One of the features of having been around a long time, and constitutionally incapable of throwing things away, is that some half-forgotten sources sometimes come back to make new points. Sixteen years ago, the IWA published its vision for Wales in the year 2010, Wales 2010: Creating our future. In the nature of these things it makes some prescient points, while neglecting others. It’s with less than a wry smile, for example, that today’s reader comes across a powerful set of paragraphs, setting out the immediate case for electrification of the railways in Wales.
Yet, for my purpose here, one of the most striking features is that, alongside a set of issues which were barely discernable then – the rise of the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), the transformatory impact of the Internet and broadband, Objective One funding, even devolution – the document never once mentions the voluntary sector or civil society. Indeed, when referring positively to “strong partnership between all players in the economy” as one of Wales’ key strengths, those players are identified as the “private and public sectors”.
Growing Wales’ Civil Society
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A different set of archive papers demonstrate just how powerfully the arrival of devolution (another topic strangely and totally absent from the Wales 2010 predictions) was to transform this picture. Late in 1998, less than a decade later, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) published a briefing paper, setting out the results of a round table discussion in which all the main political parties in Wales set out their views on the relationship between the voluntary sector and the National Assembly. The Labour Party was represented by Ron Davies, and Plaid Cymru by Dafydd Wigley. A Mrs. Mary Taylor spoke for the Conservatives and, in an unintended echo of things to come, an Alistair Cameron represented the Liberal Democrats. The whole event was chaired by Jane Hutt, then vice chair of the WCVA – proving that some good things endure.
It was, the WCVA’s Chief Executive Graham Benfield said, a “time of great optimism” for the then 23,000 voluntary groups in Wales. The Key Statistical Data, published by the WCVA that year reported that four-fifths of the adult population of Wales, some 1.3 million people, had volunteered in the past year. With the 1998 Government of Wales Act placing a statutory obligation on the National Assembly “to make a scheme setting out how it proposes, in the exercise of its functions, to promote the interests of relevant voluntary sector organisations” the future seemed set fair.
More than another decade later, this essay offers some reflections on the future of civil society in Wales, as it appeared in the seminar sequence organised by the Institute of Welsh Affairs in the autumn of 2010, leading to the publication yesterday of Growing Wales’ Civil Society. It is important to be clear that the aim is not, at least in the first part of what follows, to comment on civil society in Wales per se, but rather to focus on conclusions which might be drawn from the seminar discussions. In an effort to keep the essay focused, it offers three strengths, three challenges and three areas for the future. And all this in a sector which, by 2010, the WCVA was describing as made up of over 30,000 organisations and groups, at least 27,000 of which were local in nature. Now, 1.3 million people were identified as volunteering in third sector organisations in Wales, with 229,000 acting as trustees or management committee members.
While the seminar sequence was designed explicitly to reflect upon the 2010 Carnegie Report Making good society, the intrusion of a General Election between that Report’s publication and the seminars inevitably created a new context for much of the discussion.
Having attended each of the seminars, my conclusion is that there is much to give heart to anyone with an interest in the health of civil society in Wales. The breadth and diversity of the sector remains striking. For each seminar a panel of genuine expertise and authority was assembled, while it was clear, from each audience, that the panel’s membership could have been replicated many times over. The impression left with this listener, at least, was of the thorough preparation, and depth of understanding, which characterised much of the discussion – matched, in many cases, by a sense of passion, as well. Civil society in Wales, as elsewhere, is characterised not simply by its scale and scope, but by the strength of commitment which it is able to evoke and mobilise to its different causes.
Another abiding impression of the seminars lies in the sense of creativity which was often apparent in contributions from the top table, and from the floor. To paraphrase Aneurin Bevan, the fundamental issues change very little over time, but they appear in new guises, and require new approaches to address them. There is a danger, in any seminar sequence of this sort, that discussion gets stuck at the first port of call, preoccupied with ever more elaborate descriptions of the difficulties, but with precious little about how they might be tackled in contemporary circumstances. To a large extent, this danger was avoided. In every session a set of ideas emerged which provided a sense of forward momentum, of a developing future agenda for civil society in responding to the issues of the economy, climate change, media ownership and content, and of democracy itself in Wales.
