it seems doubtful whether any of those senior politicians on both sides who have advocated adopting his ideas have actually read his tract, Reveille for Radicals.

60Meanwhile, the Chancellor shows no sign of backing away from his programme of deep cuts in public expenditure, with all the consequences for voluntary and community bodies to which critics have pointed. After a brief flirtation with promoting social policies under Gordon Brown, the Treasury has reverted to its traditional role of accumulating financial savings wherever possible. There has been some talk of exempting voluntary bodies from the full impact of cuts made by local government - Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, when challenged on this at the NCVO’s conference talked of instructing local authorities to ring fence expenditure on voluntary action. But it is hard to see how this could be reconciled with the localism agenda he is promoting.

  • 23  House of Commons PAC, op. cit.

61The broader Big Society agenda, as incarnated in the proposed public service reforms and the localism bill will continue despite the criticism that they have already attracted. They are in any case inseparable from any serious attempt to follow through the full implications of giving  priority to the basic principles that the Prime Minister has laid down and which are contained in the coalition agreement. Yet the Big Society still lacks a fully thought through programme of action, as the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration has pointed out, in a report it issued in December 2011. As the Committee points out , full-blown implementation of the Big Society in the heroic terms that the Prime Minister seems to intend will require further drastic reforms of the public sector and in  particular the machinery of central government. It suggests that the government should now appoint a “Big Society Minister”, with a cross-cutting brief to help other Ministers drive through the Big Society agenda across government. It also proposes that an impact assessment should be applied to every government policy, statutory instrument and new Bill that would assess what the action proposed would build social capital, benefit people power and social entrepreneurs.23

  • 24  Cameron, Milton Keynes speech 23.5.11, op cit.

62All these reforms will continue to carry the Big Society brand for as long as the Prime Minister thinks it expedient to do so. He invested much rhetorical capital in the idea, through his  relaunches and high profile public events and would clearly be reluctant to allow what he has repeatedly asserted should be his ‘legacy’ to drop out of the central place it occupies in the government’s domestic programme. He has gone out of his way to stress that ‘The Big Society is not some fluffy add-on to more gritty and important subjects. This is about as gritty and important as it gets’24. But lack of public understanding or support for the concept remains an important problem for him and the No 10 strategists.

63So a gradual process of reining back on the use of “Big Society” as the animating concept can already be discerned, in the presentation of the much delayed Open Public Services White Paper and the  absence of a strategic policy statement with legislative back-up. But the main policies will continue, under whatever label. They are fully consistent with the broad lines of policy adopted by previous Conservative governments - modernization as a device for imposing structural change in government; marketisation as the means for delivering it and perhaps most important of all moralization - or perhaps rather remoralisation.

64For much of the Prime Minister’s own approach rests on his sense of the importance of common values -  and what politicians of all parties like to call the “glue” that holds civil society together. His flirting with the idea of “Broken Britain”, when in opposition, has been replaced (with a small wobble at the time of the 2011 summer riots) with a form of boosterism - positive assertions that the heart of the nation is sound and best expressed by the coming together of all sorts and conditions of people in common enterprises for the public good. He has even showed some awareness of the importance of persistent inequalities in society and their disabling consequences). Whatever critics may say, this message still has potential to resonate outside party politics; as long as there is some chance of achieving that objective he will be reluctant to abandon the attempt. But in order to be convincing, a better account of what it means and how it is to be translated into action will be needed.

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1  Cameron, op. cit.

2  Guardian 10.11.2010

3  Joseph, Waldegrave, Hurd, Patten, op. cit.

4  Speech at Cumberland Lodge June 2011, op. cit.

5  Blond, op. cit.

6  Conservative party, op. cit.

7  Coalition Agreement, op. cit.

8  Cabinet Office website, op. cit.

9  Reynolds, op. cit

10  Guardian 12.11.2011

11  Cameron, op. cit.

12  KPMG report, op. cit.

13  Jesse Norman, op. cit.

14  Warsi, op. cit

15  cf Coote, New Economics Foundation, op cit

16  NCVO, op cit

17  Coote, op. cit

18  Mohan, TSRC report, op. cit.

19  Coote, op. cit.

20  Ed Miliband, Hinton lecture, op. cit.

21  Melanie Phillips, Daily Mail 15.2. 2011

22  Marilyn Taylor, op. cit.

23  House of Commons PAC, op. cit.

24  Cameron, Milton Keynes speech 23.5.11, op cit.

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Nicholas Deakin, « Lost in translation? The framing and implementation of David Cameron’s Big Society agenda », Observatoire de la société britannique, 12 | 2012, 27-47.

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Nicholas Deakin, « Lost in translation? The framing and implementation of David Cameron’s Big Society agenda », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 12 | 2012, mis en ligne le 01 août 2013, consulté le 19 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1291

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Nicholas Deakin

Professeur de sciences politiques

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