1The object of this article is to try and answer three questions: have the repeated attempts at re-moulding citizenship succeeded in finally creating a new citizen at the dawn of the 2010 elections? Is Cameron’s Big Society Project a new social deal the aim of which would be to reflect this evolution? Or is it simply an attempt at attracting an electorate that shunned the Conservative Party in three consecutive elections?
- 1 In fact, the status of “British citizen” was modified in 1981. The previous act defining British C (...)
- 2 There is, indeed, a distinction between nationality of a nation-state and citizenship. This does n (...)
- 3 It was officially launched in July 2010.
- 4 Stewart, A., 1995.
- 5 I will voluntarily limit my study to English citizenship because my subject is related to social i (...)
- 6 In Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990.
- 7 The conference was followed by the Tamworth speech during which Douglas Hurd presented the ‘active (...)
- 8 Stewart, A, 1995, p. 65.
- 9 Dean, H. & Melrose, M., 1999, pp. 74-78.
- 10 Alfred Marshall Lecture in Cambridge: Citizenship and Social Class published in 1950
- 11 T.H. Marshall’s definition of British citizenship, for the period before the May 1979 election is (...)
2In the first place it is necessary to define what I understand by citizenship. For this I will not focus on the official sense of the concept, that is to say, that which is found in most legal texts dealing with the scope of British nationality. Officially, the status British Citizen first appeared in 1981 (British Nationality Act) when it replaced the status of British Subject1. Since then, citizenship and nationality have become closely linked, to the point that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish them. However, these two concepts are not synonyms2. Also, I will not discuss the Government’s proposal to launch a National Citizenship Service for all sixteen-year-olds3. The citizenship that interests me is not definable in an official way. It is an abstract concept that certain, such as Van Gunsten (1978) and Leca (1991), for example, judge “questionable.”4. In England5, its popularity as an object of study is relatively recent. It coincides with the moment where citizenship made its return to political discussion during the debates that preceded the introduction of the Community Charge6. The conservative Party Conference in 1988 was the venue of an attempted re-definition of the concept. On this occasion, Douglas Hurd and Chris Patten re-gave life to citizenship making it active7! At the time used as a political weapon to make people forget the Prime Minister’s ‘There is no society’, the term ‘citizen’ has, since that time, maintained this function of firewall, or even smokescreen, to hide social policies that were susceptible of shocking the electorate. From a theoretical point of view, the concept of citizenship has very different definitions depending on the geographical area where it is formulated. As a general rule, however, citizenship is defined by the relationship between the individual and the State. Stewart, for example, speaks of a ‘democratic citizenship’ which he defines as: ‘shared membership of a political community and requires non-identification of such political communities and states’8. The citizen thus evolves in civil society, at the junction between the State and the private sphere. It is this citizen which interests us in the precise case of the Big Society. For Dean and Melrose citizenship in Western Europe is anchored in two traditions, one founded on the notion of liberty, the other on that of fraternity. If the British model borrows essentially from the first, the influence of the second tradition which involves the notion of solidarity was notably evident in the course of the 20th century with the birth of the Welfare State9. Well before Stewart or Dean and Melrose, T.H. Marshall proposed a definition10 which, as imperfect as it is today, continues to take into account the historical evolution of British citizenship and is particularly interesting in the case of this study. It is in effect against the Marshallian citizenship11 that that which one could call ‘Thatcherite citizenship’ was formulated. At this juncture, it is necessary to specify that that which I call here ‘Thatcherite citizenship’ is not something coherent since the citizen must make the great leap between his/her role as consumer and his/her obligation to be active in the society at the service of the community, two theoretically opposed versions of the same concept. It was this Thatcherite model that David Cameron relied upon to formulate his own, albeit not to copy it. In fact, Cameron’s intention was to distance himself from Margaret Thatcher, which brings up a question: what is David Cameron’s perception of the role of the citizen?
- 12 Marshall, T.H., 1950, p. 2.
- 13 Ibid, p.7.
