An exploration into the future of civil society in England inspires the same in Scotland
The Civil Society Futures project, run for the last few years by Julia Unwin and concluded in late 2018, is something we have been tracking in A/UK from the beginning. It was a searching post-Brexit consultation, across England, on what civil society might mean in such a divided and polarised time. And whether those organisations who thought it was their domain were really serving their “civilians” properly.
Note the term “England”. CSF follows a trend among recent commissions and reports into the “state of the nation”, which recognisethat Scotland , Wales, Northern Ireland - and England - have their own national agendas and powers.
Particularly in relation to Scotland, there’s been a presumption that whatever this space between market and state called “civil society” is, it must speak in its own voice. (The Gathering, the yearly convention of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, has just concluded another expansive event, with the Scottish First Minister and delegates from across the globe).
But inspiration catches fire where it will. And we’re delighted to see that the Civil Society Futures report is inspiring a similar initiative in Scotland too.
Julia Unwin, Chair of the inquiry into the future of civil society in England which reported at the end of 2018, captures its essence:
‘Civil society involves all of us. When we act not for profit nor because the law requires us to, but out of love or anger or creativity, or principle, we are civil society.’
Put like that it starts to make a lot of sense. And SCVO’s state of the sector survey, published this week, is a reminder of just how much it matters. There is a strong sense of economic, social and political uncertainty and yet civil society remains resilient and optimistic — confident of its worth.
Civil society is the glue that keeps us together in the everydayness of our lives. It can be small and local or national, even global. It might involve running something — or just running; being online — or going line dancing; cycling to keep fit — or recycling to save the planet. It might be tight-knit — or a knitting circle; sprawled across the country — or a rambling group.
It’s young, old and everything in between. It can be about protesting, but it might just as well be having a laugh. In myriad ways, without us even noticing, civil society is who we are and what we do. We might not remember joining it, but we’ll be a member nonetheless. Probably several times over.
Civil society includes what came to be known in the late 20th century as the third sector. But it’s far more than that. It exists in its own space — our space. It’s also, of necessity, connected to other spaces — public, private, religious, political — and more. Sometimes it’s dependent, sometimes fiercely independent. Often both.
But as Graham Martin reminded us this month in Third Force News, civil society is also under attack across the globe. It’s shrinking in the face of rapidly advancing reactionary forces. And it’s too precious to lose.
The findings of the English inquiry are many — and thought-provoking. Most significantly, it found that precisely because we’ve never needed it more, none of us, particularly if we are in positions of power and influence, can afford to be complacent. And that, with the world changing around it, civil society needs to change too — around four key principles — power, accountability, connection and trust.