Summing Up and Looking Forward
Thank you for inviting me. This has been an interesting conference and the theme is very topical and important. It’s not always easy to bring this topic to life: there’s a welter of theoretical material on civil society and a lot of contesting and debate about what it means and how to actually do it. There is a serious danger of this being a very dry sort of topic, as a result, but I think we’ve managed to make this a lively and very much current couple of days.
Jonathan Chaplin’s introduction was very helpful in kicking things off by setting out his helpful typology: Oppositional, Protective, Integrative, Transformative. His analysis began of course with the question of the Big Society and whether or not this is the same thing as civil society. One of the problems of Big Society is that it comes precisely at a time when there is so little funding around to support the sorts of civil society activities which are envisaged. Some would suggest that it is precisely because there’s no money that civil society is needed: I think what government has in mind is associations and networks of local people doing things which have for some time otherwise been done by state. In the absence of money, civil society will provide instead. But as Jonathan so helpfully began to unpick, civil society can take a variety of forms and some of those need government and state to be involved – to support civil society actors by providing infrastructure and an economic and social context in which they can flourish. A key challenge in the coming years is how that civil society activity will take place in a context of financial stress and distress, especially in areas which are already very poor. How will people in those areas find the time, let alone the money, to run all those incredibly important services which local areas need – not just libraries and leisure centres, as in Jolanta’s model of ‘leisure civil society’, but also more critical services such as hospital car services for elderly people, homelessness projects, drugs and alcohol addiction drop-ins and the like? It may be easier for people in wealthier areas to fill the gaps – to do their civil society duty. But those in the poorest areas will struggle, and the state is not going to be there to help. Jonathan suggested too that Christianity may have more to offer than money! And I think that is certainly true. In the 1980s the Faith in the City critique went a long way in challenging the political status quo, even if it was arm-twisted to some extent, and mightily complained against by Norman Tebbit and others. But its legacy resonates right down to the present as a moment when the Church of England acted as a civil society body to challenge the state.Continue reading “Summing Up and Looking Forward”