This is a very important moment in historical terms. We have not merely witnessed – and participated in – the near collapse of capitalism. We are also seeing a new political consensus formed around the concept of ‘society’.
It might have been regarded as self-evident and uncontestable that society exists and is a positive thing – it is, after all, the basis of civilisation and community organisation. And that might have remained the story if we had not gone through the bizarre and damaging experience of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher – ‘There is no such thing as society!’.
Now, though, the Conservative Party not only accepts the concept of society, but applauds it and wants it expanded into the ‘Big Society’. It is an ideological position change whose significance should not be underestimated. The damage caused to communities and the co-operative and mutual sector – in particular to building societies – by Thatcherism is difficult to overstate.
While it is not clear that the electorate is convinced by the Big Society notion (nor is this writer, who fears it is facade for cutting the cost of local government and the funded voluntary sector), the development of cross-party support for civic society is not only important, but marks a decisive break from the worst elements of the Thatcher era.
Happily the blueprint for the new approach to civil society has now been published – and recognises, as would probably all readers of the News – that co-operatives and other mutuals sit at the heart of strong civil society.
‘Making good society’ is the result of detailed consideration by the Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland’, chaired by Tony Blair’s former senior policy advisor, Geoff Mulgan. The report restates the arguments why strong civic society is a good thing and also puts forward policy suggestions for how to strengthen society, including greater support for the role of mutuals within society. Taken together with the recently published Mutuals Manifesto, we have a set of policy ideas that, if adopted by a new government, could help to put co-operatives and mutuals back at the heart of both society and the economy.
It is worth reminding ourselves why civil society needs to be strong, especially at this moment in history. “Civil society was born out of the idea that we do best when we work with others, and when we understand our interests as shared with others,” says Mulgan. “That idea is more relevant than ever in an interconnected world.”
Mulgan expands: “The short-term push to strengthen civil society comes from the coincidence of three crises: the financial crisis and its economic effects, which have sharply reduced the status and confidence of market liberalism; the ecological crisis, which has moved centre-stage as never before in the wake of the Copenhagen Summit at the end of 2009; and a crisis of political confidence, particularly in Britain, because of an accumulation of events, including most recently the scandal of MPs’ expenses.”
The potential offered by the groups covered in the Commission’s report, argues Mulgan, “add up to a radical vision of how our society could grow, not just in material wealth, but in social wealth too”.
Mutuals are placed by the Commission at the heart of this debate – and the decline of some types of mutuals is a major factor in the decline in the capacity and significance of society, they suggest. While the creation of the Welfare State was the product of well meaning intentions and played an essential role in reducing poverty and inequality, it had a serious and negative impact on the ability of society to organise collective systems of social protection via friendly societies and other mutuals. Similarly, the willingness of banks to offer mortgages in competition with building societies was part of the process that destroyed not only much of the mutual sector, but also the health of our economic system.
As one witness put it to the Commission, the problem is that now people are part of an economy, not part of a society. But if society can be a player in the economy – via the mutual sector – then this can be an important counterweight to the monopoly power of big business. It can also improve the accountability of markets and challenge vested interests found on an overlapping basis in politics and business. The Commission hints at the greater importance of this role given the financial demands on the state that will force it to remove itself from several markets where it has participated – this might, one guesses, include social care, some healthcare provision and leisure services.
We now have the opportunity to rebalance the economy through more engagement in it from civic society and a re-strengthened role for mutuals. “This is an opportunity to reshape the financial system, not just to avoid future crises, but also to align it with values that emphasise responsibility, good governance, human well-being and environmental sustainability,” says the Commission. “We advocate growing a more civil economy, which requires a bigger direct economic role for civil society, as well as more open and responsible practices in the rest of the economy.”
Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK, is very happy with the emphasis on co-ops and mutuals in the report. “It’s very welcome that the inquiry explicitly built on co-operative and mutual sectors within its definition of what makes for a good civil society,” says Mayo.
“What is visionary in the report is the focus on the economy, rather than seeing civic society as about after-hours volunteering and church attendance, it is actually looking at the way that social movements and civil society change the world in which we live. In today’s world that above all means markets – because more of our lives are lived out in commercial relations and markets than ever before.”
As Ed hints, a strong society requires a strong co-operative and mutual movement to sit at its heart. It is excellent news that recognition of this is becoming a point of political consensus. Let us hope that the destructive approach shown by Margaret Thatcher can never re-appear.
“Civil society has long been directly involved in economic activity. In the 19th Century, strong friendly societies, consumer co-operatives and building societies developed new financial services to meet the needs of a rapidly urbanising population. Today, civil society remains involved in many areas of the economy, including retail supply chains, such as fair trade and the trade justice movement, energy production, and health and social care. Social enterprise has increased significantly, and in the UK is estimated to have a combined turnover of £24 billion a year. The co-operative movement has a turnover of £28 billion.” Extract from the Commission report.