The Industrial Revolution and the two world wars of the 20th century were periods when civil society flourished in the UK: the state was unwilling or unable to cushion the stresses in society, and people had to join together to do things for themselves. Self-help, often with scarce resources, was the order of the day.
Are we entering a similar period now? Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, posed the question in a lecture given in a personal capacity at the Cass Business School this week and answered it with an emphatic yes. "We have reached a point where it is essential," he said. "Crudely put, civil society has to double in size, or more."
The analysis in the pamphlet he was presenting, Voluntary Action: A Way Forward, identifies two main problems. The first is that many citizens, after a decade of austerity, feel abandoned, impoverished and neglected by government. Some communities feel they have nothing, which might have been a factor in many of them voting to leave the European Union in an attempt to be heard, for once, by the political establishment.
The second problem is that public spending restraints and demographic change mean that expectations of social and health services are not going to be met by the state alone. The transition in recent years to market-based, contracting models of delivery is unlikely provide a solution, and attempts to engage private capital through social investment have limited prospects.
Etherington’s proposition appears to be that both problems can be addressed simultaneously if citizens become "co-creators of outcomes", where civil society takes a leading role in the form, governance and delivery of public services. Local communities are strengthened and empowered as institutions are democratised, local answers are developed to local questions, and citizens – to coin a phrase – take back control.
This cannot happen without resources, however, and Etherington proposes wide reforms in the financial framework of civil society. These would include a reassessment of how Big Society Capital makes unclaimed assets available and mobilisation of unclaimed assets from the public and charitable as well as the private sectors. He suggests developing community foundations into match-funded "shared-society funds" and converting the Big Lottery Fund into an independent, endowed foundation.
All this would be accompanied by a change in the institutional framework of civil society, most notably the evolution of the Charity Commission into a regulator for all the various not-for-profit entities that now exist, ranging from charities to community interest companies and B corporations. Tax reliefs, much as in the US, would vary according to the degree of public benefit provided.
The wide-ranging proposals in this pamphlet have been produced by Etherington in a strictly personal capacity, drawing on 40 years of working in the sector. Some are ambitious and complex, such as sweeping away much of existing charity law; some are easy and could be done overnight, such as raising the status of volunteering by fully integrating the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service into the honours system.
But nobody expects that much will happen in the short term, given the government’s preoccupation with Brexit and preserving its fragile majority.
Instead, many sector leaders have accepted that they must play a waiting game, hoping that the government after next, say, will once again be open to constructive reform of civil society, as the Blair government was in 1997. Etherington’s pamphlet is not the only review under way – he enumerated another six, of various kinds, including the heavyweight Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society, led by Julia Unwin. But it is one of the first, and its strength is that it pushes the boundaries by picking up recent strands of thought and practice and hardening them into a set of radical, interconnected proposals. At a time when government and political parties seem devoid of fresh thinking, it certainly fills a gap.
Stephen Cook is contributing editor at Third Sector