ARTICLES Civil society and the Brexit opportunity

Chris Beckett/CC

Civil society and the Brexit opportunity

The ancients defined ‘politics’ as the art of living in cities. How could large numbers of people, not related to each other, co-exist peacefully? The answer was to develop institutions, resembling the families or kinship groups of the countryside, combining economic with social functions: churches and guilds, businesses and trades unions, charities and community groups. Out of the competition and collaboration of these institutions a civil order arose, and drove the prosperity of the West.

Everywhere formal politics is polarising; a shallower, shoutier discourse is taking hold. This is matched by the decline in formal engagement with the institutions of society: membership of churches, trade unions and political parties are at their lowest on record, and falling. But beneath these headlines, another set of trends is flowing the other way. Party membership may be falling, but political activism is on the rise; and while people may not belong to traditional religions or trades unions, they are building alternative – and rather similar – communities of their own.

Beneath the shouting, a radical consensus is forming. It is founded on the fact that for most people, belonging trumps freedom and people are prepared to sacrifice liberty in exchange for order. The problem is the sort of order they choose. When offered protectionism or free trade, state control or private enterprise, more and more people choose the former options.

Could it be because this is the only choice on offer – the only proclaimed alternative to a world where people feel increasingly rootless, disconnected and alone? What if there were a different offer, another way of giving people a sense of order, of something to belong to – a politics which doesn’t erect walls at borders or force society into the straight-jacket of state control?

This is the radical consensus: ‘consensus’ because people from across the political spectrum are signing up to it, and ‘radical’ because it threatens a lot of assumptions behind the status quo. It consists of some sensible-sounding principles: invest in prevention not just cure; devolve decision-making as close to the affected population as possible; mix funding to spread costs and spur innovation; give people agency and responsibility by empowering them to manage their own services, whether as individuals or communities.

So far, so Liberal Democrat. But the Lib Dems will never do it and – on current form – neither will the other parties. Because the real implication of these principles is to bust open the monopoly of Whitehall and create a rich distributed economy of independent associations and businesses responsible for social welfare.

In each area of domestic political priorities, civil society has a big part of the answer. The obesity epidemic and the mental health crisis both cry out for effective healthy activities, supported by the statutory system but provided locally through independent agencies – as we are beginning, slowly, to see with the social prescribing movement. As Rohan Silva argues, affordable housing could be provided through Community Land Trusts. Refugees are best settled via community sponsorship. Looked After Children, ex-offenders, addicts and the homeless all need the sort of support which society, not the state, is best at. As we saw after the Grenfell Tower fire, the local social sector, not the council, is the real infrastructure of a community.

I said ‘everywhere’ formal politics is polarising – but not quite everywhere. This weekend Angela Merkel is expected to cruise to a fourth election victory, showing that in Germany, at least, the centre is holding. Among the many reasons for this, detailed by Matthew Elliot and Claudia Chwalisz in their paper for the Legatum Institute, is that the post-war German political tradition has a high degree of resistance to populism. Part of this is due to the role of civil society in managing local civic life; as Lord Glasman (a Labour cheerleader for the radical consensus) has argued, the German model gives people at all levels of society a sense of agency and common cause.

Liberty is in fact the friend of order; freedom and belonging are necessary, if often awkward, bedfellows. Socialism and nationalism flourish when neither free markets nor civil society are properly understood and promoted; when people lack a sense of home, they respond to appeals for a fortress.

The Government’s vision for Britain should rightly be an open, global, trading nation; but also a place where people want to live, raise their families and know their neighbours. Getting this balance right requires national leadership and vision, but it also requires a thousand local accommodations, mediated through social institutions.

In this regard at least, Brexit can make us more German. As the Charities Finance Group has shown, recovering control over VAT means charities will be able to claim back hundreds of millions of pounds a year; ending the EU State Aid rules means non-profits and charities can be preferred in commissioning. These two things alone herald a renaissance in the British social sector and a vast new market for social enterprise. If the Government would press on with localism and transfer more assets and services to community groups, we could yet see the Big Society (called something else, no doubt) become real.

This article was first published at Reaction