3T.H. Marshall defined citizenship as ‘a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community’12. This status confers rights to every citizen. These rights appeared at three different moments in British history. The oldest are the civil rights, followed by political rights and finally social rights which developed from the first half of the 20th century13. The third facet of citizenship, the social element, presents the citizen as able to insist on the right to live in decent conditions (civilized, to steal TH. Marshall’s qualification) which are judged necessary to the full and complete exercise of the two other forms of citizenship. The State’s role is to provide these conditions. It is this social citizenship that interests me because it is precisely that which Margaret Thatcher was rejecting and which is linked to the social project of Big Society.
- 14 Stuart Hall, “The March of the neoliberals”, The Guardian, 12 September 2011.
- 15 Richard Grayson, “Clegg and Cameron’s illiberal ‘Big Liberal Society’, The Guardian, 20 July 2010 (...)
4According to numerous commentators like for example, the left wing sociologist Stuart Hall14 or the historian Richard Grayson, a member of the Liberal Democrat Party15, the Prime Minister’s Big Society is no more than a political tool, a smokescreen to cover up the budget cuts that affect particularly the welfare state’s budget. I do not totally believe in this thesis even if I willingly adhere to the thesis that, since the end of the Thatcher years, the citizen has been regularly invoked whenever the electorate had to accept social policies that, paradoxically, as a result, deprived them of certain of these rights. Now, these policies, I accept, are often the fruit of a desire to reduce the State budget but not uniquely.
5Agnès Alexandre-Collier, amongst others, argues that the objective of this project is to allow David Cameron, after thirteen years in the desert, to distance himself from Thatcherism in order to give a new credibility to the Conservative Party with an electorate often very critical of the Thatcher legacy and of the frenzied individualism that her policies helped create. If this hypothesis seems convincing, notably in November 2009 with the speech in which David Cameron presents his Big Society project for the first time, nonetheless, this opposition to Thatcher remains essentially theoretical following the example of the wordplay on which it is based since the Big Society is necessarily opposed to the absence of society, to ‘There is no society’. At the outset, the objective is clearly to rid oneself of a cumbersome label, but in the end there is little that separates David Cameron from Margaret Thatcher. The current Conservative project, which was launched in 2008, in A New Politics is clearly neo-liberal in the sense that, whatever the reasons, the reduction of the State is a priority. The 2009 speech is slightly more critical of Thatcherism. Thanks to the use of a progressive rhetoric and of terms that could not belong to the Thatcherite terminology, they allow, above all, David Cameron to get rid of his image as the young inheritor. However, this terminology has not, according to me, only the objective of distancing Cameron from Thatcher. As the next elections approached, David Cameron became more and more the spokesman of the English « new electorate » which was preoccupied with social questions whilst, at the same time, seemed less supportive of Big Government and redistributive policies. The 2009 speech which introduced the Big Society takes point by point the conclusions of the most recent opinion polls and brings them a political response.
6What I would like to try and show is that the Big Society was essentially an electoral project of which the objective was to court the English citizens who, during the last ten to twenty years have profoundly changed, changes that are highlighted by recent opinion polls and surveys such as the British Social Attitudes surveys. Ultimately, this electoral manoeuvre failed given the fact that in spite of being ahead in the polls conducted before the election, the Conservative Party fell short of winning an overall majority, revealing they had badly gauged these changes in the electorate. Have thirty years of neo-liberal politics succeeded in genuinely re-moulding citizenship? Is the Big Society project a ‘new deal’?
- 16 Quoted in Dean, H., 1999, p. 97.
- 17 Ibid.