Finally, in this set of positive preliminaries, to note the way in which the sequence succeeded in building and retaining an audience for these important ideas. Each session drew some participants attracted simply by the particular subject matter of the day. More striking was the stamina of those who returned regularly to each one. One of the challenges for civil society, identified in the original Making Good Society report, lies in building alliances between its very diverse components, so that its influence and impact becomes more than the sum of its different parts.
By now the attentive reader may be anticipating the imminent arrival of a ‘but’. And, indeed, for each of the substantial strengths outlined above, there were some reservations which remained in place, as the sequence drew to an end.
While the ‘strength in numbers’ which the Carnegie Report identifies as a core characteristic of civil society was readily apparent in Wales, the same difficulties were apparent in reaching out to certain sorts of civil society activity. Trade union participation was at a minimum. Smaller and more local groups where, cumulatively, the bulk of civil society participation lies, are always difficult to represent in these sorts of discussions and were largely absent here. While no claim was ever made to ‘representativeness’, there are voices which went unheard.
The downside of the passion and commitment which different individuals and organisations bring to their own subject matter lies in the weakness of the sense of connection which was apparent, sometimes between speakers in the same seminar, more often between one seminar and another.
The third challenge which was apparent in the seminar sequence is one which has been identified many times over the past decade in the on-going tension for a sector which wants to be both independent and influential: to be close to government and yet maintain a critical distance; and to be both inside and outside the tent.
The Carnegie Report reflects the same anxieties. Civil society needs a collaborative, but not collusive, relationship with government. The Report suggests that this is a distinction which requires constant nurturing and even a measure of legal protection. Certainly, for Welsh participants, the tension between working closely with the Welsh Government, while resisting incorporation was one which remained unresolved, and on the surface of seminar discussions.
Reflecting on the whole of the discussion, here are three suggestions for an agenda of action for civil society in Wales, arising both from the Carnegie Report itself, and the autumn’s discussions of it.
Financial: cuts are coming, and on a scale not seen since the 1930s. The issue hung like Banquo’s ghost over the seminar sequence, only occasionally shaking its gory locks directly but always there in the room. At its worst, there were some suggestions that third sector organisations might do rather well out of the recession and its aftermath. Like vultures looking forward to a good famine, these voices suggest that civil society is well placed to pick up the pieces of a decimated public sector. The Carnegie Report itself provides the best riposte to such a view when it argues for a ‘reassertion’ of the core values of the sector, which it describes as a commitment to ‘justice, equality and mutuality’.
The dire place where things can end up, without such a secure value base, is well illustrated in Martin Shipton’s contribution to Growing Wales’ Civil Society on the state of the media in Wales. ‘Citizen journalism’ does bring a new set of perspectives, as well as new sources of information, but when it becomes a substitute for journalism proper it becomes simply a cacophony of competing voices in which volume drives out analysis and any sense of coherence. Those who think that the future for civil society is to become fat on the corpse of public services have, even on their own terms, failed to realise that in such a future, as Yeats put it, ‘the centre cannot hold’. And, without a central pillar, there will be nothing for civil society to organise around.
What is needed, instead, is some more concerted effort to work out a pan-sector approach to finance when money is in far shorter supply. There is a great deal to be learned, it seems to me, from the way in which the private sector in Wales, as the first to feel the hot breath of the recession, responded to those difficulties, hanging on to employees by whatever means could be found, rather than making redundancies. A shared commitment by civil society organisations to weather the storm by retaining as many people in work as possible, for example, would be one statement of basic principle around which a financial future might be crafted.
Political: navigating the politics of the next four years has some challenging aspects for Welsh civil society and, in particular, for those organisations which operate on both sides of Offa’s Dyke. It is entirely understandable that any body wishing to be influential will want to demonstrate its relevance to government. For the first decade of devolution, with Labour in power in both Wales and Westminster, that at least provided a single target. Now, organisations which rush loud and headlong to proclaim their ‘Big Society’ credentials, may find themselves pleasing one audience, while quite certainly alienating the other.
