The so-called Big Society was at the heart of the Conservatives’ 2010 election campaign, and was carried over into the rhetoric behind much of the coalition government’s policy. All kinds of local community and charitable initiatives were envisaged. But the ambition went wider than that. Implicit was the idea that civic participation, once the backbone of British society, needed to be revived, and that government must accept that it alone could not solve social problems. The balance between state and citizen needed an historic shift in order, as David Cameron put it, to replace “state control with social responsibility”. And all this would, in turn, reduce apathy and restore political trust.


So how clear are the historical trends on which these ideas are based? Can we see an obvious decline in civic participation from earlier periods? A team of Birmingham University historians, led by Professor Matthew Hilton, is not so sure. In some respects, he acknowledges, evidence seems more decisive. Involvement in traditional forms of philanthropy or voter turnout in elections has gone down in recent decades, just as membership of, say, churches or trade unions has declined. But he cautions against the idea of lost golden ages of social and political participation in, for example, the 1950s. Political parties may have had much higher memberships then, but they served more as engines of mobilisation for elections, and were, says Hilton, “never entirely envisioned as forums for political debate”. Membership, in other words, could be much more passive than we might assume.

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Listening in: a doctor uses a stethoscope to examine a patient in 1948. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

These days, while relatively few join political parties, many join or support campaigning groups and non-governmental organisations. This may be seen as a ‘softer’ form of participation, less consistent than the loyal party members and trade unionists of old, attending regular meetings. But just because people may choose to join or leave more frequently does not mean they lack any commitment. Rather than a withdrawal from political engagement, there has been in recent decades the rise of what the Birmingham team call “the expert citizen”, well-educated, challenging elites, “less likely to defer to class-based, monolithic political parties”.

Another claim often made is that the rise of the welfare state killed off much civic participation, as citizens left to government what they might previously have felt responsible for helping to provide. Certainly in the early days of the welfare state there was much talk of state provision replacing what was seen as the stigma of charity. And yet the architect of that welfare state, William Beveridge, praised the “vigour and abundance” of voluntary action inspiring forms of civic engagement that were “the distinguishing marks of a free society”. And Nye Bevan, the Labour politician so closely associated with the creation of the National Health Service, continued to believe in state support for voluntary bodies.

The Franciscans treating victims of the plague, miniature from La Franceschina, c1474, codex by Jacopo Oddi. Perugia, Biblioteca Capitolare (Library). (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

As it became clear that the state could not solve all social problems, politicians increasingly acknowledged the role of charities and non-governmental organisations in filling the gaps. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group and Oxfam began to develop their own relationships with the state to further their aims. Consumer groups campaigning on, say, product safety, became more involved in the framing of new laws.

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What all this shows, argues Matthew Hilton, is that an historical assumption of the state displacing civic participation, and vice versa, is much too simplistic. In many ways the state has developed in parallel with other, more citizen-based initiatives and organisations: “As big government has got bigger, so has the big society – they’re not alternatives.”

So today’s Big Society vision of an apathetic or alienated population inspired by a traditional vision of civic participation will have its appeal in a society that often feels fragmented. But a historical perspective shows there are other forms of civic engagement than those of the past. Some forms of engagement have rivalled the role of the state, other forms sought to complement and influence state activity. And the subtle historical variety of citizen activity that has shaped society is easily obscured by the demands of eye-catching political visions for the here and now.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.


This article was first published in the December 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine