Protest, Politics, Community

There’s No Such Thing As (The Big) Society

Heather Nunn

The UK now finds itself in an age of austerity alongside many formerly fairly prosperous Western European and North American nations.  This has meant that long-running discussions of the good society have taken on sharper political hues. To take one example, we can see how in the late 2000s the relationship between philanthropy and civil society and also between government and their promotion of good citizenship have become powerful intertwined themes.  Underpinning these themes are widely articulated concerns about the sustainability of the welfare state system, swingeing cuts to public services and the opening up of these services to competitive provision by charities, social enterprises and private companies.   The ideal promoted by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat governing alliance is of community empowerment and social involvement under the aegis of ‘the Big Society’.  This umbrella term encapsulates a government campaign to foster and support a new culture of voluntarism, philanthropy, social action, and public service reform all of which emerged as a touchstone of the Conservative Party General Election manifesto.  As the new Prime Minister, David Cameron re-launched the Big Society plan in July 2010, he robustly declared:  ‘You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the Big Society’. [1]

The Big Society bears the imprint of Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism as a ghostly presence within its bright, hopeful rhetoric of a new social contract.  The Big Society agenda is presented as a part of a modern Conservative social imaginary generated to offset the collapse of the old social contract under the financial deficit.  It promises political recognition and offer of agency to those who were purportedly abandoned or injured by the bureaucracy of the ‘Nanny State’.   The conception of ‘Society’ is central and the refusal to acknowledge the legacy of Thatcher by the current coalition government is, I think, marked (and disingenuous).  The absent presence is Thatcher’s much quoted assertion that: ‘There is no such thing as society’ from an interview in Woman’s Own (31 October 1987). [2] Her neoliberal conviction was that the self-determining subject, unfettered by the constraint of state bureaucracy, would fulfill the social body’s need for caring intervention and that they would do so because it was in their own self-interest.  But her statement was roundly condemned by political pundits and opponents alike as evidence of callous indifference for collective social care and compassion.  Without a doubt, it exposed Conservatism to the charge that it was abandoning notions of universal responsibility for all members of society through a focus on the atomized, financially self-sufficient individual and small family unit; and all to the detriment of those citizens excluded from the secure, safe and prosperous life.

This attachment of cruel indifference to Conservatism has been variously repelled ever since, as evident in the ‘compassionate Conservatism’ seized upon by party leaders such as William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and latterly reformulated by Cameron in the Big Society agenda.  For example, in February 2012, Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude, opened his address to the Institute of Directors on the ‘Big Society and the City’ by declaring: There is such a thing as society. It is, simply, what people do together, in association with each other…’. [3] Such statements align with neoliberal definition of society as a loose coalition of individuals rather than a social body whose shared ethical and moral agendas are partly guided and sustained by collective investment in the state’s care.  One nucleus of the Big Society is the Conservative’s Social Action initiative.  Their branded merchandise includes a simple poster on which, against a red backdrop, a white floating balloon is inscribed with the slogan ‘There is such a thing as society’.  It is juxtaposed with a black ball and chain bearing ‘It’s just not the same thing as the state’. [4] It graphically encapsulates the Big Society vision of a potentially buoyant society weighted down by the history of the state and its welfare institutions.  At the 2011 Conservative Party conference, delegates could trawl the Social Action zone and sign up on the ‘wall’; scrawling across a blue logo featuring energized cartoon characters digging,building, teaching.  Arguably, this authorized graffiti which recorded delegate’s commitment to a new social order created a powerful positive symbol.  It overtly countered the everyday graffiti of lost causes and social despair which is overwhelmingly represented in so much photojournalism depicting poverty and deprivation.  The delegates’ signatures represented a new kind of ‘writing on the wall’; indexing and writing out the tired signifiers of underclass estate graffiti. Whether we approve of them or not, such powerful scenes of re-inscription reveal the importance of the palimpsest as a structure to signify how political agendas overwrite, but nonetheless bear within them, other hidden (denigrated) histories.

The affective weight of the past in the present is captured in Lisa Barnard’s project ‘32 Smith Square’.  The interior of the former British Conservative Party Central Office headquarters (unoccupied since 2004) is depicted in stark, repetitive images of an eviscerated building.  This makes sense because, for me, space and place were important to the depiction of Thatcher’s nation: the City towers of finance capitalism, the development of London’s Docklands, the nostalgic memory of an inter-war Grantham grocer shop, the private spaces of No. 10 opened to the TV camera’s gaze were all spun to a visual metonym of the revitalised post-imperial ‘Great’ Britain.  In Barnard’s photographs there is a sense of abandonment; of a missed story here in the disheveled interiors, stained blue walls and traces of political posters.  The minutiae of everyday connections across the photocopier, in the lift, at the desk, can be imagined in the traces of this formerly animated political hub now marked by imprints on faded carpet, stains on the blown plaster wall.  What survives from those times is a bare dilapidated empty space.  Barnard’s photographs suggest a kind of psycho-geography of exit and defeat; a blue curtain hangs ragged against a plaster blown wall which is reminiscent of a defunct theatre.  The Lady has left the stage.  Set alongside Barnard’s other powerful found photography (the decaying photographs of Thatcher herself discovered in an old closet) the iconography of haunting is here.  Barnard prompts the lexicon of the uncanny and ghosts to capture the connotations of her unsettling images which suggest the now absent Conservative machine once based here and the dislocations of community, space and identity which correspond with their moment in power.

