Housing & Welfare

There Has Always Been a ‘Big Society’

Amid  talk of a ‘Big  Society’,  Pat Thane explores the history of voluntary organizations and the shifting boundaries between state and society. She argues that government rhetoric masks a real shrinking of the voluntary sector.

Underlying current government rhetoric about promoting a ‘Big Society’- which seems to be the latest of many terms to describe voluntary and community action (the Blair version was ‘Third Sector’) – is the belief that such action is declining, squeezed out by the ever-growing reach of the ‘Big State’ which, it is assumed, has always been antagonistic to non-state welfare. This is wrong about both the past and the present.

Change over time is hard to measure with any precision in a highly diverse sector in which much activity is local and /or ephemeral and poorly recorded. We do not have good long-run statistics or tools of measurement. The voluntary sector is so diverse that it is difficult to define, or even name. It encompasses a sprawling set of activities, covering the arts and leisure as well as welfare needs. But voluntary action – often, but not always, directed towards the needs of the poor – can be found throughout British history, long closely associated with religious institutions – medieval monasteries were essential providers of health care and welfare- sometimes working closely with the state, sometimes highly critical of it. Certain forms of unpaid service, in particular the magistracy, the jury system and local government, have long been essential parts of the state apparatus.

As the British state began cautiously to move into new areas of social action in the nineteenth century, it first subsidized the existing pioneering work of voluntary organizations. From the 1830s, voluntary, mainly faith-based, institutions providing schooling for the working classes were funded, and increasingly regulated, by a state which was concerned about the literacy and discipline of the population.

From the 1870s, it took control of most educational institutions, though voluntary efforts continued. Education provided a model for future developments in state welfare: activities pioneered by the voluntary sector were adopted by the state. For example, child abuse was not new in the later nineteenth century, but it took the voluntary National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC, founded in 1884 as the London Society) to make a fuss about it, seek ways to rescue and protect children, to press government to make it illegal and punish perpetrators and, eventually, to set up local authority committees to support and care for children. [George Behlmer, Child Abuse and Moral Reform in England, 1870-1908,  Stanford University Press, 1982). NSPCC was just one of many organizations which established a model for the future, by identifying a social problem, seeking viable ways to help the victims, then campaigning for government to adopt these methods, because only the state had the resources to deal on a national scale with challenges beyond the scope of unavoidably limited and localized voluntary action. Far from the state seeking to crowd out voluntary action, it was, often reluctantly, persuaded into action by voluntary organizations.


As the sphere of state welfare grew in the early years of the twentieth century, the state and voluntary organizations worked closely together. Pioneering state measures, such as old age pensions ( introduced in 1908 and long campaigned for by voluntary organizations), national health and unemployment insurance (introduced 1911) were administered mainly by voluntary organizations, the non-profit, working-class mutual associations: Friendly Societies and trade unions.

This was partly because it was cheaper for the state to build on their experience in these fields and on pre-existing administrative structures than to create a new bureaucracy, and it mollified the antagonism of some of them towards state action in these fields. But the Liberal governments of the early twentieth century also believed that voluntary action – people choosing to give their time and money to help others –  was an essential component of  a good society and should be encouraged not supplanted by the state. In their view, the role of the state was to supplement the limited resources of the voluntary sector and make the services pioneered by volunteers, such as sickness benefits, more widely available.

Throughout the  First World War, and in the 1920s and 1930s, state social provision and expenditure grew in the areas of housing, health, education and much else, much of it channelled through local government and often through funding voluntary action e.g., in the provision of maternal and child health clinics. At the same time, a succession of new voluntary organizations, many of them established by newly enfranchised women,  emerged to draw attention to gaps in provision.

