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Are you ready to be civilised?

Mark Easton | 13:31 UK time, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Whichever party wins control of the Commons at the election, we must expect that it will attempt to reinvigorate civil society, a concept that "for a century or more...has been pushed to the margins by commerce and the state", according to a report out this week [3.30MB PDF].

Houses of Parliament

It is fairly common ground at Westminster that power-hungry government has invaded civic space and weakened the community bonds which are required for society to function well.

As the philosopher Francis Fukuyama put it more than a decade ago: "There was a period when social scientists assumed that modernization necessarily entailed the progressive replacement of informal coordination mechanisms with formal ones."

The notion that officialdom should, instead, step back and encourage people to shape their own lives and neighbourhoods has now become the consensus.

Back in 2002, Tony Blair outlined his vision for Britain. "Out goes the big state. In comes the enabling state," he said. David Cameron said something almost identical last year. "Our alternative to big government is the big society," he announced.

While Gordon Brown told the TUC last year how "civic society will have a crucial role to play", the Conservative leader was arguing that his party would empower "communities to take control of their lives".

This is more than positioning around the old left/right argument about the size of the state. It stems from a generally-recognised view that Whitehall is pretty ineffectual when it comes to making our neighbourhoods work successfully.

The document I referred to above, the rather grandly-named Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland [3.30MB PDF], suggests that reports of the death of community spirit may have been greatly exaggerated.

"By most measures, civil society in the UK and Ireland is thriving," it concluded, ensuring that the report received far less publicity than it rightfully deserved.

What the Commission was attempting was to help guide people on how to nurture and encourage civility and community. It identified four priorities:

• growing a more civil economy
• ensuring a rapid and just transition to a low carbon economy
• democratising media ownership and content
• helping to develop participatory and deliberative democracy

I won't rehearse the arguments here; do read the report [3.30MB PDF]. But the optimistic tone the Commission adopts may well understate the challenge.

In the first half of the 19th Century, the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "when citizens are all almost equal, it becomes difficult for them to defend their independence against the aggressions of power".

For all the inequality embedded into the fabric of Britain, our developed democracy has far less tribalism than 20 years ago.

"We're all middle-class now", John Prescott joked in 1997 as he surveyed the "post-ideological" political scene. Without strong class or party identities, we are now preoccupied with our private lives and families.

"The vice of modern democracy is to promote excessive individualism," Fukuyama argues, "and an unwillingness to engage in public affairs".

Politicians may promote this by persuading citizens to see themselves as consumers of public services arguably - a passive condition which is at odds with active civic life.

When, last week, the chief inspector of constabulary Denis O'Connor argued that the police should do more to deal with concerns about anti-social behaviour, there was criticism that he risked weakening rather than strengthening community life.

If the citizenry is encouraged to believe that creating a "good society" is the responsibility of the state, the argument goes, then we do indeed promote excessive individualism.

Man clearing his pathway of snowWhen the big freeze hit parts of the UK earlier this year, I remember watching a lawyer on the local news warning viewers against clearing ice from the pavement outside their homes. The message was that the street was the responsibility of the council and private individuals could face an action for damages if they interfered.

While the legal risk may have been overstated, here was evidence of how public space has moved from a category marked "ours" to a box labelled "theirs".

One could argue all day as to whether this is the fault of government looking to expand its sphere of control or a citizenry happy to pass the buck, but without an effective civil society there is less to protect individuals from the power of the state. It also risks infantilising people with the belief that the quality of their lives is the responsibility of someone else.

One more thing to think about - what we call "community action" often amounts to little more than special pleading: "interest groups trying to divert public resources to their favoured causes" as Fukuyama puts it.

The American economist Mancur Olson famously argued that Britain's long-term economic decline was due to the activities of entrenched interest groups.

Loyalist mural, BelfastSocial capital - the scientific measure of community cohesion - has been divided into two types: one is about bonding within social groups and the other is about bridging between social groups. As the social scientist Robert Putnam told me a few years ago: "A society that has only bonding social capital and no bridging social capital looks like Beirut or Belfast or Bosnia."

When this week's report on civil society concludes that it is thriving in Britain, it also notes that "civil society associations are not a panacea and are not all necessarily 'good' as they also preach intolerance and violence as well as love and generosity".

There is the challenge. If our political masters are serious about empowering the citizenry, encouraging and trusting them to take responsibility, they must be able to spot the difference between "bonding" and "bridging" and also between individualism and communitarianism. Get it wrong and we risk damaging civil society even more.

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