7Based on results from three different British Social Attitudes surveys16, between 1983 and 1995, we can see an important increase in the percentage of people saying that they were prepared to pay more tax to allow the government to increase spending in health, education and social security (from 32% to 61%)17. This seems to indicate that British society had a much bigger community spirit after 16 years of Conservative policies than at the beginning of the 1980s. For 77% of the people that declared they were prepared to pay more so that the Government could spend more, health was the priority, an increase of 14% in relation to 1983. Education takes second place with 66%, an increase of 16% with regard to 1983. Social security is a long way behind with only 11% in 1995. It is the only area to decrease in percentage in relation to 1983. The generosity of the British is not universal but rather selective, as the following percentages show. There is a large difference between the different parts of the social welfare budget for if pensions remain a concern for the English of whom 68% say they are prepared to finance an increase in contributions, on the other hand, only 25% would accept the same increase in tax to finance increasing unemployment benefit, which is 8% less than in 1983. We can see the same type of negative evolution for single parent allowance. Finally, whilst in 1989, 61% said they were prepared to pay more for a redistribution of wealth ‘from the better off to those who were less well off’, only 50% were supportive of redistributive policies in 1995. In 1995 the percentage declaring that the Welfare State stopped citizens from helping themselves was only 32%, the same as in 1985. In addition, despite eleven years of Thatcherism, only 30% thought that the recipients of State aid didn’t deserve to receive it. At the dawn of New Labour’s arrival into power, the English had not, at least theoretically, abandoned the Welfare State and that which it represents, which is to say, that the government, through tax and spend policies, should help the most disadvantaged. Solidarity still played an important part in defining citizenship. Even though the idea that there was a difference between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor remained pregnant, it did not totally dominate the discussion on poverty.
8The most radical changes took place between 1997 and today.
- 18 BSA quoted in Dean, H., 1999, p. 97.
- 19 Rowlingson, K., Orton, M. & Taylor, E., BSAS 27th Report, Summary of findings, Chapter 1, p. 1. ht (...)
- 20 42% des sondés en décembre 1997 plaçaient la NHS en tête de leurs préoccupations, ils n’étaient pl (...)
- 21 BSA quoted in Dean, Ibid.
- 22 NatCen Questionnaires, p. 15, Consulted on 13th December 2011, p. 1, http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media (...)
- 23 Ibid, p. 15.
- 24 Ibid.
9The 27th Report of British Social Attitudes of 2009, published for England in December 2010, reveals that the English may have lost their indulgence towards the Welfare State. To the suggestion: ‘The government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor even if it leads to higher taxes’18, 58% were favourable in 1991, 50% in 1995 and only 27% agreed in 200919. However, it is necessary all the same to make the distinction between the universal part and the social security part. The Health and Education systems and also public pensions continue to figure amongst the major concerns of the public despite a significant drop since the crisis of 200820. On the other hand the four main means-tested benefits (child benefit, benefits for lone-parents, housing benefits and unemployment benefit) that mostly profit the most disadvantaged (the term “poor” is used in most surveys), albeit not exclusively, are not considered as a priority by the public. The decrease is even more striking when the question of unemployment benefit is considered separately. In 1995, amongst the 61% of respondents who ‘agreed the government should increase taxes and spend more on health education and social benefits’, only 25% agreed the ‘priority for extra social security spending should be given to (c) benefits for unemployed people’21. This percentage was even lower in 2009 with only 12.1% agreeing22. Of course, this decrease might be explained by the fact that 55.1% of people ‘strongly agreed’ that ‘large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits’23. Also, 61% agreed that ‘benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs’24. In 1995, only 33% supported this view.
- 25 Bartle, J., Dellepian Avellaneda, S. & Stimson, J., BSAS 27th Report, Summary of findings, Post-Wa (...)
10These changes, that can be perceived as the result of almost thirty years of neo-liberal policies, have a direct impact on Britain’s political life. Whereas before Tony Blair became Prime Minister, the British electorate was, predictably, shifting slightly to the left in reaction to eighteen years of Conservative rule, the fourteen years of his premiership witnessed a sharp shift to the right. The Conservative Party was not necessarily the beneficiary of this shift as was proved by three consecutive electoral defeats. However, right-wing ideas were taking over, especially in the social field or with regards the role of the State. Most definitely, there was less support for big government in certain key social security sectors25. However, at the same as being rather critical of the ‘undeserving poor’, in this case the unemployed essentially, British citizens still displayed concern as to the growing inequalities that were characterising Britain on the eve of the 2010 election.
- 26 Bartle, J. et al., 27th BSAS Report, summary of findings, Chapter 9, p. 1.
- 27 Bartle, J. et al., 27th BSAS Report, summary of findings, Chapter 9, p. 2.
- 28 NatCen Questionnaires, Consulted on 13th December 2011, p. 41, http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/60662 (...)
- 29 Ibid.
- 30 Ibid, p. 42.
