Intended for healthcare professionals

Observations Life and Death

How far is it from no society to Big Society and back again?

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 19 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d303
  1. Iona Heath, president, Royal College of General Practitioners
  1. iona.heath22{at}

It is clear that the prime minister is deliberately distancing the NHS from his vision of a “Big Society”

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher made her infamous claim that there is no such thing as society; the best part of a quarter of a century later the current prime minister is actively promoting the “Big Society” as part of his declared commitment to compassionate conservatism. The initial impression is that Conservative social policy has undergone a sea change, but closer examination suggests that the distance travelled has in fact been infinitesimal.

Mrs Thatcher’s statement was made in an interview for Woman’s Own magazine, published on 31 October 1987. She said, “I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand ‘I have a problem, it is the Government’s job to cope with it!’ or ‘I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!’ ‘I am homeless, the Government must house me!’ and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!”

In a speech in Liverpool on 19 July 2010 David Cameron said, “The …

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