Skip to main navigation Skip to main content
The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

Joint SSP & TSRC seminar on 'The big society' Seminar

Sociology, Social Policy and Criminology
10 February 2011
Building 58, 2097

For more information regarding this seminar, please telephone Sociology & Social Policy Office on +44 (0)23 8059 7218 or email .

Event details

Sociology and Social Policy Seminar Series

Professor Pete Alcock, Director, Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham: Unpacking Big Society Discourse: Old Political Rhetoric or New Policy Programme?

Professor Bernard Harris, Professor of the History of Social Policy, University of Southampton: The 'big society' and the development of the welfare state

Chair: Profesor John Mohan, Deputy Director, TSRC, University of Southampton

All welcome


Professor Pete Alcock: Unpacking Big Society Discourse: Old Political Rhetoric or New Policy Programme?

This seminar will explore the new policy environment emerging under the new Coalition Government in the UK, asking the question whether the rhetoric about the Big Society does signify a major shift in discourse and ideology underpinning policy on the sector.

The paper will draw on material from the study of the presentation of third sector policy within the recent general politics, and also more recent statements made by the leading members of the Coalition Government. There will also be some brief speculation about the potential impact the devolution of third sector policy on the future development of government thinking and practice.

Professor Bernard Harris: The 'big society' and the development of the welfare state

Although historians have often been accused of displaying a 'Whiggish' preference for the growth of state welfare intervention, there has also been a strong 'Tory' trend which sees the expansion of the welfare state as an aberration to be deplored. Early examples of this approach included E.G. West's studies of nineteenth-century education (West 1994) and a collection of essays entitled The long debate on poverty (Hartwell et al. 1972). These studies were followed by David Green's investigations into the medical services provided by nineteenth-century friendly societies (Green 1985; see also ibid. 1993; 1999); Frank Prochaska's studies of nineteenth and twentieth-century philanthropy (Prochaska 1988; 1990); Gertrude Himmelfarb's analyses of Poverty and compassion and The de-moralisation of society (Himmelfarb 1992; 1995); and Robert Whelan's work on the 'corrosion of charity' and Octavia Hill's contribution to the development of social housing (Whelan 1996; 1998). Whilst some of these studies were highly scholarly, others were more polemical. Correlli Barnett concluded that the growth of the welfare state after 1945 had resulted in 'the dank reality of a segregated, subliterate, unskilled, unhealthy and institutionalised proletariat hanging on the nipple of state maternalism' (Barnett 1986: 304; see also ibid. 1995), and James Bartholomew (2006: 341) has recently argued that 'it would have been better if the modern welfare state had never been created'.

The publication of these alternative accounts is of more than purely academic interest, since it is clear that the views expressed by these writers are not only directly relevant to their analyses of contemporary welfare policy, but have also played a key role in the development of a good deal of contemporary Conservative thinking. In 2009, the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron (2009), argued that 'the once natural bonds that existed between people - of duty and responsibility - have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state - regulation and bureaucracy', and 'Red Tory', Phillip Blond, has claimed that the growth of the welfare state 'nationalised a previously mutual society and reformed it according to an individualised culture of universal entitlement' (Blond 2010: 282). It is also reflected, indirectly, in the Coalition Government's efforts to involve historians in discussions about the historical antecedents of the 'big society' following the General Election of 2010. Even if many historians may have been sceptical about the new government's view of the past, they were nevertheless likely to welcome the increased attention which it seems to want to pay to history.

This paper seeks to address a number of the key issues which New Right historians (and others) have raised regarding the growth of state welfare intervention and its impact on civil society since the mid-nineteenth century. It begins by examining the argument that the enhanced role played by the state in the provision of welfare services undermined the mutualist ethos of the friendly societies before 1914. It then proceeds to examine the development of attitudes within the friendly societies and other parts of the voluntary sector to the growth of state welfare provision during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The third section explores the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector during the interwar period. The paper concludes by considering the extent to which it is possible to draw 'lessons' from this account for current welfare policy.

Speaker information

Bernard Harris ,Head of the Division of Sociology & Social Policy

Peter Alcock , TSRC, Birmingham University. Director

Privacy Settings