De-coupling the state and the third sector? The 'Big Society' as a spontaneous order

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Despite a largely indifferent and otherwise sceptical public reception, the 'Big Society' has remained a central feature of the Conservative-led coalition's project, with David Cameron referring to it as his passion. However, the Big Society has been a rather elusive concept. Academics and commentators seek to understand what it means, what it signals, and what it might imply. It is viewed by critics as providing political cover for the coalition's deficit reduction programme and as a Trojan horse for privatisation. Others argue that it represents a significant recasting of the relationship between citizens and the state, as well as providing new opportunities and spaces for voluntary and community activity, recast as social action in civil society. This paper asks what the Big Society might mean for the 'third sector' of voluntary organisations, community groups and social enterprises, and in particular how the changing relationship with the state might be understood. The previous Labour government's approach has been characterised as the development of a closer 'partnership' between state and the third sector. Whilst there are important continuities from this time, a partial decoupling may now be underway in the new political and economic context. Theoretically, this might signal a shift away from the idea of interdependence between the state and the third sector, and towards a model involving separate spheres: from partnership to an emergent 'trial separation'. To explore this dynamic the paper draws on Friedrich Hayek's theory of 'spontaneous order', suggesting that the Big Society involves some implicit Hayekian assumptions. It concludes by considering the implications of regarding the third sector in such terms.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-203
Number of pages19
JournalVoluntary Sector Review
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2013


  • third sector, Big Society, Coalition government, Hayek, spontaneous order, independence