The Ideology of Big Society: David Camerons Old New Conservatism

DOI: 10.20542/0131-2227-2017-61-2-33-43
Y. Grabar’ (,

Argus Media, 7, Nastas’inskii Per., Moscow 127006, Russian Federation 

Abstract. The UK Conservative Party is traditionally in the focus of researchers’ attention. Being one of the most effective political parties in Europe, the Tories held power throughout most of the 19th century and for 58 years in the 20th century. However, since the second half of the 1990s, the Conservatives lost power to the Labour Party, unable to oppose their principal political opponents. The Tories were in crisis and were forced to replace three leaders within only eight years. The leadership eventually came to David Cameron, who declared the beginning of the party’s modernization and succeeded in bringing the Conservatives to power in 2010, after 13 years in opposition. He has redirected the Tories’ focus from their “traditional” themes, such as immigration or the EU question, to a debate about social issues, which were of much greater interest to voters. And the “Big Society” ideology has become the key element of Cameron’s political programme. The “Big Society” celebrates the value of local communities, charities and social enterprises, as well as promotes reform of the welfare system. The Conservatives tried to present such a model of public service provision that could become an alternative to the existing one, with state structures at its heart. The party leader argued that in the context of limited abilities of state to respond to public needs it is civil associations that have much more opportunities to meet them. But the party returned to power in the toughest period for the British economy since the Great Depression, and the Conservatives’ plans to implement the “Big Society” thinking were overshadowed by policies aimed at reversing an economic downturn. Within this framework, Cameron’s big idea materialized only in form of some specific initiatives, hence many academics, journalists and public figures identified it as an “ideological cover” for massive spending cuts. The “Big Society” ideology has not been treated seriously as a political philosophy by them. The study challenges this attitude and demonstrates the “Big Society” ideology is not just a way to focus the electorate’s attention on a “new” Conservative party. The “Big Society”, as appeared from writings by the ideologues of British conservatism, is largely getting the Tories back to their origins and continuing the conservative traditions of localism and reducing state participation in civil life. An appeal to traditionalist conservatism, in particular, allows to reconsider a concept of freedom, marking a significant departure of a new generation of the Conservatives from Thatcherism that dominated party policies in the last few decades. In contrast with liberalism prevailing over other ideologies in the Western countries, conservatism recognizes social nature of humans, organic interconnection between society and individuals and their dependence on social interactions. This organicism, as opposed to liberal individualism, identifies genuine freedom experienced in the process of communication between members of society. The “Big Society” advocates, referring to philosophies of Phillip Blond and Michael Oakeshott, define a problem of increased state presence in nearly all spheres of social life, which has resulted in loss of a culture of responsibility in Great Britain. According to Cameron, big government has shaped a “dependency culture” on public finances, while the reliance on civic institutions could become an alternative source of public service provision. The paper considers the “Big Society” thinking as a challenge both to Thatcher’s liberal individualism and New Labour’s state authoritarianism. The research seems to be important and timely given that the UK welfare system (as well as social safety nets in many other nations) requires a significant transformation, with the role of state in providing public services declining while society and individuals are inevitably taking more responsibility for their lives. 

Keywords: political philosophy, UK Conservative Party, David Cameron, party ideology, traditionalist conservatism, “Big Society”,”Red Toryism”, social policy 


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For citation:
Grabar Y. The Ideology of Big Society: David Camerons Old New Conservatism. World Eonomy and International Relations, 2017, vol. 61, no. 2, pp. 33-43.

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