The formulaic publicity shots of Thatcher-magisterial, latterly positioned by Barnard on the gallery wall, show her posture in each photo shifting and slightly tipped; side-by-side they signify the packaged modulated presentation of an iconic political persona.  Her red lipstick gleams.  But there is an organic quality to the veneered image as the variegated creep of decay seeps up through the colour prints.  As Sarah James observes, the portraits are

an ode to the impermanence and instability of colour sensitive materials.  Like Thatcher’s vision of politics, the portraits’ aged and slightly bleached surfaces are diluted and distorted in their present form. [5]

On the one hand, the portraits provoke acute recognition of manufactured political personas: ‘A yuppie’s Queen Elizabeth, styled by a TV producer, scripted by a playwright, and marketed by ad men’ [6].  And work partly through the photograph’s inherent capture of the anterior future – so Thatcher is both magisterial leader (hence open to scapegoating) and also now consigned to memory as dethroned.  The woman who annihilated political opponents and exhausted all sympathy, towers in these photos as a ghost but one whom time will not entirely defeat.  But, on the other hand, the pathos of lost political power and the creep of history are manifest in the corruption and deterioration of such a fortified veneer.  Thatcher is decomposing, fraying, unable to fend off the decline of age.  Perhaps I can only read these images through the filter of Thatcher dethroned in 1990, exiting Number 10, bowed and slightly tearful and via her latest resurrection in the biopic The Iron Lady (2012).  In the latter Meryl Streep performs Thatcher as a human being experiencing loss and recalling a tumultuous political career.  Streep suggests that she took on a female political icon whose views were at a tangent with her own to undergo ‘the compassionate journey into disagreeable territory’. [7]

Margaret Thatcher as a ghost was the motif with which I ended Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy [8]and in that early post-Thatcher moment, I tried to grasp and anticipate the potential longevity of her iconic image, the profound impact of Thatcherite policies and the irreversible injury inflicted upon the social democratic consensus of the second half of the twentieth century.  Thatcherism disaggregated the British political project as we knew it.  As Jacqueline Rose astutely observed, Thatcher was ‘both a fantasy and a real event’. [9]  The numerous cartoons of her as a ruthless Boadicea, or Nanny-Governess or Iron Lady decapitating, beating or spearing her rivals or recalcitrant fellow Tories captured (in deeply gendered ways) the attraction and repulsion of her political persona.  She was an embodiment of a philosophy and practice of killing off all forms of social and political project that do not conform to marketised forms of life.  But, I warned then against locating the symbolic violence that Thatcher invoked in her alone.  To do so was to ignore the continuing force of the themes – competition, self-responsibility, clarity of purpose, (in)security, aspiration – that girded her political personality and that continue to animate political culture, individual and collective imagination.  Recently, Louisa Hadley and Elizabeth Ho, discussing Thatcher’s cultural ‘afterlife’, reference trauma and melancholia as psychic structures which could address the ways in which Thatcher ruptured the British socio-political community.  ‘What is at stake here’, they argue, is ‘an understanding of contemporary Britain as a community imagined around a wound’. They and their contributors argue that Britain has been transformed into a nation of ‘survivors’ prompting key political questions about ‘agency, complicity and ethics’. [10]

