On 18th July 2013, Baroness Prosser led a debate in the House of Lords on the future of civil society. The Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastiar Redfern, spoke during the debate. The Bishop concern that as the traditional elements of civil society – family, nation and church – had become weak, civil society had become an elective exercise and that people now had to be persuaded to come together to create the energy and momentum for human flourishing.
The Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness for securing this debate. I shall pursue the definition that the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, began to open up in his speech with the notion of the three legs of the stool and what civil society means. I start from the presupposition that we live in an age of liberalism in the technical sense; that is, we are very concerned for the individual to be free, and to be liberal about all those freedoms. Those freedoms are very good things, but any good often creates a problem.
I want to preface what I am saying with some words from TS Eliot. He said that the danger in liberalism is that it releases energy rather than accumulates it. It releases energy and then it is difficult to gather it together, because everybody is free, to make the building blocks of a civil society. He said that it relaxes rather than fortifies. The more we create rights, the bigger the problem with what we call cohesion. The more we are concerned about individual good, the bigger the problem with the common good. The more people have individual freedom, the more chance there is of becoming isolated, lonely and marginalised. It is very important to debate the civil society at this time when we desperately need energy to be accumulated around people for their well-being and flourishing and not dissipated into people being atomised on their own. The Government want to work with civil society—for the state to co-operate in accumulating energy for good things to happen. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations defines civil society as when,
“people come together to make a positive difference to their lives, and the lives of others”—
accumulating energy, making a positive difference to their lives and the lives of others.
I think, however, that we have to remember the historical context in which we seek to reaccumulate energy for human flourishing and public well-being, and I suggest that there are a couple of layers of civil society. The historic one is the institutions that existed between the individual and the state: the family, where there was a negotiation around gender and generation; the nation, which was a mix of kinship groups and regions; and the church, a spiritual hinterland that people explored and shared. Those three sites of civil society—the family, the nation and the church as a symbol of a spiritual hinterland—were not something that anybody chose; you were just born into them and negotiated your way within those frameworks. You started off with an accumulation of energy, in Eliot’s terms, through the family, through kinship groups and regions, through a spiritual hinterland.
Today, energy has been so liberated that civil society is now an elective exercise: people have to be persuaded to join together to create the energy and the momentum for human flourishing. The traditional bits of civil society—the family, the nation and the church, which gave a big framework—have got very weak. The Government desire a big framework for us to operate in so we are scrabbling about to bind people together for a common energy in something about which it is very difficult to persuade people, certainly beyond the local.
In my own experience in Derby and Derbyshire, where I work, the Government are inviting elective groups in civil society to co-operate with, as we have heard, the provision of services and well-being in the community. National charities are coming into our local area to bid for contracts and do the dealing—because they are organised, like the private sector, in a large way—and local charities are suffering, withdrawing and retracting, and the energy is dissipating. On the private model you need big-scale operations and the large charities are coming in to take the ground. That is very dangerous. The local is where you are in touch with people enough to understand what is going on in their lives, to listen to the stories of the homeless or whoever, and to focus the accumulation of energy appropriately to help people flourish and have the care and support they need.
There is a real danger that in trying to reduce big government we may be setting up big civil society. Civil society needs to be quite local and small-scale in many ways. If we set up a big civil society of big successful groups which can bid and deliver contracts all the local voluntary energy and connection is going to be marginalised and disappear. That would be catastrophic in many local communities. We need to encourage local civil society—small-scale civil society that people can elect to join. We need to remember that that kind of activity is committed to human flourishing, not to the delivery of services. It is a big framework, like the one that the family, the nation and the church stood for. People who get drawn in to civil society through their own choice want to share their values with others. They want to improve life on a big scale; they do not just want to deliver services and get a good return so that they can keep doing it. The Government somehow have to create an atmosphere of encouraging aspiration and idealism as well as instrumentalism in the design and delivery of services.
I want to raise three issues for the Minister to comment on. First, how will the Government endeavour to fortify the foundations of civil society—the traditional ones of the family, a sense of a nation and a sense of a spiritual hinterland? That is a big aspiration that excites people. They want human flourishing for themselves and for others and not just a narrow service delivery. Secondly, how will the Government help to encourage the smaller, more local agents of civil society and not dissolve big government into big civil society? Thirdly, how will the Government help civil society to be about human flourishing—the accumulation of goodness, in Eliot’s terms—and not about a more pragmatic, problem-solving exercise in trying to pick up the problems in society, rather than about raising human spirits in the way that civil society has always done and needs to do if it is to be a proper part of the three-legged stool that we have just heard about?
Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Government response): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby asked how we maintain or revive the traditional pillars of civil society. I am not sure that that is entirely the role of the state. The state can do some of that, but it is certainly something that the churches themselves should be playing a very large part in and reminding us of. I am happy that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury talks about the church providing real moral leadership to the nation…