Among many others, the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child ( NCUMC, founded 1918) provided services and financial support to, and campaigned tirelessly for state action to help, these most marginalized and stigmatized people. It succeeded in persuading parliament to increase the financial obligations of absent fathers and the legal rights of mothers and children. [Pat Thane, ‘Unmarried Motherhood in Twentieth Century England’  Women’s History Review, 20.1, 11-29] Citizens’ Advice Bureaux were established in 1939 to help poorer people access social benefits and negotiate the expensive and, for them, inaccessible legal system. The Society for the Promotion of Birth Control Clinics was formed in 1924 to help working-class women access birth control. [Clare Debenham,  ‘Grassroots feminists: a study of the campaign of the Society for the Promotion of Birth Control Clinics, 1924-38’, University of Manchester PhD, 2011]

During the Second World War some voluntary organizations dwindled as volunteers became involved in war work and funds dried up. Others were so vital to the war effort that they expanded and were increasingly subsidized by the state. The Women’s ( later Royal) Voluntary Service was founded and funded by the government at the beginning of the war to use the energy of women, mainly but not entirely middle-class,  to help victims of bombing, evacuees and to keep services running amid the disruption of war. [James Hinton, Women, Social Leadership and the Second World War, Oxford University Press 2002]  Without NCUMC and some Church Welfare organizations the Ministry of Health could not have coped with servicewomen and war workers who became pregnant outside wedlock and it increasingly subsidized their work.
[S.M.Ferguson and H.Fitzgerald,  History of the Second World War. Studies in the Social Services, London: HMSO, 1954, 74-141]


In 1942 William Beveridge’s famous report, Social Insurance and Allied Services, often credited as the foundation document of the postwar welfare state, recommended extended state action while at the same time explicitly valuing and seeking to preserve the complementary and innovatory work of the voluntary sector in providing additional social insurance schemes and services for the sick, aged, unemployed and others in need. In particular Beveridge wanted the Friendly Societies and Trade unions to keep their roles in administering the expanded social insurance system he proposed. [Jose Harris, ‘Voluntarism, the state and public-private partnerships in Beveridge’s social thought’ in M. Oppenheimer and N. Deakin, eds  Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World, Manchester University Press, 2011, 9-20]

The post-1945 Labour government was less influenced by Beveridge than is often thought. It greatly expanded the welfare role of the state in some ways at the expense of voluntary action. Friendly Societies lost their role in administering social insurance- at which their performance had been uneven- which effectively destroyed them. The growth of the welfare state caused uncertainty for established voluntary organizations, who wondered whether they were still needed. Donations began to dry up due to high taxes and as donors came to believe that the state had taken over responsibility for eliminating need. Labour was not openly hostile to voluntary action, indeed while he was Prime Minister Attlee became President of Toynbee Hall, the pioneering East London settlement house where he had spent time as a young man.

Measures such as the National Assistance Act of 1948 encouraged local authorities to work with and subsidize voluntary organizations in providing care, particularly for older and disabled people. But within the labour movement there was a strong and understandable strain of hostility to what was seen as ‘charity’, which many working people had experienced as demeaning, and a growing feeling that voluntary action belonged to the past, and was no part of the new, post-war world order.

Beveridge, however, did not give up hope. Since his own days at Toynbee Hall at the beginning of the century he had believed in the essential complementarity of state and voluntary action, seeing voluntary organizations as equal partners in what he would not call a ‘welfare state’. For him the term smacked of dependency and he preferred the term ‘social service state’ which he believed implied a state with which everyone identified and to which all contributed as best they could. This should be promoted by encouragement of voluntary action, ideas of mutual aid and good citizenship, which were desirable in themselves and necessary safeguards against the growth of an over-mighty, oppressive state, such as he had observed in Nazi Germany. [N. Deakin “‘The night’s insane dream of power’: William Beveridge on the ueas and abuses of state power’ in Oppenheimer and Deakin, Beveridge, 21-35.]  He wanted the state to provide for the basic needs of everyone. Beyond that basic level, individuals should provide for themselves or be supported by voluntary action.

The very godfather of the modern ‘welfare state’, as he is seen, did not believe that ‘state’ and ‘society’ were opposed. At the behest of a Friendly Society he set up an investigation of voluntary action which pointed out how strong voluntary action still was and promoted his ideas.