So we need to ask ourselves how visual culture might engage with the spectre of Thatcher and more specifically with the elusive creature of the Big Society and its coalition parents.  The challenge for oppositional visual culture is partly how to produce images that contest the affective appeal of empowerment, hope and compassion – which the Big Society lays claim to – but which in reality mashes up against the frustration and anger of ordinary citizens facing the reality of deprivation, unemployment and cuts to services.  Press and TV images of philanthropy arguably reiterate the populist register of empowerment latched to sentimentality that the Big Society promotion harnesses.  For example, let’s turn to two widely circulated images of philanthropic compassion.  The first is the British press’s widely published December 2009 photo of Prince William sleeping rough overnight in a litter-strewn alley as patron for Centrepoint, the homeless charity.  The second is the popular TV series The Secret Millionaire (Channel 4) featuring wealthy benefactors going undercover to visit deprived areas to learn who needs their financial help.  Here the entrepreneur bonds with a working  or ‘underclass’ volunteer or a needy recipient of charity on a deprived housing estate cueing the reflex of tears in both those on screen and those watching.  The appeal of both representations, the patron Prince and the compassionate entrepreneur, hinges on the implied moment of recognition across social divides.   At first sight such sentimental images of liberal empathy look like rather easy targets to critique. [11]  But this is not so.  For how do oppositional voices and cultures address these without resorting to easy cynicism?  And if we wish to reject them utterly as dubious models of what constitutes social intervention and support then what are the better, preferred popular engagements with hope and reconciliation which we would see deployed in opposition to the Big Society thesis?  What comprises an ideal and progressive image of social continuity, community and compassion in a society experiencing severe pressures and seismic structural shifts?  What images offer a credible depiction of the good life when the promise of upward mobility offered by consumer capitalism has become shabby and worn at the edges?  The pursuit of these questions and these alternative images means visually countering what Lauren Berlant has recently described as the ‘cruel optimism’ with which ordinary people, since the 1980s, have become attached to unachievable fantasies of the good life: the promise of upward mobility, secure employment, meritocracy, political and social equality underpinned by the market economy. [12]  The dissolving assurances of the neoliberal-capitalist economy are the context in which politicized visual culture has to engage, if not with the Big Society as an ideological vision, then with its promise of a better future as the welfare state falls away.

To conclude, I would suggest that three actions are central to the politics of representation now.  Firstly, we need to see the production of powerful images that capture modes of political thought and human agency, political and civic engagement and the politics of hope outside the umbrella of the Big Society.  Political visions must prompt emotional investment alongside the grounded material experience that something works, or might work, to foster the good life. Images can help generate that investment.  Secondly, we need to upfront work that captures the disjunction between the Big Society’s good life and the precarious life of those disempowered by the current fiscal measures.  This can move across the generic spectrum from realism to fantasy as long as it captures how the Big Society’s representations of the good communal life wash over and mask the potent violence enacted upon established structures of support and upon the people in public and private sectors who attempt to sustain theirs and others’ lives.  As Luc Boltanski has argued, the spectacle of unfortunate suffering ideally inspires the morally receptive spectator to become indignant; a process that shifts the experience of spectatorship from distance via compassion and /or pity to indignation and political action. [13]  The representation of society formed around a wound is provocative here.  Finally, I would like to suggest that séance-work is needed; that is the making of images which conjure up the wispy ethereal nature of the coalition’s social project and which remind viewers of Thatcher’s ongoing haunting presence in the coalition’s political agenda. [14]


  1. The speech took place at Liverpool Hope University and Cameron was accompanied by screenwriter and popular TV producer Phil Redmond who later became critical of the way the social philanthropic agenda seemed to be harnessed to government cuts to public service spending.  Liverpool was originally one of four vanguard areas for piloting the Big Society reforms but withdrew from the pilot in February 2011. See  ‘Liverpool withdraws from government Big Society pilot’, BBC News 3 February 2011, Accessed 13.3.2012. back
  2. Extract from Woman’s Own interview with Douglas Keaypublished on 31 October 1987 under the title ‘Aids, education and the year 2000’, 8-10.  Available at The Thatcher Foundation, back
  3. Francis Maude delivered the speech at an Institute of Directors ‘Big Society and the City’ event at Portcullis House on 20 February 2012.  back
  4. See the merchandise on the Conservative Party Social Action website,  back
  5. Sarah James, ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie’, Photoworks Magazine, 15, Autumn/Winter 2010, 72. back
  6. James, ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie’, Photoworks, 72. back
  7. See Meryl Streep’s articulate interview at  back
  8. Heather Nunn, Thatcher, Politics and Fantasy: The Political Culture of Gender and Nation, London, 2002. back
  9. Jacqueline Rose , ‘Margaret Thatcher and Ruth Ellis’, (originally 1988) in Why War? Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Return of Melanie Klein, Oxford, 1993, 71. back
  10. Louisa Hadley and Elizabeth Ho, ‘Introduction’, Thatcher & After, Margaret Thatcher and her Afterlife in Contemporary Culture, Basingstoke, 2010, 3. back
  11. See Heather Nunn and Anita Biressi’s forthcoming chapter ‘Walking in Another’s Shoes: Sentimentality and Philanthropy on Reality Television’, in Laurie Ouellette (Ed.) Companion to Reality Television, Blackwell. back
  12. Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Durham and London, 2011. back
  13. Luc Boltanski Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics, Cambridge, 1999. back
  14. I would like to acknowledge the valuable comments of Anita Biressi on this, as all, my writing. back
Protest, Politics, Community