Whatever happened to Britain’s Big Society?

Back in 1997, the new Labour government of the UK had great expectations of the “third sector”, the voluntary sector, in other words. In 2010 when Labour was displaced in government by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the new leadership introduced the idea of a “Big Society”, where we were to all think globally but act locally within the context of creating a sustainable society. It was a wonderful idea, albeit not entirely original given that many communities had for decades pulled together and had thriving voluntary groups and activities long before politicians latched on to the idea and gave it a marketing spin and attendant soundbites.

Of course, the banking crisis of 2008 led to a lasting global recession and the subsequent economic problems for millions of people, the austerity remedies have, it would seem, put paid to any hope of society truly pulling together and becoming sustainable in that Big Society sense. The stark reality of the gap between rich and poor still widens, many of the super-rich continue to reap the rewards of any good will, effort and energy of the masses, there is no trickledown and multinational corporations continue to minimise their tax bills.

A paper in the International Journal of Sustainable Society from researchers in the UK describes how “Overall the big society is recognized as a pivotal player in the relationship between citizens and the state.” Its authors, Jamie Halsall of The University of Huddersfield, Ian Cook of Liverpool John Moores University and Paresh Wankhade of Edge Hill University add that, “The third sector is perceived as a principle mechanism for implementing the big society vision.” In the paper, they explore the impact of this Big Society concept on the voluntary sector in the context of the ongoing global economic recession. Their conclusion is that while laudable, the concept is now perceived as being little more than government’s big brother handholding us through endless cuts to services and expecting us to carry the burden as volunteers. Moreover, when the third sector fails, the same politicians then foist private companies on us where previously government provided assistance.

We are, it seems, now wary of “Big Society”. It is widely considered an essentially cost-cutting exercise rather than a genuine attempt to ensure that an alternative third sector is helped towards sustainability. No one expects to live in Utopia, but nor is it true that less is more.
Halsall, J.P., Cook, I.G. and Wankhade, P. (2015) ‘The British big society effect: the challenges of the third sector’, Int. J. Sustainable Society, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp.309–321.

Author: David Bradley

Award-winning, freelance science writer based in Cambridge, England.