One of the great, if unsung virtues of devolution

John Osmond says a new IWA report records a transformation of Welsh civil society

Civil society is thriving in Wales, according to a report we are publishing today. Defined as occupying the space between the state and the market, civil society’s reach extends to the voluntary sector, the co-operative economy, education and broadcasting.

Our report Growing Wales’ Civil Society has contributions from 18 activists involved in different dimensions of Wales’ civil society, ranging from the co-operative economy, to environmental organisations, the political parties and the press and media. The report was prompted by the findings of the Carnegie Trusts’ Commission of an Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland, Making Good Society, that was published in March last year. The aim of our study was to ask how the Carnegie findings relate to the emergence of Welsh civil society following a decade of devolution.

A SWOT analysis

Tomorrow we publish an analysis of the strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats facing Welsh civil society. It has been written by Mark Drakeford, Professor of Social Policy and Applied Social Sciences at Cardiff University who was First Minister Rhodri Morgan’s health and social policy adviser between 2000 and 2010. Professor Drakeford attended the four seminars that led to today’s publication and provides his verdict on what he heard.

Growing Wales’ Civil Society is available from the IWA at £7.50 with a 25 per cent reduction for members.

In October 1998, just ahead of the first elections to the National Assembly, I concluded a pamphlet on the emerging new politics in Wales by claiming they were about creating a new democracy and a new civil society to make the democracy work. Today’s report provides evidence that what has now become Welsh civil society is engaging with our still fledgling democracy in ways that are stronger than I dared hope a decade ago.

An important instance is the input and influence that civil society organisations have in policy development. This has been transformed over the past decade. As one contributor to our report, Conservative AM David Melding remarks, when he first became involved in putting together policy for his party’s manifesto in the early 2000s, engagement with the third sector, where civil society organisations reside, was limited.

Looking back Melding says that the third sector’s skills in pushing ideas and new thinking were severely underdeveloped when the Assembly was established. Since then, however, he says the situation has turned around. In the run-up to the 2011 Assembly election all the political parties received well over 100 written responses from the third sector. As Melding says:

“We have held over 50 follow-up meetings at which the sector has lobbied skillfully and with great purpose. Ideas are more practical and focused and the sector is generally comfortable about influencing the political process.”

There are more than 30,000 third sector organisations in Wales while more than 1.5 million people volunteer. Wales has 5,000 town and community councillors. There are 1,809 schools, of which 1,500 are already registered as eco-schools. Meanwhile, the Welsh co-operative economy, which includes everything from farming co-operatives and credit unions to employee-owned businesses and community co-operatives that run village shops and pubs, is worth around £1 billion pounds and employs more than 5,000 people.

All these organisations and people constitute Welsh civil society, occupying the growing space between the state and the market in Wales. The coming of the National Assembly a decade or so ago was not just about the creation of a new democracy in Wales, it was also about the creation of a new civil society to make the democracy work. Rhodri Morgan put his finger on it in his foreword to a book Civil Society in Wales (University of Wales press, 2006), where he wrote:

“As well as horizontal devolution – spreading power and responsibility more widely – we have to have vertical devolution as well. I have sometimes tried to sum up this dimension by describing our devolution settlement as a shift from crachach to gwerin, from government by a self-replicating élite to a new engagement with a far wider and more representative group of people, women and men, people from north and south Wales, Welsh speakers and not, black people as well as white, and so on.”

What I believe the report we publish today demonstrates is that we should no longer be talking about civil society in Wales, as the title of that 2006 book states, but more straightforwardly about Welsh civil society. That we can do so is one of the great, if generally unsung, virtues of the devolution process.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

One thought on “One of the great, if unsung virtues of devolution

  1. On reading this article, there appears to be a massive misconception of the definition of civil society.

    The concept of civil society is used to examine the role of the state. It became particularly useful in analysing the transition of dictatorships to democracies in Southern Europe in the 1970’s and Eastern Europe in the 1990’s (it will also be useful in analysing the success or failure of the Arab Spring). The concept when used in these scenarios did not exclude the market. Why would they?

    Civil society marks the space between the state and individuals and their families. Civil society is the arena where individuals form relationships with other citizens without being ‘coerced’ to by the state. These relationships are formed outside of family relationships with comparative strangers. Examples of civil society include clubs, associations, independent media and any group outside the control of the state (schools don’t count because they are part of the state). A vibrant civil society develops trust, solidarity and tolerance, according to Robert Putnam, by individuals compromising with others to achieve benefits for all. Robert Putnam (the most well known present theoretician on civil society, see ‘Making Democracy Work’ and ‘Bowling Alone’) does not exclude the market. Neither does John Keane, De Tocqueville, Thomas Paine, Hegel or Ferguson. It is only Marxist theoreticians such as Gramsci, Cohen and Arato who make a distinction between civil society and the economy as they see the market as a threat to civil society. I don’t think the authors of this report and article have excluded the market for this reason.

    So why has the market been excluded? Maybe the fact that 70% of the Welsh economy is within the scope of the state doesn’t fit this rosy picture.

    Civil society is not thriving in Wales. The media in Wales is incredibly weak, political participation is worryingly low and the majority of people either work for the state or are indirectly paid by them. Instead of fixing the evidence to suit the argument we should recognise the problem in order to help fix it.

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