The resulting report, Voluntary Action (1948), had much less impact than Beveridge’s previous reports in the post-war atmosphere of suspicion and uncertainty in and about the voluntary sector. Yet voluntary action did not die. The very formation of the ‘welfare state’ stimulated new voluntary activities in support of groups overlooked by the new institutions, in particularly older, disabled  and mentally ill people. The National Corporation for the Care of Old People (now the Centre for Policy on Ageing) was formed in 1947 to protect the interests of older people, and the organization that is now MENCAP was founded in 1946, to ensure that children who were then described as ‘backward’ were adequately cared for in the new educational and health systems. In the same year MIND, as it is now called, was formed to fight for mental health services in the newly announced National Health Service.


Although it was widely believed throughout the 1950s that the welfare state had eliminated poverty, except among some older people, it was clear to many that there were considerable gaps in welfare provision. Established voluntary organizations recovered and reconfigured their activities to fill the gaps and new ones were formed to campaign for improvements. As decolonization progressed, overseas aid organizations, such as OXFAM, grew, sometimes inheritors of missionary activities.

The voluntary sector, reinvigorated, continued its role of innovation, pressing for and working with a bigger state. In the mid 1960s, large-scale poverty, especially among children and large families, was ‘rediscovered’ by researchers at the LSE. This stimulated a new breed of professionalized, media-aware campaigning organizations, often more inclusive of the groups they sought to help than their predecessors, and with snappier titles, focussed mainly on pressing for more effective state action.

These organisations, which included the Child Poverty Action Group, founded in 1965, and Shelter, founded in 1966, were products of this new awareness of continuing poverty in an increasingly prosperous society, but also of a number of other factors: the hopes aroused by the return of a Labour government in 1964, which it was thought would continue the expansion of the welfare state, largely on hold since its defeat in 1951; the growing numbers of trained social scientists graduating from universities, keen to change the world; a less deferential society and a mass media more openly critical of government. Older organizations gradually followed the new model, symbolized by name changes for most of them e.g., the Old People’s Welfare Committee (founded 1940) became Age Concern. [N.Crowson, M.Hilton. J.McKay, eds  NGOs in Contemporary Britain. Non-State Actors in Society and Politics since 1945, Palgrave, 2009)]

From the later 1960s new types of voluntary movements sought to redress other kinds of inequalities, such as the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation movements and campaigns against race discrimination. These movements not only campaigned, with some success, for state action against these inequalities but pioneered action to help others. The WLM brought domestic violence and rape firmly out of the shadows in which they had been hidden and onto the public agenda, voluntarily establishing refuges for victims which later gained public funding. [Pat Thane, ed. Unequal Britain. Inequalities in Britain since 1945, Continuum, 2010]

The international economic crisis of the mid 1970s led to attempts to cut back state welfare and encourage and subsidize voluntary organizations to replace it. This was especially so under the Conservative governments of the 1980s and continued through the 1990s, through the change of government in 1997. A danger for the voluntary sector through the twentieth century, of which it was well aware, was that close association with the state and dependence on state funding could, and in some cases did, restrict their independence, since funding is rarely unconditional.

Throughout the past century, the boundaries between ‘state’ and ‘society’ have continually shifted but, difficult though it is to measure, the voluntary sector has until now given no sign of shrinking, though it has continually adapted to radically changing conditions. It expresses many aspects of society, including Britain’s increased cultural diversity. Immigrant groups have always created voluntary organizations to protect their members and meet their needs. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries  voluntary institutions like the Jewish Board of Guardians assisted poor Jews fleeing from persecution in Eastern Europe and protected them from accusations of living off British taxpayers by claiming poor relief. [David Feldman, Englishmen and Jews. Social Relations and Political Culture, 1840-1914 , Yale University Press, 1994]  The Indian Workers’ Association was founded in 1938 to support Indians in Britain, including assisting them to claim welfare, such as unemployment benefits, to which they had a right as British subjects born within the Empire. Like many other organizations founded since the 1940s, it still assists new migrants to settle, providing free welfare and legal advice, whilst fighting racism.