11The 27th BSA reveals that in 2009, 78% of the public believed that the difference between low incomes and high incomes was too great and 75.5% thought that the gap between the rich and the poor was also too great26. The question of social inequalities is however not a recent concern of the English27. That which has changed is the perception of the causes of these inequalities and the suggested solutions. In fact, still in 2009, 53% thought that the common good should not take precedence over personal well-being but should be considered equally28. 38.2%, the largest proportion, claim that poverty was ‘an inevitable part of modern life’ and only 18.5% that it was ‘because of injustice in our society’29. Again, the largest proportion, in this case47.2%, accepted the suggestion that if some people are richer, it was “because they work hard” and 67.7% thought that wealth was ‘an inevitable part of modern life’, compared with 51.9% who said that wealth was inherited (whether it be directly inherited or because being born rich gave certain advantages)30.
- 31 Ibid, p. 41.
- 32 Ibid, p. 42
- 33 Ibid, p. 42.
- 34 Ibid, p. 43.
- 35 Ibid.
12The description is that of a more individualistic society in which, according to the citizens, the task of government should not be limited to considering the common good. These results also give the image of a society having a fatalistic attitude both to wealth and to poverty, a fatalism that one can analyse as the result of the almost unanimous adoption of neo-liberal values. In parallel with a quasi disappearance of the perception that poverty was the result of a social environment which favoured inequalities, we can see an increase in the number who think that poverty comes from behaviour that Margaret Thatcher would have qualified as deviant, created by ‘assistance’ or the ‘Nanny State’. 26.3% invoked laziness and a lack of willpower31. Whilst poverty is judged more and more severely and negatively, wealth is normal and positive. It is the result of effort and work and not principally the result of chance and birth. Wealth and merit are directly linked in a society where 55.9% think that inequalities are not ‘morally wrong’32. Finally, we also see one other completely neo-liberal perception of wealth since it is a ‘source of motivation for 55.9% of the respondents (who wish to work longer to earn more !) The neo-liberal society desired by Thatcher appears therefore to have a real existence today. The English condemn inequalities, it seems, more through envy than through a sentiment of social injustice. Although 36% think that the solution to reduce these inequalities would be for the government to redistribute wealth33, through tax and spend policies, the same proportion think that that is not at all the solution. Finally, 30.2%, the largest proportion, think that the best solution to reduce inequalities would be for the government to provide : ‘better education or training opportunities […] to enable people to get better jobs »34 and 40,3% demand « equal opportunities to get ahead’35.
13The 27th Report of British Social Attitudes gives the impression that less and less English citizens believe that the role of the State is to redress the inequalities created by capitalism, to protect the weakest and their family and to guarantee equal access to citizenship rights by the provision of social rights. They no longer consider unemployment as an accident of life but rather as a lifestyle that they condemn. Their attitude towards the principles that gave birth to the Welfare State have hardened. The social citizen defined by T.H. Marshall, that existed through the Welfare State and that was based on the idea that every citizen should be given equal opportunity of access to the full scope of citizenship rights, is no longer considered to be on an equal par with the other two (political and civil). I believe the Big Society to be David Cameron’s response to these changes.
- 36 David Cameron, « …and why so many people increasingly feel that the state is their enemy, not thei (...)
- 37 Especially in Britain but less obviously so in the US.
14Surfing on the wave of discontent that swept Britain in 2009, at the time of the expenses scandal, David Cameron used the pretext to justify his policy-decision to shift power back to the citizen, his own version of Tony Blair’s programme of decentralisation launched in 1997. In a Guardian letter to the public written in May 2009, he presents the British citizens as viewing the state or ‘big government’ as an ‘enemy’36. Such antagonism, according to Cameron, is the result of a feeling of ‘powerlessness’ with regards to an almighty and authoritative government that deprives citizens of their freedom to choose and consequently of their individual freedom … so far, very little to distinguish David Cameron from Margaret Thatcher. Cameron then proposes to introduce a new type of Conservatism that he calls ‘progressive Conservatism’. This should have contributed to drawing the line between Cameron’s brand of Conservatism and Thatcher’s for, historically, the progressive movement was usually more left than right-wing37 and associated with such ideas as social equality between citizens being achieved through policies that address the issue of social justice. Two concepts Margaret Thatcher clearly did not believe in.
