Is it time for England to emulate the Nordic civil society model?

Robin Wilson
28 August 2017
Why civil society? In today’s complex and fast-changing societies, the state can neither be all-knowing nor all-powerful. There is thus a strong case for non-governmental organisations to provide grounded information and activist voices, and to act as critical partners in policy implementation. This is the idea of civil society as the ‘public sphere’, in which NGOs provide a rich fabric of associations modelling the good society, as developed by Michael Edwards in his book Civil Society. The late Ulrich Beck argued that politics in today’s world can be understood in terms of a struggle for control of the state between capital and NGOs. This shapes the environment in particular states in which third-sector organisations operate. Civil-society organisations are important to democratic governance because they can bring specialist knowledge and experience to bear on public policy and introduce an element of pluralism. Yet the historical trajectory of the UK state has constrained the third sector in England in ways which suggest it is worth scanning the northern European horizon for models to follow. Britain’s peculiar statehood A peculiarly strong residual aristocracy in Britain led in Victorian times to a response to the dislocations of the industrial revolutions characterised by an emphasis on a condescending ‘charity’. This was embodied in the Charitable Organisation Society, which took a paternalistic, ‘improving’ attitude to the urban poor, with Edmund Burke’s fragmentary ‘little platoons’ providing the model for the former Tory leader David Cameron’s short-lived notion of the ‘big society’ – to match a state stripped by austerity of responsibility for universal entitlements. This in turn led to a visceral commitment in the labour movement, as it emerged in the early 20th century, to state solutions to social problems. Whereas elsewhere in Europe social-insurance funds, established to deal with workers’ risks like unemployment, tended to be administered in a manner involving the trade unions, the 1911 National Insurance Act made this a state monopoly. Similarly, when the National Health Service was established in 1948, friendly societies to cope with health needs at time of crisis were supplanted. The UK welfare state thus sidelined the third sector in the name of a Fabian public-service professionalism. From the other side, the entrenched position of the City outside government and the Treasury within it historically gave financial capital an ear in the corridors of power which NGOs lacked. The associated ‘light-touch regulation’ of markets left the UK with few social buffers against the effects of the 2008 financial crash. The predominant feature of the third sector in England has thus been its subordinate role – with organisations providing specific forms of welfare as clients of the state, eking out a niche filling the holes of an increasingly fragile safety net or offering radical alternatives largely outside the political mainstream. Under Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ regime, there was more support for the third sector, conceived of as a partner in service delivery. But research commissioned by the Carnegie UK Trust Inquiry into the future of civil society, published in 2009, nevertheless spoke of ‘a rather embattled sector attempting to promote the values of social justice’. Under the Conservative-dominated governments in the UK since 2010 civil-society organisations have found themselves under even more pressure. This has stemmed not just from cuts in public spending but from the way large-scale, predatory, generalist corporations, such as G4S and Serco, have been able to take over contracted-out services with the most basic, one-size-fits-all offer – their interests aligned with their shareholders rather than those of diverse, vulnerable users requiring flexible and responsive provision. News from elsewhere The political history of particular states also explains the trajectory of the third sector in other European countries. In Germany, Bismarck famously sought to solve the ‘workers question’ in the late 19th century by establishing a conservative, state-regulated social-insurance system for employees. Beyond this, welfare functions, such as social care, came to be provided by six Free Welfare Associations (Freie Wohlfahrtsverbände), enmeshed with the state. Including one Catholic, one Protestant, one Jewish and one left-wing, these employ more than a million staff and are generously funded. But public welfare funding is no longer restricted to these six associations and the diversification of German society has meant that other faith-based organisations, notably Muslim, have appeared on the scene. There is little tradition in this context of third-sector organisations playing an independent, activist-based advocacy role. And while civic engagement has come into fashion, the English word ‘engagement’ had to be appropriated to refer to it (Bundesnetzwerk Bürgerschaftliches Engagement). France has a constitutional set-up dominated by the state and historically suspicious of civil-society associations coming between the state and the individual citizen: shortly after the revolution of 1789, legislation outlawed corporations and workers’ or professional associations.  