Ephen Scotland’s Global Crisis – towards a civil society response?

Ephen Scotland’s Global Crisis – towards a civil society response?
Stephen Maxwell, SCVO


Why is civil society important?

Civil society has three functions: a social function, providing channels for social cohesion; a political function, holding Government to account and contributing to policy making: a normative function, setting standards by which government and society are to be judged and improved.  Each of these functions has a crucial role in determining civil society’s response to the current multilayered crisis.


The challenge

Some cultural analysts argue that crisis is the natural condition of modern societies.  But few of them can have envisaged the perfect storm of overlapping crises which the world now faces. 


At least five crises now coincide – the global economic recession, the degradation of the global environment, the persistence of mass poverty and the intensification of inequality,  a diverse security threat encompassing the rise of terrorism and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a toxic combination of eroding state authority and an intensifying assault by the state on civil liberties.


In Scotland as in most other countries civil society organisations are already engaged on all these fronts.  But do their disparate responses match the scale and complexity of the crisis?.  Would civil society have a greater impact if it was able to coordinate a response? 


There is plenty of scope for debate on the roots of the multiple crisis, most importantly on whether the crisis has a systemic cause or discrete causes.  (Probably the leading candidate for a systemic cause is inadequate regulation of economic markets in the public interest: other cited causes include the triumph of individualism at the expense of solidarity, the loss of community, the changing role of women).  But in this context the critical question is whether there is enough agreement about the required response to support coordinated action.



The spectrum of action

Responses can be grouped along a continuum between mitigation, reform and transformation.  Mitigation is the traditional role of charities.  Examples of action in mitigation of the current economic crisis include support for the victims of increased unemployment, for example counselling and employability programmes; of the poverty crisis, income maximisation measures including benefits advice and support for credit unions; of the civil liberties threat, support for legal aid and support networks; of the environmental threat, home insulation and the promotion of alternative transport options.  In respect of the security threats and the loss of state authority voluntary action has little to offer by way of mitigation but an important role to play through reform.


Reform offers wide scope for action by civil society.  Action for reform typically takes the form of campaigning for changes to existing institutions or policy but also embraces direct provision of new or improved services both as a response to social need and to set the standards for public purchasers and other providers.   Civil society action for reform has been particularly impressive on the environment both in direct services such as home insulation and recycling and, in recent years, in community energy and campaigning (where the distinction between reform and transformation is often tenuous).  Campaigning for reform is also the typical mode of civil society action on poverty and inequality where the focus has usually been on changes to the tax and benefit systems.


Civil society’s agenda on reform of the economic system is less developed except in respect of the international trading and debt systems where international groupings of development NGOs have run some coordinated campaigns notably Make Poverty History which have succeeded in attracting a high level of support from across civil society.  The response to the current economic crisis has been less impressive with few attempts by any significant portion of civil society to develop a shared position on such issues as long term job creation programmes let alone the future structure and regulation of the financial sector.


 In the UK there is a vigorous civil society campaign in defence of civil liberties though it is institutionally weak in Scotland.  By contrast action on the nuclear dimension of the security threat is reasonably vigorous in Scotland where it is supported by a significant spread of civil society.  Action for reform of the state has been intermittent in recent decades though the various Constitutional Assemblies, Commissions and Conversations in Scotland have supported a continuing stream of interest and work.   At the UK level the crisis of authority at Westminster as crystallised in the expenses scandal has started a new round of debate on wider political reform.


Transformation provides the greatest challenge for a coordinated civil society response.


Does Scottish civil society have enough of a shared agenda to go beyond traditional charitable mitigation or discrete reforms to tackle some of the alleged systemic causes of the crisis?  Among the core elements of a shared ‘transformational’ response by civil society to the global crisis might be:


Promotion of an official Index of Well Being and Sustainability to replace GDP as the official measure of growth


the entrenchment of measures of social added value in public reporting and auditing processes


the adoption by Government of explicit targets for the reduction of inequalities of income and wealth supported by a specified programme of actions 


structural reform of banks and other financial institutions(for example the division of retail and investment banking); stricter  regulation(for example tighter capital/lending ratios, limitations on bankers’ bonuses)


state help to develop a parallel  financial system focused on using deposits to finance house building and home  purchase, basic credit, business investment below certain thresholds.  (Higher volume business investment could be provided through a public or part public Development Bank and a public bond issuing trust could be created as an alternative to the commercial markets as a source of public infrastructure investment)


rebuilding mutual institutions including credit unions; continued support for social banks; using Post Offices as the basis of a local bank network.


increased carbon taxes in support of tighter targets for C02 reductions; switching infrastructure investment from road to rail; mass insulation programmes; improving public investment in alternative energy; investment in  carbon capture


opposition to an independent UK nuclear deterrent (and to nuclear weapons’ bases in Scotland)


a redefinition of civil liberties in a Bill of Rights within a Written Constitution based on the principle of popular sovereignty


the Constitution to extend the rights of citizens as voters, users of public services and members of local communities (for example by providing for citizens’ initiative referenda, specific rights for service users, increased autonomy for local authorities and for local communities)


reform of electoral systems to improve representativeness and of legislative procedures to increase Executive accountability to elected representatives and to maximise  public access.


an international aid and development agenda focusing on the most urgent social and environmental needs of the less developed countries within a global trading and financial system which recognises those countries’ right to decide for themselves such macro issues as the role of financial markets and the balance between public and private provision, and the promotion of human rights.



Ways forward

Civil society could attempt to develop a shared platform at any of these three levels of response (or a combination of them).  However the scale of the crisis and its multiple dimensions surely points the sector towards the transformational end of the spectrum.


The first step would be to test whether Scottish civil society or any substantial section of it can agree a common platform.  One critical question would what balance to strike between general ambition and detail.    It will be difficult enough to reach agreement on general objectives but a platform restricted to general objectives will lack impact.   The credibility of the platform will depend on being able to demonstrate some agreement on means as well as objectives.


Another question is how an initiative by Scottish civil society would relate to the UK and Scottish constitutional dimensions.   Most of the objectives and means could be advocated within either or both of the two dimensions.  However two of them would need to be explicitly referenced to the different dimensions.   There is a particular Scottish dimension to the issue of the UK’s nuclear weapons status and a particular Scottish option for challenging that status.  And the proposal for a Bill of Rights/Written Constitution based on popular sovereignty has particular Scottish implications.  Devolved Scotland does not have the authority to adopt its own constitution.   A Scottish civil society platform would have to be explicit on the constitutional implications of these two issues at least.


But perhaps the prior question for Scottish civil society is not whether it would be able to reach agreement on a common response to Scotland’s global crisis but whether it has the ambition to try.