Defending civil society against Big Society commentary

Although the Conservative Big Society ideas got some early support from social activists, this was swallowed up in the general political knock-about, and also challenged by those doubting how far people have time and enthusiasm for volunteering and other forms of involvement. This rather muted the appeal of the Big Society Network, who aim to appeal across all interests, whoever is elected. It also made it difficult to have a non-partisan discussion about the benefits of greater citizen involvement. It’s obvious we are going to see big cuts in local services whoever is elected, so we had better get thinking – as I’ve just reported on this event.

The response of Big Society Network co-founder Paul Twivy and others has been to invite social entrepreneurs and other supporters of the  broader ideals for civil society to sign a letter for publication this weekend. 

Social Enterprise offers a pre-publication view and chance to join in:

Social Enterprise is joining a growing number of social entrepreneurs and others from the voluntary and community sector in supporting the role of civil society.

We’ve added our name to a letter campaigning for people and politics to recognise the importance of ‘working together’ and the role of the community, which is being sent to the national media this weekend.

The letter states that campaigners have been taken aback by the opposition in the press and elsewhere to the role citizens can play in our country, partly generated by pre-election discussions on such areas as the ‘Big Society’.

They go on to quote the letter in full, inviting anyone who want to signup to send name, organisation and contact details to

Dear Editor,

We are writing to express our concerns over criticisms of civil society that have been generated by politicians and followed by some commentators in the course of debating ‘The Big Society’.

People have said ‘there is no such thing’ and that ‘there is little appetite’ for greater citizen involvement in Britain and that ‘it cannot be done’. These comments go beyond politics – by criticising in this way, people risk undermining the very notion that civil society could or should play a role in public life.

Instead of attacking civil society, we believe that we should focus on how we can help people to work together and take part in their neighbourhoods.

There is a real public appetite for getting involved – a recent PoliticsHome survey found that the majority of people (55 per cent) would be interested in seeing more community involvement and less state involvement in improving the quality of life in the UK, and only 20 per cent surveyed said they would not have the time to get involved.

Citizens can and should be allowed to be active in their community by participating in local groups to make simple but significant changes in their square mile every week and not just every five years – for example by lobbying to get new pedestrian crossings put in to save children from being killed, by forming neighbourhood watch groups to tackle crime, by deciding the spending priorities of their local council.

Even in relation to more complex challenges, while it can be tough for citizens to run hospitals and schools single-handedly, they can and should – with help from social enterprises as well as the state – have much more of a say and be allowed to deliver and commission aspects of local services where they can and where there is demand.

But the current debate about civil society is about much more than a discussion about the roles of the state and society, and how the latter if it is strong and healthy can be a complement for and not a replacement for the other, helping to lessen the human impact that inevitable cuts in public spending may have on communities. It is also about our interactions with each other and about how we can reverse the decline in active group membership as well as in our local and national democracy.

Regardless of your voting intentions – and we are writing from bipartisan and apolitical perspectives – we believe that it is important to uphold the notion that civil society could and should play a vital role in the nation’s future and will stand together to pool our energies and resources to make this a reality regardless of who is in power in Parliament after 6 May 2010.

Yours faithfully,

Alex Watson – Social Entrepreneur
Alison Rodwell – Social Entrepreneur
Ben Lee – Social Entrepreneur
Daniel Snell and Emily Shenton – Arrival Education
Duncan Cheatle – The Supper Club and
Jackie Hill-Wilson – G-ten at Ten Lifestyle Management
Julia Ogilvy – Project Scotland
Katie Ivens – Real Action
Malcolm Scovil – Leap Anywhere
Marcus Booth – Travers Smith
Paul Twivy – Social Entrepreneur
Peter Gardner, and
Rob Owen – St Giles Trust
Simon Jay – Lift Community Trust
Stephen Dawson – Impetus Trust
Steve Moore – Policy Unplugged
Steve Wyler – Development Trusts Association
Tim West – Social Enterprise magazine
Titus Alexander – Novas Scarman Group
Tony Burton – Civic Voice
Tracy Blackwell – Pension Corporation
Yinka Makinda – Social Entrepreneur

Update: The letter was published by the Telegraph here

Previous posts on Big Society and Big Society Network here