Victorians and ‘the Big Society’: Some reimaginings and reflections

by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

The Victorians are everywhere. They are on our TV screens, bookshelves and DVD cabinets. Our appetite for Victorian culture is even fuelled, now, by newly-written ‘neo-Victorian’ novels and their TV adaptations, including Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith, Affinity and Tipping the Velvet and Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White. More recently, though I hardly dare mention it, the Victorians have even been re-imagined in the corridors of Westminster. Type David Cameron into Google and one of the first results is ‘David Cameron and the big society’. Debates surrounding the big society have, for British academics, negatively resurrected the Victorian past, as research councils and politicians seek to drive an agenda asking us to look towards the philanthropic modes and apparatus of our great, great grandmothers and grandfathers. It is this particular re-imagining that I will explore in this JVC blog entry. For Victorians are not only beyond the academy in the cultural life of novels and TV programmes, but are also very much part of our post-2010 political landscape.

The ‘big society’ became a buzzword in British politics even before the Tories had won last year’s general election. Conservative supporters were encouraged to don turquoise T-shirts with yellow and red writing proclaiming ‘Big Society not Big Government’. In case you were unsure of their feelings, the ‘o’ in ‘society’ was given a smiley emoticon :-), while the ‘o’ in government turned the smile upside down to reveal a sad face 🙁 (figure one). This was the re-emergence of nanny state critique. The whole logic of the ‘big society’ campaign is that government interferes too much in people’s lives. As individuals we should take more responsibility for ourselves and for our family and our community, Conservative ‘big society’ supporters tell us. 

Figure One: David Cameron and his supporters with Steven Hilton  

But what exactly is the big society? Many are unsure what it means. Even some Conservatives have been suspicious, believing that Cameron’s failure to explain what the big society is during the election cost them votes and forced them into a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. During the election, Cameron was keen to argue that the big society was about community activism, coupled with greater personal and familial responsibility. Here he was pushing the ‘broken Britain’ button, enabling him to suggest that there is a need to reassess the values left behind by the Labour Party. After the election, Cameron and his coalition partner, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, began to argue that what they wanted was greater involvement of business, charities and the voluntary sector in running the country’s infrastructure. The state, according to Cameron, is “often too inhuman and clumsy” to tackle society’s problems and ills (BBC; 2010a). His solution: to ask business, charities and voluntary groups to become the machinery of state provision. At the same time, there would be redistribution of power from “the elite in Whitehall to the man and woman on the street”. Communities would now have ‘oomph’ and be “in charge of their own destiny” [Cameron quoted in Watt; 19th July 2010b].

Labour politicians and social commentators were quick to point out that the idea of the big society evokes nineteenth-century images of do-gooders knocking on working-class doors and slumming in poor districts, whilst a malevolent state looks on unprepared to help the helpless. As Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour Party, noted during a Radio 4 interview, “This is essentially a 19th-century or US-style view of our welfare state – which will cut back the welfare state and somehow civic society will thrive” [quoted in Watt; 19th July 2010a]. I am going to leave the US to one side here, and consider why critics have been keen to evoke the Victorians when discussing the ‘big society’.

The link made between Conservatism and Victorianism is not new. Ever since Margaret Thatcher’s claim that 1980s Britain needed to return to the values of the nineteenth century, Conservative ideology and the Victorians have seemed to go hand-in-hand with one another [see Thatcher; 1983]. This has been equated by the left with squalor, class division, misery and ignorance [Joyce; 2007, 5], which explains why Labour politicians have gladly tapped into this imagery once again.

Matthew Sweet reminds us, however, that the Victorians not only made us, but that we have in turn made them [Sweet, 2001]. Both Thatcher’s Victorian values and Cameron’s big society have made the Victorians a 2-D version of themselves without acknowledging any of the complexity of historical memory. Those outside the academy take the Victorian period and its people to be the same thing. Yet the Victorian period did not end in 1901. Rather, it has been continually made and remade in the twentieth-century imagination. Debates about David Cameron’s ‘big society’ idea are only the most recent instance of this process taking shape.

A good example of this is Ian Hislop’s BBC documentary The Age of the Do-Gooders, aired between November and December 2010. Hislop – broadcaster, writer and editor of Private Eye – donned a top hat and espoused the virtue of Victorian philanthropy (see Image Two). He clearly enjoyed revealing the works of Victorian philanthropists to his BBC audience and his enthusiasm shined through. Despite having no institutional political persuasion, the BBC website nonetheless informs us that Hislop’s documentary ‘rescues the reputation of the maverick ‘Do-Gooders’ who he believes fixed the 19th century’s version of ‘broken Britain’’. This has important implications for the viewer. Rather than seeing these ‘do-gooders as interfering busybodies’, they are encouraged to consider why these people believed that they could ‘personally make a difference.’ Indeed, we are told, ‘the achievements of enlightened characters’ from the Victorian period ‘may just have something to teach us in the 21st century.’ 

Figure Two: Ian Hislop’s Age of the Do-Gooder

Hislop encouraged his viewers to become postmodern do-gooders. The message was clear: our Victorian forefathers should become our role models. This was not overlooked by the shows viewers either. One viewer noted on The Daily Mirror’s comment board: ‘Well done Ian Hislop – very thoughtful programme what lessons can be learned for today’s self-centered and secular society. Looking forward to your next episode.’ [Corrections to spelling and grammar see Simon; 2010].