The terms of debate in Wales will be different and, as I would argue, more in tune with the ambitions for ‘care, compassion and hope’, which the Carnegie Report identifies as lying at the core of the Good Society. In each of the four aspects of that Report it is possible to see examples of practical action in Wales in which civil society is a core player. In growing a more civil economy, Wales has led the way in the development of Timebanking. In the transition to a low carbon economy, the Welsh Government’s £30 million Arbed scheme will improve the energy efficiency of the existing housing stock in some of the most deprived parts of the country in a way which brings the advantages of new mutualism to boost jobs, skills and regeneration.
In democratising media ownership and content, there are real challenges ahead for Wales, not least the future of S4C which was extensively discussed in the seminar sequence. But, the development of community radio in Wales, at least, meets one of the key Good Society calls for both policy and financial support for improving infrastructure at the local level. And, while devolution itself has been the single greatest step in the democratisation of Wales, the way in which it has been conducted since 1999 – direct involvement of young people in appointing the Children’s Commissioner, to cite just one example – suggests a basic sympathy to further growth in participative and deliberative democracy.
The point being made here is certainly not that everything is as good as it should be in Wales. Rather, it is to suggest that, in each of the Carnegie priority areas, the political context is one which is favourable to further gains which could, and should, be part of a future prospectus. The challenge is to respond to that context in a way which works with the grain of the Welsh way of doing things.
Strategic: in the Welsh context, one of the dogs which barked only quietly during the sequence was the potential consequences of the referendum to be held on Part Four of the 2006 Government of Wales Act on 3 March 2011. The shared position of most of those who raised this issue was that civil society interests favoured an affirmative outcome to the referendum and that it was there to be won. There was no discussion at all, as far as I can recollect, of the part which the sector might play in bringing about that outcome, or of the consequences for devolution in Wales if the referendum were to be lost.
More surprisingly, there was only scanty consideration of the way in which a successful referendum might require a recalibrated strategic approach by the sector to the newly empowered Assembly. David Melding rightly pointed out the very active part now played by civil society organisations in attempting to influence Party manifestos in the Assembly election. Yet, while the seminars amply demonstrated the successes of the sector in dealing with devolution during its first three terms, there was much less said about how that might be taken forward into a different future.
As I see it, the reason why the successful referendum result is important is that it will mark a step change in the effective status of the National Assembly as a legislature. The ability to make primary legislation in devolved fields will be freed of the more sclerotic aspects of the Legislative Competence Order (LCO) process and the Assembly will be able to make far more coherent legislation, across the range of its responsibilities. In that changed world, there are two strategic positions which the sector might usefully adopt.
In the first place, with the LCO process abandoned, the burden of scrutiny will fall entirely to the elected politicians at the Assembly. That seems to me to be right and proper, but it does mean that the questions raised during Westminster consideration will now need to be carried out in Wales. Part Four of the 2006 Act was not intended, it seems to me, to diminish scrutiny, but to relocate it. There is a powerful role for civil society in making sure that legislation which in future will be made entirely in Wales comes under as sharply focused a microscope as possible. The sorts of organisations which took part in the seminar sequence have a real expertise in their particular fields which will not easily be available to elected Assembly politicians from elsewhere. Moreover, rooted as they are in the lived experience of their members, civil society organisations have a perspective to contribute to legislation which they have an obligation, I would argue, to make effective in the new processes. Making a strategic commitment to play that part would, I believe, strengthen the influence which the sector can muster over the next four years.
The second strategic step, within a post-referendum Assembly, would be for civil society organisations to become more direct and dynamic actors in promoting legislation outwith the programme brought forward by government. Understandably enough, given its far longer history, a back-bench MP at Westminster who does well in the ballot for Private Members’ legislation is inundated with legislative ideas and, indeed, ready-made Bills from third sector organisations. Very little of that has been evident in Wales to date, but the opportunities for doing so in the future are far greater. Such a course of action will require an effort both of policy-thinking and, perhaps even more necessarily, of detailed legislative drafting. Given the opportunities which might be available after next March, it seems an effort well worth making.
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