- 38 « There is such a thing as society. It is simply not the same thing as the State”, “Public service (...)
15However, David Cameron’s definition of progressivism is quite different from the traditional one for he believes progress to be consisting of stripping the State of its powers to give it back to the people. He then carries on explaining that the state must stop ‘infantilising’ society, hardly a variation on Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Nanny State’ that prevented individuals from being responsible for their own lives and welfare. When Margaret Thatcher, in an interview to a women’s magazine, said: “there is no such thing as society”, she did not so much mean to deny the existence of society as to debunk the idea that the government was supposed to intervene to defend a certain idea of society, i.e. one that would be as egalitarian as possible without being collectivist (social justice applied to a capitalist society). What she really implied therefore was that there was no such thing as a government to help society be fairer but that there were individuals who had to practice self-help. Twenty years later, Cameron’s ‘there is such a thing as society. It is simply not the same thing as the State’ can then be envisaged as a simple clarification of what Margaret Thatcher really meant but expressed rather too bluntly38. David Cameron was obviously struggling to draw the line between his ideas and Margaret Thatcher’s all the more so, it seems, as the general public had accepted many of them, the very ideas that, on the eve of New Labour winning a landslide victory, they still decried as those of the “nasty party”. But thirteen years of New Labour had finally drawn them to the conclusion Margaret Thatcher had tried to impress upon them: the Welfare State had failed to eradicate poverty, worse still, so they believed, it had increased the problem, a shift in point of view revealed in the most recent BSA surveys studied above. In early 2009, David Cameron was still in the process of trying to find a via media to reconcile his fundamentally Thatcherite beliefs with his will to distance himself from the image of “heir of”. The only true difference that he could and did exploit is that he seemed to be prepared to have a social programme when Margaret Thatcher did not believe she was justified in having any: the economy would create enough wealth to provide for those willing to make the effort. And of course, the major financial downturn that struck the economies of the world in the Spring of 2008 was an opportunity for him to build on the social divide the crisis exposed. In a series of conversations for a book by Dylan Jones, Cameron on Cameron, published on 17 August 2008, the Conservative leader announced: “I'm going to be as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer, and radical social reform is what this country needs right now […] to mend the broken society.” Cameron’s weapon to distance himself from the inhibiting presence of the Iron Lady was to be the Big Society programme.
- 39 Alexandre-Collier, A., 2010, pp. 87-88.
- 40 David Blunkett, Civil Renewal, Active Citizens, Strong Communities - progressing civil renewal, Sc (...)
- 41 Ibid, p. 1.
- 42 Tam, H., 2011, p. 32.
16The November 2009 Big Society speech, was a turning point in David Cameron’s electoral campaign. The Conservative leader’s rhetoric became both clearer and more aggressive. It also provided a much more specific answer to what the Conservatives perceived as the social concerns of the general public as revealed by opinion polls and surveys such as the BSA. In many ways, the Big Society speech was a real electoral speech. It revolves around simple catch-phrases and ideas. It mostly addresses one issue that clearly singles out Cameron: poverty. Cameron definitely takes on a new dimension. The vocabulary he uses borrows from a lexicon that is diametrically opposed to that which Margaret Thatcher used. He talks about poverty, solidarity, inequalities, injustice, social progress. He almost sounds socialist. In fact, Agnès Alexandre-Collier suggests he invades New Labour territory39, the idea being of course to cut the grass off from under the electoral opponent’s feet, a strategy that had worked very well for Tony Blair. David Cameron’s Big Society has indeed very little that is truly new to offer. One of its main objectives: “to empower people,” is one of the central themes of David Blunkett’s 2003 Civil Renewal speech40. The then Home Secretary was already advocating a ‘bottom up’ strategy that consisted of giving the power back to civil society, i.e. local communities, who were, so it was argued, better capable at assessing and solving problems directly affecting them than the central government: ‘local communities are just better at dealing with their own problems’41. In a very critical article, Henry Tam presents the Big Society as a spin off of the New Labour Programme of Civil Renewal, only without the money42.
- 43 David Cameron, The Big Society, 10th November 2009, p.3, http://www.conservatives.com/News/Speeche (...)
