Kwasi Kwarteng is MP for Spelthorne.
This is an abridged version of an essay first published in The Blue Book of the Voluntary Sector: Civil Society and the Conservative Party after the 2015 Election, published by ACEVO and CAF, edited by Asheem Singh and George Bangham. The full collection is available here.
The term civil society can be traced to the Latin term societas civilis, which itself is a translation of the Greek term koinonìa politikè. This phrase then forms the title of Aristotle’s great work of political philosophy, usually known in English as The Politics. Civil society relates to the activities of human beings in communities and implies cooperation and a commitment to the common good. It has traditionally been treated as a distinct social space, separate from the state, the family and the market, and covers the wide range of activities that people participate in at a local level: charities, community groups, sports clubs, women’s organizations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations and advocacy groups.
In a British context, the idea of civil society is often associated with initiatives that emerged in the Nineteenth Century when groups of people – businessmen, church leaders, local squires and others – came together to promote enterprises to benefit their local communities. During this period, millions of ordinary people also joined forces without the assistance of the state to form voluntary organizations, to raise their standards of living by saving, investing, buying and selling together. The Nineteenth Century witnessed the proliferation of mutual benefit societies, which included burial clubs, co-operative societies and friendly societies.
A crucial element of Nineteenth Century civil society was the extent to which it did not rely on central government funding. It flourished independently of state intervention at a local community level. A modern Conservative vision of civil society in Britain today takes a degree of inspiration from this model.
The last Labour government promoted a largely artificial form of civil society, highly dependent on large subventions from central government. This was unsustainable, especially when it is remembered – and it is not easy to forget – that the annual budget deficit stood at £160 billion, or more than 11 per cent of Britain’s GDP, when the Coalition was formed in 2010. Over the last four years, the Conservatives have attempted to foster civil society with a shrinking amount of money. This has been a big challenge and has forced us to think more widely about the nature of civil society and how to support it most effectively.
My constituency, Spelthorne, is a compact urban area with a population of approximately 90,000 people, covering some 20 square miles. The constituency was created by the 1918 Reform Act and was originally a County of Middlesex seat. During local government reorganisation that took place in 1965, it became one of Surrey’s eleven parliamentary constituencies. Today, it is a major residential, business and retail centre. It is home to a number of large international companies including BP, Shepperton Studios, Wood Group Kenny and Siemens. Business really is at the heart of life in Spelthorne. At the same time, though, there is a thriving voluntary, community and faith sector in the constituency.
Voluntary Action in Spelthorne (VAIS), a registered charity, is the infrastructure support body for the hundreds of organisations that make up the voluntary, community and faith sector within Spelthorne. They provide information, advice and training to ensure that groups have the resources to develop and function effectively. They also work hard to strengthen the sector in other ways. In early 2014, for example, they approached and worked in partnership with Brentford Football Club Community Sports Trust for the first time to launch a football coaching project for young people in the local area. The initiative proved very successful, and our connection to Brentford Football Club is set to develop over the longer term. In many ways, VAIS are one of those organizations that work tirelessly behind the scenes but do not always get the recognition they really do deserve. They are supported by the local council, and their members do include local councillors and non-charitable organizations such as Surrey Police. Crucially, however, VAIS operates independently.
In my four years’ experience as a constituency MP, I have been particularly struck by the extent to which businesses are often very open to the idea of contributing to civil society. One rather charming example occurred in 2012, when local businesses supported the name change of Staines, the largest town in Spelthorne, to Staines-upon-Thames. The name change was a simple local initiative in which local residents, the business community and the local council came together to rename a historic town and promote its riverside location. Local businesses now also fund the now annual Staines-upon-Thames day, when hundreds of people in families and groups congregate to enjoy a day by the river in June.
I have also found that the business community in Spelthorne is very open to suggestions coming from community leaders, local politicians and other figures. An example, which I am personally very proud to have participated in, was the launch of the inaugural Spelthorne Business Plan Competition in 2013. The competition was set up to search for and support the next generation of local business entrepreneurs. The winner received £3,500, deposited into a business bank account, and mentoring and support to help them bring their business ideas to life.
I am very conscious that Spelthorne is a unique constituency with its own idiosyncratic dynamics, like any other, however I do feel that the local experiences I have described connect to broader issues about the development of civil society.
It is generally recognised that civil society can only develop in a free and open society where people have the right to act cooperatively for the sake of common interests, purposes and values. Civil society also needs the state’s legal protection to ensure the autonomy and freedom of action of its members. In parts of the Arab world, where free and open society does not exist, civil society has failed to really develop. That is no coincidence. Across that region, governments have sought to restrict civil society organizations, predominantly out of fear that they could threaten the established political order.
The Conservative Party realises that open, democratic and transparent government provides foundations upon which civil society can develop. It understands that civil society needs a degree of support from the state, government institutions and local businesses to flourish. Crucially, however, a Conservative concept of civil society recognises that civil society cannot be bankrolled or judged simply in terms of profit of loss or as an extension of the state. Civil society, above all else, relies upon active citizenship. This is something that governments can promote, and the Conservative Party has done so successfully over the past four years.