Yet many of Hislop’s do-gooders will be familiar to us as lecturers, historians and students of the nineteenth century. Hislop’s ‘forgotten’ ‘heroes’ included the well-known William Wilberforce, Octavia Hill, William Gladstone, W.T. Stead, Dr. Barnado and Robert Owen and the lesser-known Charles Trevelyan, Thomas Wakeley, Joseph Livesey and George Dawson. Typical of the BBC’s Londoncentrism, most of these ‘do-gooders’ worked in the metropolis, and their philanthropy was of a particularly eye-catching variety because it was focussed on the well-publicised areas of temperance, sex and the welfare of children. What Hislop presents is a mythology of Victorian philanthropy rather than a history of it.  

BBC documentaries are not the only means by which the Victorians have been brought back to life during the ‘big society’ debate. Those who oppose Cameron’s vision have also re-used Victorian imagery in their attempt to undermine its credentials. Political cartoons, for example, have been used to dress up the present political scene in the garb of the Victorians. Cameron was cast as little boy blue in one Daily Mirror caricature accompanying Tony Parsons’s article ‘David Cameron’s Big Society is doomed to the dustbin of history’. In this cartoon Cameron is dressed up as a Victorian boy in a two piece suit, white frilly shirt and big blue bow. His childish nature is emphasised not only by this clothing, but also by physical attributes – red cheeks and big blue eyes. He wears Victorian clothing not only to emphasise his ‘mediocre brain’ but also his out-of-touch and rather aloof attitude. As a former Etonian and Oxford graduate, Cameron has been criticised as not being a man of the people. This is shown by the fact that he is unable to distance himself from Victorian ideals. He only has eyes for the parrot representing the big society which seduces him by asking ‘who’s a pretty boy then?’ However, the plumage of the parrot is missing, signalling the emptiness of the ‘big society’ as a concept. As Tony Parsons explains: ‘his Big Society vision has always been destined for the dusty bin of history’ but until Cameron’s ready to admit this then he is going to continue to flog his dead ‘big society’ parrot.


Figure Three: David Cameron, depicted as little boy blue, for Tony Parsons’s, ‘David Cameron’s Big Society is doomed to the dustbin of history’, Daily Mirror 19th February 2011.

Another interesting example is Matt Buck’s cartoon ‘‘True Futility’: After du Maurier’ (Tribune; July 2010). What interests me about this cartoon is the way it recasts George du Maurier’s 1895 Punch cartoon “True Humility” for a twenty-first century audience. Buck was drawn to du Maurier’s cartoon because of ‘the comedy of manners’ represented in it (Buck; 31 May 2011). In Buck’s version we see Cameron recast as the Bishop, and Steven Hilton (the architect of the big society) and Lord Wei (advisor) recast as the bishop’s wife and daughter seated around the breakfast table, with a curate and domestic servants in the backdrop. Buck suggests that du Maurier’s cartoon

….was a useful piece of visual iconography for attempting to unravel Prime Minister Cameron’s messaging about the Big Society. Specifically, the politeness or meekness of conservatism (the behaviour not the political party) and which I argue is widespread in the UK. Cameron seeks to leverage this behaviour and exploit the deference represented by the curate (Buck: 31st May 2011).

In du Maurier’s original cartoon, the curate is too polite to admit that the bad egg that he has been served is inedible. In Buck’s cartoon, though, we see a subtle alteration to du Maurier’s original ‘comedy of manners’. The curate is able to proclaim to Cameron and his big society gurus ‘that parts of it [the big society] are excrement’. Buck argues that this statement was added at the end because ‘the gentility of the image demanded a little piece of vulgarity to finish it’ (Buck; 31st May 2011). While the setting is the same, social convention has changed between 1895 and 2010. In Buck’s image the curate is able to express his strongly worded doubts over the big society. While Hilton and Wei look on with what appears to be a hint of vehemence, Cameron looks on his guest with glum indifference. The message in the two pictures is ultimately the same, then. The good parts of a bad egg are not enough to redeem it. In this way, suggests Buck, the big society- the new curate’s egg- will never be a success. 

Figure Three: Matt Buck’s cartoon ‘‘True Futility’: After du Maurier’ (Tribune; July 2010)

Figure Four: George du Maurier, “True Humility” Punch (1895).

As a Victorianist I am intrigued by the recent development of aligning the big society with the Victorians. I’ll continue to keep my eyes open for these re-imaginings and re-workings of the Victorian big society not only because they enliven my morning newspaper reading but also because they provide an interesting glimpse into how people outside the academia understand those who I immerse myself in on a daily basis.    

Thanks: I would like to thank you Matt Buck for sharing his thoughts on his ‘True Futility’ and for agreeing to let me publish parts of his email. More information on Buck and his cartoons can be found at


BBC (18th May 2010), ‘Cameron and Clegg set out ‘big society’ policy ideas’ BBC News (accessed 8th May 2010). 

Buck, Matt. (31st May 2011) Email correspondence.

Joyce, Simon., (2005) The Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (Athens).

Parsons, Tony., (19th February 2011) ‘David Cameron’s Big Society is doomed to the dustbin of history’, The Mirror [Accessed 8th May 2011]

 Simon, Jane., (29th November 2010) ‘Ian Hislop’s Age of the Victorian Do-Gooder’ The Mirror [accessed 8th May 2011]

Thatcher, Margaret., (16th January 1983), ‘TV Interview for London Weekend Television Weekend World (“Victorian Values”)’ Margaret Thatcher Foundation [accessed 9th May 2011]

Watt, Nicholas., (19th July 2010a) ‘’Big society’ will transform rural Britain, says trekking Tory MP’, The Guardian [accessed 8th May 2011]. 

____________, (19th July 2010b) ‘David Cameron reveals ‘big society’ vision – and denies it is just cost cutting’, The Guardian [accessed the 9th May 2010].

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