17The very fact David Cameron seems to be borrowing policies and styles from respectively Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – he presents himself as a pragmatic and down-to-earth politician rather a politician of ideas – seems to indicate that his programme, especially the Big Society project is principally aimed at re-conquering votes. Another reason why the Big Society project can be presented as purely electoral is that David Cameron ‘seized the moment’, i.e. when the first consequences of the 2008 crisis were being felt and inequalities were widening even more, to jump into the social breach: ‘the gap between the richest and the poorest got wider. Indeed, inequality is now at a record high’43.
18With his Big Society, David Cameron thinks he has an affordable solution to public deficits:
- 44 David Cameron, The Big Society, 10 November 2009, p.
‘The first step must be a new focus on empowering and enabling individuals, families and communities to take control of their lives so we create the avenues through which responsibility and opportunity can develop. This is especially vital in what is today the front line of the fight against poverty and inequality: education’44.
- 45 Smiles, S., 1859.
- 46 Alexandre-Collier, A., 2010, p. 11.
- 47 Ibid, p. 15.
19He gives a ‘new’ role to the State, that of ‘creating opportunities for people to take control of their lives’ and to ‘actively help people take advantage of this new freedom’. In summary, the State must actively help the individuals help themselves. Just like Margaret Thatcher before him, David Cameron refers to Samuel Smiles, the apostle of self-help in the Victorian Age45. However, it is perhaps in the analysis of inequality that the greatest difference between Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron lies. Margaret Thatcher continually referred to Victorian virtues and to self-help values, but only in order to condemn the ‘undeserving poor’ who, according to her, were parasites on society. David Cameron is a lot closer to ‘Disraelien Conservatism’. Agnès Alexandre-Collier, amongst others, speaks of a return to compassionate Conservatism46, to the ‘One-Nation Toryism’ of the 19th century and of a the 1950s and 1960s. Her analysis pushes her afterwards to argue that by his social position, ‘David Cameron incarnates this return to the roots of Conservatism’47.
- 48 Cameron, D., The Big Society, p. 4.
- 49 Ibid.
- 50 Ibid, p,p 3, 5, 6.
- 51 Ibid, p. 6.
- 52 Ibid, p. 7.
- 53 Ibid.
- 54 Ibid, p. 8.
20Effectively, in his speech, David Cameron makes a very clear reference to Benjamin Disraeli when he speaks of ‘two worlds’. Disraeli spoke of ‘two nations’. He also makes the same analogy, that of two neighbours living side by side and yet everything separates them. Like Disraeli, he proposes making the poor richer, not the rich poorer, to attack the causes of poverty without trying to create an equal society. The analogy stops there. Whilst Disraeli introduced legislation aiming to improve the living conditions of the poor in the areas of housing, health, education and also to improve their working conditions in manufacturing and allowing the development of unions, David Cameron proposes giving power to society rather than to government, to the voluntary sector, to volunteers, to the 3rd sector rather than to the law. He wants to put an end to what he calls the Big Government approach which tends to ‘separate the economic from the social’, inevitably a mistake because ‘the social consequences of economic reforms do matter’48. If David Cameron makes use of the language of compassionate Conservatism when speaking of poverty and inequality, the solutions that he envisages remain fundamentally neo-liberal : less State so as not to hinder the economic mechanisms of a market economy which alone can create prosperity49, less State so as to not hinder individual freedom and responsibility50, less State in order to encourage individuals to help each other, to be less selfish51 but more State in order to ‘rebuild society’52 and encourage citizens to act, more State in order to ‘redistribute power’53, in order to ‘decentralise’54. In summary, the role of the State is no longer to do but to encourage to do. Is there a difference between the social policy of David Cameron and the absence of a social policy of Thatcher? Less State in the two cases, no society for Thatcher and big society for Cameron certainly. But society or not, the responsibility to act in the social domain returns always to ‘individuals, [to] men and [to] women and [to] families’.
- 55 Bochel, H. (ed.), 2011, p. 69.
- 56 Ibid, pp. 64-65.