But since the 1960s the state has engaged increasingly in partnerships with third-sector organisations in the delivery of social services and, to a lesser extent, health and education. This has been enhanced by legislation devolving power from the traditionally centralised state to local government. Austerity in the wake of the financial crisis however saw state and local-government funding for associations reduced and public subventions replaced by competitive tendering, following the UK example. But meantime, coming from the political left – most publicly associated with the former Socialist head of the European Commission Jacques Delors – a new concept had been developing of civil society as the sphere of ‘the social and solidarity-based economy’ (l’économie sociale et solidaire). This was formalised in a 2014 law of that name, which has favoured a renewal of subsidies and partnerships, and the insertion of social clauses into public tenders. The Netherlands presents a paradox. It has a huge third sector yet there is no Dutch translation of the phrase ‘civil society’. The explanation lies in how in the Netherlands religion provided a political cleavage cutting across social class. The Netherlands emerged in modern times as a ‘pillarised’ society, with third-sector organisations carrying out major public-service functions in the different religious pillars of society, though these have gradually dissolved. That meant they were vertically integrated into the state, but it also meant they tended to lose their distinctiveness. And in particular it came at the expense of the horizontal networks among NGOs and activists that make for a vibrant civil society, which is today fragmented and lacking in a shared identity. The erosion of welfare entitlements has seen public day care for elderly and disabled individuals replaced by voluntary provision, which can be experienced as demeaning by users. The Nordic model On the wider European canvas, Sweden’s third sector stands out for its activism and volunteering and, as a subordinate element, its social enterprises. Influenced by the country’s social-democratic history, which has constrained capital through a strong state and strong civil society, this has been described as the ‘popular mass movement model’. The ‘movements’ embrace the traditional labour movement, which played a formative role in the emergence of Sweden’s post-war, universal welfare system, and the new social movements of the 60s – the women’s, environmental and peace movements – as well as consumer co-operatives, sporting and educational bodies. Indeed, the Swedish word for popular mass movements (folkrörelser) is much more commonly used than the phrase ‘third sector’. Key aspects are open and active memberships, transparency in the operation of the huge associations, a high degree of formal internal democracy and fairness, and generous access to public policy-making as well as funding. Relatively speaking, in the Nordic model, and here Denmark is as good an example as Sweden, voluntary organisations working in welfare provision – such as social care – play a minor role, because of the commitment to the welfare state. And the paid third-sector workforce is relatively small, because of the strong commitment to volunteering. The tradition of the third sector in Denmark and Sweden, unlike the philanthropic UK version, is of a civic commitment to equality and democracy, and an allied co-operative movement. The Swedish word for ‘charity’ (välgörenhet) acquired a negative connotation during the 20th century, with welfare coming to be understood as a matter of civil or social rights. And even the non-movement aspect of the third sector in Sweden predominantly comprises a member-based mutual or co-operative social economy, rather than Anglo-American style welfare providers. The Nordic model shows why it is wrong to pit the strong society against the strong state, as if the latter worked against the former, as Cameron implied – quite the contrary. In Denmark, voluntary organisations have been promoted by the state, partly as places for learning basic democratic skills. In Sweden, citizens are on average members of around three associations and the country has a particularly strong co-operative heritage. Moreover, Swedish associations have historically operated on the premise of the active member – rather than one, say, sending off a payment to Greenpeace as a conscience-salver. Volunteering then becomes a dimension – even a duty – of membership rather than merely unpaid employment. Around half the population between 16 and 74 years volunteers and, of those, seven out of ten are also members of the organisation concerned. This is not to say that everything is rosy for the Swedish third sector. Membership activism, though still very high in comparative terms, has fallen since the 1990s, indicative of an erosion of older organisations and the emergence of new bodies to which members may merely pay for services or make donations. There has also been a trend towards a ‘contract culture’ in Sweden. Denmark has exhibited a marked growth of voluntary activism in recent decades. There are trends, though, there too towards a more instrumental relationship between members and associations. In Sweden a sense of participation and having a stake is promoted by involving the institutions of civil society in policy-making. The mechanism is provided by governmental commissions (statliga utredningar) focused on a particular