What can civil society do?


Now is not the time for measured diplomacy.

Now is not the time for measured diplomacy. Now is not the time for hiding behind computers, issuing another petition, and staying in your echo chamber. Now is not the time for silly stunts wearing fancy dress. Now is not the time to be looking at the balance sheet and urgently sending out some Chuggers into the street, to acquire “supporters” in a half-hearted effort to respond to the complete upheaval of our times.

Civil society has been asleep at the wheel, and the train crash we’re now witnessing is the inevitable result. As civil society got ‘professional’ it lost its connection to the very people it professes to try to support. Civil society, to a large extent, has become a shadow of its former self, at times little more than a collection of beleaguered bureaucrats, biding their time.

With our eyes closed, we’ve been slowly, quietly facing a full-on assault to human rights and progressive values. The current government has gradually curbed the freedoms of civil society through a variety of legislative means – from controls on campaigning during elections (including the referendum), to contractual agreements that mutes the voices of civil society.  Extreme surveillance, meanwhile, has just become law. Our membership institutions are decimated: in the UK trade union membership is less than half of what it was in 1979.   In the US, just 11% of people are members of a trade union.

So here we are. I hate to passively throw words away like “we have a war on.”  But we have a war on. Brexit and Trump follow naturally from the 2008 financial crisis, that’s leaving chasms between the haves and the have-nots, and washing away any civility that we’ve been building for over 300 years. The post-truth world includes a letting go of the traditions that have been around since the British 1689 Bill of Rights and the American 1791 Bill of Rights were founded.  Both are now being ripped up and torn apart and their intent – to uphold principles of fairness of all humans – erased from modern memory.  We expected it in despotic countries, but not at home.  Populism, lies and our failure to engage effectively have all brought us to where we are now.  This. Is. War.

Civil society needs to return to its roots: at its most basic and critical form, civil society isn’t a group of branded organisations, each competing with each other for a share of the charity pie.  As eloquently expressed by writer and activist Michael Edwards, civil society is the arenas in which citizens talk to each other about the great issues of the day. We need to reclaim those arenas from the digital space that has supplanted our ability to talk, to discuss, to debate.  How many conversations — I mean proper dialogue – were held in the run-up to the referendum on the real issues like immigration, refugees, employment or trade?  Few, if any. We left it to the politicians and the tabloids to shout their opinions and stir up anger amongst the disaffected.

A recent survey found that across Europe, 63% of people feel that recent political developments have increased polarisation between different sections of society in the last year.  Well no kidding.

The most important role civil society can play now is to create a sense of connection and community.  Civil society needs to shun the concepts of supporters and clients, and embrace citizenship.  It needs to connect people to their shared values getting out into the world, building bridges and spreading hope.  This is King and Mandela, not Farage.  And it needs to fight aggressively to maintain its right to do so.

We can avert the next Brexit/Trump if we dare. People will value each other, their differences and their civil society if we all learn to be more civil. And who better to lead it than a healthy, active and reinvigorated civil society.

Deborah is a partner at Jericho Chambers, working across civil society. She also writes for the Guardian on international development and civil society issues.

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