21The return to power of the Conservatives, after 13 years in the desert, could be read as the logical conclusion of a shift of the electorate to the right. Yet, it is not the case for although the Conservative Party was regularly ahead of New Labour in the opinion polls, so that every commentator was predicting a landslide victory for Cameron and his colleagues, as the day of the election approached, the Conservatives’ lead faltered55. There are several reasons that could explain this. At the turn of the 21st century, when the economy was booming, British citizens’ attitudes towards welfare recipients hardened, explaining part of the shift of the electorate to the right. But as the 2008 crisis was deepening, they may have started feeling threatened. The more insecure they felt, the less likely they were to vote for a party that was announcing drastic budget cuts, many of which would directly impact on the welfare system. As often in times of prosperity, tax and spend policies may seem too lenient towards those incapable of reaping its fruits and attitudes towards welfare recipients harden. Conversely, in times of recession, the safety net represented by the welfare system is reassuring for citizens who, for example, feel they might be made redundant for economic reasons rather than through any fault of their own56. This, in turn, would tend to prove that citizenship is not only shaped by Government policies or political ideologies. Economic conditions also impact on public perception of how much they may or may not need the government. Thus, the relation of the individual to the State, that fundamentally defines citizenship, constantly fluctuates. David Cameron’s strategy, which consisted in trying to give an answer to the surveys conducted throughout the 2010s ultimately failed and reveals how difficult it is to pin down the electorate. Complex indeed for the diverse opinion polls and surveys we have studied in our article did indicate that the English were no longer supportive of big government and of tax and spend policies, thus supporting the thesis of a radicalisation of the electorate and of the rejection of an important part of the Welfare State.
- 57 Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party Conference, 1988. In a speech given to the General Assembly (...)
22Paradoxically, the same surveys also showed that a majority condemned the profound inequalities that divided their society, inequalities revealed in a flagrant way by the 2008 crisis. Without doubt, this ambiguous position of the new British citizens affected the social policy of a party that was in the process of re-designing itself ideologically just as these changes were taking place. Its leader, David Cameron, had to try to respond to the expectations of citizens caught between a neo-liberal view of poverty that is fatalistic and judgmental and a feeling of injustice towards the material inequalities created by the ultra-liberal and ultra-competitive model implemented by the Thatcher governments. The ‘new’ citizens judged the Thatcher legacy harshly but, at the same time, demanded that they be given the means to be competitive and demanded that they receive an equal share of the wealth that this legacy had produced. David Cameron’s Big Society reflects, in my opinion, all these ambiguities. In borrowing from many sources David Cameron tried to seduce a complex electorate. However, The Big Society on top of not being the adequate response to the social atmosphere that prevailed in 2010 was, more often than not, not understood by British voters. For indeed, to rely entirely on the voluntary sector to tackle the worst social problems affecting the ‘broken society’, seemed unconvincing. Coupled with the pledge to drastically cut public spending, the whole project looked like a smokescreen to hide a complete withdrawal of the State from the social sector, in short an underhand privatisation of welfare. And indeed, the Big Society is not a complex matter. It amounts to a simple removal of the State from the social domain based on the belief that civil society and the individual citizens that compose it, should look after themselves and those around them. In this, the project is not new, the active citizen of Thatcher’s ‘generous society’57 was to give his/her time and his/her money in the service of others, and Tony Blair and David Blunkett’s Civil Renewal project demanded just as much of these active citizens. The Big Society depends on the cooperation of the same active citizens. There is no new deal.
- 58 See p. 1 of this article.
23As to the questions: ‘what does the Big Society reveal about the Government’s conception of what citizenship is’, the answer is rather straightforward. Although the citizen does have a role in civil society, Stewart’s ‘democratic citizen’58, if the link between civil society and the government is severed, as in the case with the Big Society, then the citizen disappears to be replaced by a simple individual who may or may not be compassionate or interested in the common good. Citizenship has to involve the relationship with the State. It is either public or it is nothing. The shift towards a privatisation of citizenship was started, although not achieved, by Margaret Thatcher. John Major transformed the citizen into a consumer. Tony Blair, while also putting forward the consumer-citizen, tried to maintain the link between the Government and civil society alive. If the Big Society is ever implemented to the full, the social element of citizenship that is guaranteed by the State will disappear thus weakening the other two as a consequence. Citizenship will become a private matter and thus cease to exist.