issue, including with a view to preparing legislation. Civil-society organisations are not only consulted in the work of the commissions but can provide experts, both internal (sakkunniga) and external (experter), for their deliberations. This not only allows ministries to have very small permanent staff. It also provides the institutional linchpin in a system of democratic governance involving a mix of civil servants, politicians, academics, experts and representatives of relevant civil-society organizations. When such formally independent commissions produce their report, there is a consultation process (remiss), where the document is issued to all affected organisations. Their responses – indeed, those of any interested individual – are all included in the final version of the report, which can then be the basis for government to draft a bill for the parliament to consider. So serious is this process of engagement that it thus may take up to six or eight years, or even longer, from the appointment of the commission to any consequent law being enacted. By the conclusion of this process, a substantial social consensus behind the law tends to have been gathered. On top of the commissions, whose historical dominance has faded, there are specific avenues for influence which allow the ethos of the third sector to permeate the state, through close collaboration between the popular movement organisations and a friendly state apparatus. The popular movement organisations in Sweden have often been described as ‘schools for democracy’. And, outside of conventional state education, there is an adult-education system (folkbildningen) of educational associations and folk high schools, which are run by, or linked to, the popular organisations. A Popular Mass Movement Council (Folkrörelserådet) was established in 1989 to promote these organisations’ collective policy agenda. In 2002 a Forum for Popular Mass Movements (Folkrörelseforum) followed, to foster dialogue between the government and public authorities on the one hand and the movements on the other. There has been a gradual dilution of the popular-movement model across the Nordic countries, however, in recent years. This has been described as a shift ‘from voice to service’, as civil-society organisations have moved into service delivery, and, relatedly, ‘from member to volunteer’, as members have become fewer and more passive. And as ‘business’ talk has increased, the normative drive of civil society has diminished. Nevertheless, there are enduring features of these societies, which mean to speak of a Nordic civil-society model still makes sense. Speaking for England The Nordic model, even if less distinctive than before, provides much food for thought for the third sector in England, in terms of both its aims and its activities. It implies a renewed emphasis on the membership base of organisations and a recognition of the huge resource that that offers for volunteering and active campaigning in times of financial stringency. Not all organisations can, should or will reinvent themselves as ‘popular movements’ but there are elements of the model which they can appropriate. For many third-sector organisations, membership is something of a formality and the annual general meeting a necessary evil for senior management – with the professionals left to run the organisation, with little scrutiny from their boards, from day to day. It is then unclear, however, how those professionals add value to what the same individuals would do in a statutory agency and the distinctiveness of the third sector becomes blurred. Amid the daily scramble for enough resources to keep the organisation afloat, it is easy to lose sight of the potential of investment in an active membership. Of course, there is a risk of activism being reduced to mere ‘clicktivism’ in a world suffused by the internet. But if Oscar Wilde supposedly quipped that the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings, the scope today for widescale online engagement in genuine deliberation, as well as for crowdfunding of resources, does make membership-driven organisation less of a collective-action dilemma than before. It is also interesting that the second, subordinate element of the Nordic model comprises not grant-funded organisations but social enterprises. And the old consumer co-operative tradition in Scandinavia is being revamped in arenas of social care, for instance in parent co-op kindergartens. Amid a tightening financial screw, if voluntary organisations can behave more like social enterprises – and the number of the latter has grown in England in recent years – this can provide independent revenue streams and so enhance the autonomy and responsiveness to users that make such organisations perform at their best. In the absence of such a broader and deeper understanding of the role of civil society in today’s world, and in particular in the Nordic countries, further superficial fads, such as Blair’s ‘Third Way’ or Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, are likely to come – and go. Returning to Michael Edwards, a recent article by an expert on civil society in England concluded that his notion of civil-society organisations working for the public good within a rich public sphere was ‘not part of the policy agenda … at the present time’. That is the challenge of change.  
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