When I was 15, I got into a bit of a stushie with my mum and dad. A couple of years earlier I’d become a member of my local church. I sang in the choir and edited its children’s newsletter, Small Talk.
It was all going swimmingly until my running coach at school suggested I join an athletics club. I was excited, but there was a problem. That meant training on Sunday mornings.
It was the first time I had to make choices about which bits of ‘civil society’ I wanted to play in. But it wasn’t until I studied Hegel at university a few years later, I knew ‘civil society’ had a name.
Mention the term ‘civil society’ out on the street, and whether it resonates is pot luck. Which, in one sense, is odd. Because it’s something we’re all part of. But whether it’s a term that’s widely understood – of the community rather than merely the commentariat – is a moot point.
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.
Julia came to Scotland last summer to talk to a Scottish audience about her English findings. The resonance was unsurprisingly strong. Many of the challenges faced by civil society in Scotland are no different.
But Julia’s report doesn’t claim to be about — or for — Scotland. So we can’t treat that resonance as knowledge. To know what’s really happening here — what’s working and what’s not, what’s broken and how we can fix it, we need to go on our own journey.
While the context described in Julia’s is achingly familiar, there are real differences too — of scale and geography, regulation and politics. Structurally and relationally, we have distinct challenges and opportunities in Scotland.
Julia came back to Scotland this week — to the Gathering — and the debate was no less stimulating. The engagement at the event she spoke at – alongside Ewan Aitken of Edinburgh Cyrenians, Rhona Cunningham of Fife Gingerbread and Adam Lang of Shelter – demonstrated that thought leadership is alive and kicking across Scotland — it’s not top down.
So what can those of us who are interested do to harness this energy? Since last summer some curious people and organisations in Scotland have been having been talking about just that — what can be learned from Julia’s work and how it might be tested and developed for the current Scottish context.
Collectively, they’ve committed to investing in an initiative to explore this in more detail — and I’m thrilled and privileged that they’ve asked me to lead it.
I’ve been immersed in civil society ever since that teenage stushie. I’ve kept on running and been in and out of a fair few churches too. I fought for gay rights in the 80s, joined a host of local management committees in the 90s — and so the story went on. Right up to the present day — chairing the board of SAMH at one end of the spectrum, helping my husband with Pittenweem in Bloom at the other.
I’ve long experience of the buzz when things happen and the frustration when they don’t — sometimes because they’re stymied by the system or we’ve run out of energy and ideas — or both.
I know people across Scotland — just as elsewhere — are sometimes sceptical about interesting conversations that don’t make a tangible or sustainable difference on the ground. So I share the determination of its backers that this initiative won’t fall into that trap.
They are also clear that it mustn’t start from a set of predetermined outcomes — that it must seek to include, encourage new thinking and be open to challenge to understand what needs to change. Importantly those making the initial investment — financially and otherwise — are not seeking to own it.
It’s still at the exploratory stage — it doesn’t even have a name yet. Everyone involved in the conversation so far is only too well aware that no matter how obvious it is when you spell it out, the term ‘civil society’ is a bit niche! So is there a better, more accessible, way to catch it?
I don’t come with the answers either. I’m acutely aware that there’s a rich fabric of existing work that needs tapping into. And that the initiative can’t be them and us — civil society and the rest. Because it’s all of us; government and business, in all their many guises, need to be stakeholders too. I’m also committed to ensuring that voices too seldom heard are part of the conversation. We must talk to each other — as well as ourselves.
So over the next few months, I’ll be getting the initiative underway — by asking some basic questions.
What do we know already? What might a Scottish inquiry look like? Who needs to be involved and how? How can we ensure it’s about implementation as well as aspiration, doing as well as understanding, action as well as research? How can we make sure — from the start — it’s something that makes a lasting difference?
Previous conversations show we know a lot about what needs to change — and yet we often feel stuck. It’s time to break the log jam.
If you’re interested and have thoughts, get in touch at email@example.com