The continued vibrancy of voluntary action is evident from the government’s own statistics. The National Citizenship Survey for England, 2009-10, found that  40 per cent of adults had ‘formally’ volunteered within the previous twelve months i.e., had participated in some organized voluntary activity, 25 per cent at least once a month, compared with 27 per cent when the survey was first undertaken in 2001. [Department of Communities and Local Government, Citizenship Survey, 2009-10. http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/corporate/statistics/citizenship survey.] Many others are known to volunteer ‘informally’, e.g., helping out neighbours with difficulties.  How future levels of volunteering will be influenced by current government policies we may never know because the Citizenship Survey is a recent victim of expenditure cuts.

Like the voluntary organizations, the volunteers themselves have changed without apparently declining in numbers and despite the increasing professionalization of many voluntary organizations. Until the 1950s, the backbone of volunteering was married middle and upper-class women, who were mostly excluded from paid employment. As employment opportunities opened up for them, they were replaced with paid professionals and by younger people, who were especially encouraged to volunteer in the 1950s and 60s. [Georgina Brewis, ‘Youth in Action? British Young People and Voluntary Service, 1958-70’ in Oppenheimer and Deakin, Beveridge, 94-108] More recently a major resource has been the growing army of fit, active and experienced retired people as the numbers of older people increase and more of them are healthy to later ages.

Voluntary Service Overseas was set up in the 1950s to find opportunities for young people to volunteer in poorer communities abroad after leaving university. In 2008, 28 per cent of VSO volunteers were aged 50 or above, compared with 3 per cent twenty years before. ‘Retired’ people are working in poorer countries as nurses, doctors, teachers, improving water supplies, giving training in how to start businesses, with skills and experience to offer that young graduates mostly lack.    A survey in 2011 revealed that people over 65 were a substantial proportion of volunteers in UK also, both formally, through voluntary organizations (about 30% of over 60s volunteer regularly) and informally, by helping relatives, friends and neighbours, many of them also retired.  In 2011, 65% of over 65s regularly helped elderly neighbours and were the most likely age group to do so; 30% helped neighbours aged under 65.  49% looked after young children including grandchildren. The value of their formal volunteering was estimated as £10b pa saved to public social services; that of informal social care at £34bn. [Women’s Royal Voluntary Service  ‘Gold Age Pensioners’, http://www.wrvs.org.uk]

Increasing numbers of grandparents – especially grandmothers – helped younger people to work by caring for grandchildren, sometimes ‘retiring’ from paid work themselves in order to do so. 1 in 3 working mothers relied on grandparents for childcare, 1 in 4 of all working families. [Grandparents Plus Policy Briefing Paper 01, Feb 2011 www.grandparentsplus.org.uk] The shape of the population changes but it does not diminish the commitment to voluntary action.
Anyone who doubts the continuing importance of voluntary action should try to imagine British society without it. It is unimaginable, so central to life at all levels are the diverse organizations in question.  Government has become as dependent on non-governmental organizations that carry out essential tasks in the welfare and cultural spheres as some of them, such as housing associations, are on the government.


Voluntary action enters almost every area of human activity. But now government rhetoric about the ‘Big Society’ masks a real shrinking of the voluntary sector. Government ministers plan to cut £734m of public funding for civil society projects, including those successfully helping people off welfare into work. The National Council of Voluntary Organizations reports that a third of charities believe that their level of service will decrease due to cuts, particularly to local authority spending, and the speed with which they are being imposed. So whatever the warm talk about ‘community action’ and ‘social energy’ emanating from Westminster, it looks like, for the first time in a long time, we are heading towards a smaller civil society.

Pat Thane is Research Professor in Contemporary History at Kings College, London. She is currently completing a book, with Tanya Evans, on unmarried motherhood in Britain since World War 1 and the role of a voluntary organization, the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and her Child, now Gingerbread, in supporting them.

Read Diana Paton’s blog on ‘The AHRC and ‘the Big Society” on this site.

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