Making good society

Geraint Talfan Davies says that the Carnegie UK Trust report on the future of civil society has a striking relevance for Wales

There is something refreshingly positive about the report on the future of civil society in this country, published this week by the Carnegie UK Trust. In the middle of a multi-faceted crisis – in our financial, political and media institutions, and in our management of the environment – the report strikes a blow against gloomy fatalism, and in favour of those social organisations that sit between the twin powers of government and the market.

The report – Making Good Society – describes the continuing vitality of civil society, even in the face of hubristic corporations and endlessly controlling governments, and while alert to weaknesses, it underlines the increasing relevance of diverse civil society organisations to our economic resilience, to the preservation of a plurality that is a condition of freedom, and to the maintenance of the voluntary energies that will be essential to any effective response to climate change.

There is, of course, a paradox in the fact that while citizens are very ready to express their powerlessness faced with the forces of government or major corporations, many of those same citizens sustain no less than 870,000 formal civil society associations in the UK, organisations with assets of £210 billion. These figures do not include thousands of additional informal community groups. Why, therefore, should we worry?

The authors point the weakening of smaller organisations compared with large ones, to a blurring of values as some organisations have sought growth as their primary objective, and to the way in which growing inequality has widened the gulfs that separate people. Importantly, they see the economy and the media as two areas in relation to which civil society has become notably weaker.

Civil society organisations – whether they be UK-wide or local charities and campaigns, community organisations working to alleviate distress and disadvantage, or arts and sports organisations – will face increasing strain in the coming years as public expenditure cuts begin to bite. In Wales some will also feel the effects of the certain end of European convergence funding. In the face of this the report reasserts the value and values of civil society and the powerful contribution it can make to shaping and improving society and the economy and, in the words of the Commission Chairman, Geoff Mulgan, to making “the transition from an age of ‘me’ to an age of ‘we’.”

The report outlines four areas in which civil society can make an increasing contribution, all of which have a striking relevance for Wales:

Some might be surprised that the first area it identifies is the economy, but then it points out that the turnover of the co-operative movement is £28 billion, and the turnover of social enterprises a further £24 billion. The work of civil society, for example, has been crucial in the development of consumer protection and employment law. The report sees an opportunity, therefore, ‘to re-shape the financial system, not just to avoid future crises, but also to align it with values that emphasise responsibility, good governance, human well-being and environmental sustainability.’ The economy needs a greater diversity of ownership models not just as a public good in itself, but because it increases the resilience of the economy. Just look at how mutual building societies have fared better than equity-based organisations in the current crisis. Mutual, cooperative and other not-for-profit models are certainly set to play a growing role in the economy.

The report envisages a stronger civil economy in which ‘citizen investors’ have a more effective voice, in which ‘social’ finance grows, not only through innovative new local financial institutions but also through encouraging a new commitment by institutional investors to invest 2.5% of their assets in social enterprises. In Wales, just imagine the effect of applying 2.5% of the combined assets of all Welsh public sector pension funds to social enterprise in Wales. It could be transformative.

In the wake of the current financial crisis, where we have seen the result of the reckless and at times criminal pursuit of short term growth, we would do well to remember that the public seems to have a greater appetite for radical change than government and political parties. A switch of emphasis to the sustainable, long-term growth of businesses pursuing worthwhile rather than meretricious purposes, is what that public cries for, needs and deserves.

The second area of opportunity for civil society that the report identifies is in tackling climate change. It argues that ‘neither state nor market action will be adequate to meet the challenges, nor will they ensure that the costs of climate change and resource scarcity are fairly distributed.’ It says that civil society beyond the green movement needs to be activated, not only because an active civil society will produce a fairer end result, but also because civil society will be more effective than government in mobilising people and changing hearts and minds.

The third area is one on which the IWA itself has laid great stress in recent years – media ownership and content. The report argues that a thriving civil society has always been dependent on free, strong and critical media. And yet, just as that need has been underlined in Wales by the development of a new democratic institution, we have seen newspapers close, television services shrink, and the overall investment in journalism decline. Wales has been at the sharp end.

Overall in the UK, it says that ‘the media have drifted away from their public and civic role, losing sight of their importance to democracy and social change. Commercial pressures have often pointed them towards the cult of celebrity rather than achievement, towards a shallow consumer culture in place of investigation, and towards a casual approach to truth and accuracy.’

It calls for policy and financial commitments from government to grow local and community media, the protection of the free, open and democratic nature of the internet, greater support for organisations that monitor and maintain media standards, the protection of the BBC and the licence fee (although with the BBC working much more collaboratively), and for innovation in funding mechanisms to support diversity and integrity. On this last point it argues that policy-makers have shown little imagination and cites opportunities for tax concessions, industry levies, and other ways of supporting local multi-media websites and news content creation by civil society associations. It also urges philanthropic organisations to give greater priority to supporting such initiatives.

For the IWA this part of the report was immensely encouraging coming as it did in the same week as we launched our ambitious new web-based news analysis magazine.

Lastly, Carnegie addresses the role of civil society in complementing, challenging and enriching representative democracy. The report stresses ‘that disillusionment with representative democracy is not indicative of a lack of interest in politics, but of dissatisfaction with the current system’s relationship and relevance to citizens’. There has been a tendency sometimes for government, even when its rhetoric has been different, to see its own power in relation to that of civil society as a zero-sum game.

At the same time the report acknowledges some of the risks of direct or ‘push-button’ democracy. Instead it envisages more participatory representative democracy, built on strengthening local democracy, particularly at the neighbourhood level, re-fashioning Parliament by persuading it draw on the innovations made by the devolved institutions, reinforcing rights to dissent, resisting the temptation to restrict freedom in the name of security, investing in the civil society organisation to increase their skills in organising wider deliberation methods, developing leadership skills and ‘bridging institutions’ that can cut across divisions of race, faith and class and, lastly, harnessing the potential of the internet.

All in all, it is a heady agenda, but it is one very much in tune with public attitudes which, in the wake of the combined effects of the financial crisis and the scandal of MP’s expenses, feel frustrated at the nervous conservatism of the political system. As the parties head noisily but timorously towards the General Election, they should remember that a sceptical public’s dream manifesto would be more likely to be authored not by party hacks but by a combination of the economist Joseph Stiglitz, the social democrat historian, Tony Judt, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, the Chair of the Financial Services Authority, Lord Turner, the sainted Vince Cable and now the Carnegie report. It would be radical agenda, but one of hope and re-engagement.

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