Big Society: a return to the 19th century

This morning I had the rather dubious pleasure of attending a funding event which began with an address by a speaker on one of the Tories’ favourite phrases, ‘Big Society’.

It struck me that the speaker could well have been a snake oil salesman had he been around in the nineteenth century. It was also apparent that many in the audience were not taken in by the charms on offer and could see exactly what is being proposed: activities that are needed by society and currently funded by the state will in future be delivered for free by third sector organisations through the use of volunteers.

The focus on his talk was very much on the fact that the UK’s citizens are now living longer, have greater needs and these needs cannot be met by the government as a result of the vast amounts of money that had been paid to salvage the banking industry. Significantly, there was no consideration that there might be alternative ways of providing state funding to support the weak and vulnerable in society.

What was also interesting was the range of examples quoted as what might be termed ‘the way forward’. We had a rather rosy picture of life before the existence of the welfare state and we were given three examples of organisations that had delivered this idyllic life: building societies, General Booth and the Salvation Army and ‘the village club’. 

In the light of the banking crisis and the collapse of a number of building societies it seemed rather apt to suggest that this model represents ‘the future’. The argument put was extremely simplistic: building societies were established as mutual self help organisations and look where they are now. However, the example quoted related to the very early building societies known as ‘terminating societies’ which were established from the late 18th century. These operated on a principal of mutual self help, with each member contributing a monthly payment and when sufficient funds were raised a plot of land was purchased and a house built for the member whose name was drawn by lot. The society was ‘terminated’ when every member had a house. It is often suggested that these were working class organisations, but the fact that the most common monthly payments were set at 5 shillings (25p) or 10 shillings (50p) suggests this was unlikely, as these amounts would have been well beyond the reach of most ordinary working men. The ‘terminating’ model went out of fashion very quickly to be replaced by ‘permanent’ societies which generally ran very efficiently until deregulation saw most decide to end their mutual status and become banks. The very banks that have caused the crisis the country is now in.

It seems that what is an offer is a return to 18th century, or at best 19th century, principals. A world where the rich were in control and the poor were kept in their place. Significantly the reforming and modernisation of society that began in the late 19th century came through actions of national and local government. The provision of adequate sewerage systems, of gas and electricity, all of which were essential to the growth of society, came from pioneering local councils, rarely from private individuals or ‘self help’ groups. I would recommend an article on the Broken Barnet site ( for an idea as to what is likely to be the outcome of one of Big Society’s plans: the transfer of assets to ‘the community’.

There is nothing ‘big’ about ‘Big Society’: the term sounds friendly and, perhaps most importantly for the Tory ideologists, it can be used as a counterpart to ‘Big Government’. What we are really talking about here is an abrogation of duties on behalf of government – the Tories are now saying that they have relinquished their duty to support the weak and vulnerable in society. Nor is it a progressive policy – it is a policy which takes the country back more than 100 years to a time when the rich were all powerful and the poor were kept in their place. Perhaps that is what we should expect from a ‘Government of Millionaires’, but it is a policy that must be challenged at every level by those who have a real concern for our society.

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