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Post-Brexit Britain needs a strong civil society

By various authors 13 April 2017

DAN CORRY is Chief Executive of NPC. He was previously Head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and Senior Adviser to the Prime Minister on the Economy from 2007 to 2010.

PROFESSOR GERRY STOKER is a political scientist, with current posts as Chair in Governance at the University of Southampton and Centenary Research Professor of Governance at the University of Canberra, Australia. He has provided advice to various parts of UK government and to the governments of several other countries.

Dan and Gerry have just published a provocation paper The ‘Shared Society’ needs a strong civil society: A progressive agenda for change, which argues that civil society needs bolstering, re-prioritising, and outlines how this can be achieved. Here they summarise their thinking.


Today is Maundy Thursday, a day rooted in ideas of charity, loving one’s neighbour and so on. The Queen will give out silver coins, ‘Maundy Money’, a tradition going back to the days of Charles II. But when an act of charity like this is simply a ritual, taking place on a special day, what does that ritual represent? What action does it inspire on every other day of the year? Does it represent a society that truly believes in mutuality, connectedness and supporting one another? Or is it just hollow ceremony?

We have now experienced a decade of austerity with cuts to public services and benefits, constraints on real wage growth, and economic stagnation in many towns and cities. With these trends interacting with the continuing pressures created by an ageing population, and a younger generation facing tough times, we have a recipe for societal anxiety and division.

As the campaign and vote for Brexit showed, we are divided across geographies, background, and attitudes. Prime Minister Theresa May has floated the idea of the Shared Society as a way to tackle these divisions. But there is a great danger that the ambition behind that phrase will not be delivered. That it’ll be the next ‘Big Society’, David Cameron’s big idea that bit the dust pretty fast.

We think that progressive supporters of this idea need to push the debate beyond sloganeering and towards a real agenda to drive change. This agenda goes way beyond making the case for charities and philanthropy, citing their good works and bemoaning the fact that life is tough for them. Charity is exemplified not just by the rich(er) giving to the poor(er) in a way that will always feel somewhat paternalistic and patronising. It is about embracing civil society as the foundation of mutual solidarity and mutual aid—a deeply progressive idea.

So a future-looking agenda needs to re-frame the case for civil society—because the sector will require public support to obtain the new investment it requires to build a Shared Society. And, in something that the sector itself seems to find hard to do, it will also need to acknowledge the weaknesses of civil society and do something about them.

We need to recognise what civil society does, and put it at the center of our thinking.

We need to acknowledge where the British people are and what civil society already does. Civil society organises us. Many of its constituent parts are tiny, doing good work with a small number of people in need, with just a few volunteers and little, if any, funding. Others are larger, working at scale, employing people and raising substantial funds, providing key services to the public. In aggregate, many millions are involved, bringing meaning, purpose and agency to their lives and those of others. For that reason alone civil society needs to be celebrated.

We should be cheering on the human adaption and inventiveness that civil society delivers. Civil society is progressive because it lets people act both individually and collectively to define and meet their needs and those of others. It pools resources, it is sensitive to difference and it is responsive to needs. To create a post-Brexit Shared Society the dynamism of civil society must be boosted.

We need to see the world through the eyes of the citizen not the bureaucrat or technocrat. Let’s not organise ourselves with bureaucratic boundaries or business models or unfair and cumbersome contracts that civil society cannot deal with. Let’s take the sense of place and community that people have and build through that.

We need to value the third sector as a force that, by its very existence, challenges the consumerisation and marketisation of our society. If all we know is regulation or markets in the long-run that will condition and limit the range of our human engagement. Civil society is a vital counter-balance to a world where both bureaucracies and the search for private profit have grown too strong.

To give civil society this boost we need action across a number of areas.

We need moves in a whole host of areas, some familiar to those in the civil society world, some new and more controversial, so that we end up with a different resonance in our policy direction.

Support from government for the Shared Society

Whitehall needs to change itself to support the Shared Society. We want a powerful body with status similar to that of the Low Pay Commission—which supported the introduction and progress of the Minimum wage—to make recommendations on ways that the government could support the sector better. In addition we want a dedicated civil society Cabinet minister and team with strong leadership in all key departments too. And a civil society policy test so that at all stages we would ask: could civil society help achieve this rather than the state? And what does this policy do to civil society?

A seat at the table of governance locally

We need to make it part of every unitary local and regional government set-up to have a third sector chamber or other means of bringing on board the voice of voluntary organisations. The new mayor-led metro local governments could be a great starting point for experiment with democratic innovations in this area. All public services should have a published and scrutinised strategy for consulting and involving civil society at all the levels in which they operate.

A new improvement regime

The Charity Commission should retain its role as regulator and data source. But we need to create a new style of improvement agency to help promote good practice and stamp out bad practice using enhanced data capability and case studies. One priority is ensuring that there is enough support for civil society, especially in areas that suffer from a lack of it—often, but not always, in more deprived areas.

The right to a voice

This is the moment to maximise citizens’ capacity to speak truth to power. Government may say that the restrictions brought in, like the Lobbying Act, should not stop this. But it has undoubtedly had a chilling effect on the sector. This leads to an unhealthy world where a key part of a pluralistic democracy is not functioning as it should. We need a convention or charter, policed by a new Civil Society Ombudsman, that guarantees the right for charities to speak out, and that blocks attempt by governments to stop this.

A boost for social capital in the digital age

There is also a case for simply encouraging more civil activity and activism. The digital age—increasingly populated by digital natives—opens up new opportunities and a different connective way of organising. A way that relies on ‘people in a crowd’ communicating and coordinating in the here-and-now about issues, and agreeing to move from their personal stories of concern to take joint action. For civil society umbrella organisations and funders the challenge is to be open to, and to resource, this more spontaneous and dynamic forms of mobilisation. The key will be to both engage digitally and to create a Shared Society that operates offline as well as online.

A major civic infrastructure fund 

Practically, covering the core costs of charities and community groups and their infrastructure bodies—like the local CVS—is very hard to raise private money for or get grant givers to support. There must be a national funding pot so that we can provide the infrastructure needed by the sector. A sum of £1bn, for instance, would be relatively small fry in the great scheme of things, but would make a big difference to our ability to secure social capital.

We need to put civil society at the centre of our thinking—and not see it as an added extra or a way to pick up the pieces left by the market and the state. Civil society can be disorganised and unfocused but it is also one of the best hopes for delivering the sense of solidarity, cooperation and mutual respect that is so vital to Britain in a confusing post-Brexit world. This is an ambitious programme of reform but it could really shift the way that British society works and start a move towards a genuinely shared—and progressive—society.

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