Brexit, then what? It’s time for civil society to shape our future

I write to you at the beginning of what many believe is going to be an historic year for the UK. There is much to ponder: the continuing political impasse around Brexit and the uneasy sense that our preparations as a country are too little and too late, ongoing pressures on our health and education systems, and broader international economic and political concerns that reflect a general air of instability. Many now believe that future generations should expect to be worse off, whether that be economically or socially. We are surrounded by much gloom. 

As NCVO begins its centenary year I am conscious of the temptations that nostalgia offers civil society, exalting a blitz spirit when we all mucked in during a crisis. I am also conscious of the pitfalls of such an indulgence – the implication that our best years are behind us, that we are irrelevant to the changes needed in the world, or too small to make a difference. Nostalgia for a former age of civil society is not what we need now – instead, what we need is a sense of optimism that civil society remains an engine of social and economic progress. 

My message this year is therefore twofold. Firstly, amid some real concerns about the wider environment, we must set out our vision of how to bring progress to all, but particularly to a UK where many fear the future will indeed be worse than the past. And secondly, we must be confident and clear that civil society is an engine of social progress. 

Trouble ahead 

Every day, the practical and economic consequences of the decision to leave the EU are becoming clearer. Given the very fast-moving political situation and the scale of the challenges we collectively face at present, our sector’s focus has quite rightly been on growing the support we can offer to those most in need and continuing to protect and enhance the influence we have. The pause in the roll out of universal credit is not simply testament to a new minister listening, but also a civil society speaking, with one voice. 

Many charities, including NCVO, have understandably stopped short of taking sides in the Brexit debate, preferring instead to inform people about the implications of different ways forward. But it is important that charities can shape the debate about the country we will be after Brexit, and to address the issues that undoubtedly contributed to people voting to leave. 

For me, that includes outlining the very real consequences of a no-deal scenario. We must also use our voice to call on politicians to act in the national interest and avoid further harm to our communities and their futures. Time is running out for the government to get a deal that can secure the approval of parliament. No-deal Brexit will have serious implications for our society. 

What comes next 

While politicians argue over the shape of Brexit, or even whether we should vote again on the question of leaving the EU, it strikes me that nobody is giving much thought as to what sort of society we want to be after March 2019. Regardless of what happens, we need to offer answers to important questions: who or what will bring our country together? What will build a more sustainable and inclusive economy? And what do we need to do if we are to live in a more integrated, open society? 

Civil society will no doubt play a role in dealing with problems caused by Brexit. If a crisis emerges, we will be there, just as we have in the past. But we need to do more than offer a diagnosis. We have to answer the questions above about what happens after March 2019. And there may be less time than we think, particularly if political impasse precipitates a general election this year. 

That means that we also need a vision for the future, rooted in an optimism shaped by our ability to change life for the better. We need a new narrative, rooted in the traditions of what is best about civil society:  community, kindness, equality, respect, aspiration and above all an impulse to help. And a new agenda – where civil society can help define the sort of country we want to be. 

It’s not just the economy 

There are many competing visions of what Britain post-2019 should look like. But I hope there is one subject on which there is absolute consensus. Civil society is essential to building a strong society and economy and I believe that all of us, regardless of political persuasion, should passionately, explicitly and unashamedly support people getting involved in their community, coming together in clubs, groups and societies. Starting charities, social enterprises or community businesses. Doing things for the wider public benefit, not simply private gain. 

We know that a better future is about more than growing the economy. In a famous speech of more than 45 years ago, Robert Kennedy said that GDP ‘does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It measures neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

For many, the answer instead lies in civil society. It is charity and volunteering that allow them to find identity, meaning and purpose, a sense of autonomy, pride and utility. It is often how we find balance in our lives, pursue our passions, or fight for change. And for society at large, it is often how we build stronger communities, give people a say in what happens to them. It is how we provide services that people depend upon, develop new ways of doing things, and nurture the people who will lead our future. 

Despite understandable gloom of late, an objective view of our world shows that many things are going well. As Hans Rosling and others have argued recently, there is much about human progress to be celebrated, with much going right. There is also much that is right about charities, volunteering and civil society. 

In short, civil society is about creating a better future for all. The world is changed by charity. 

Changing Britain needs a new agenda, underpinned by civil society 

Anthropologists often refer to the concept of liminality – the space in between two states of being, the disorientation that characterises moving from one part of life to the next. It is an accurate reflection of where we are as a country in 2019 – our national identity is shifting and our future identity isn’t yet formed. While this is both ambiguous and disorientating, there is also potential and possibility. 

We are not the country we were before the referendum, but neither are we the country we shall become. There is real opportunity to change the kind of country we will be in future. Brexit presents an opportunity to reflect on the major challenges we face as a country and how, we as civil society, can help to address them. 

Do politicians alone have the answer? The 2016 referendum suggested we need to address the profound sense of disconnection between communities and decision makers. Whatever we do to renew democracy or the nation as a whole, civil society has much to offer.  

We’ve seen politicians try and fail to truly grasp the nettle here. The third way agenda, the big society, the shared society – all have danced around the point that civil society matters and should be supported for a vast number of reasons – not least among them individual wellbeing, community resilience and citizenship.

This year, we will be looking back at NCVO’s 100-year history and celebrating the collective achievements of voluntary action. One thing is clear when you study the last century: civil society has always responded in times of great need and I am confident we will do so again. But what is equally clear is that this must not be an exercise in nostalgia. Our centenary is very much about looking ahead and reminding others that human progress is inexorably intertwined with strong, healthy civil societies. 

There are already a number of reports looking to the future of civil society, aimed at developing a new vision for the voluntary sector and volunteering and their role in society. The importance of values, the need for space and place, and the value of relationships are just some of the significant themes that are emerging. 

Over the coming months we will be taking this thinking further through research and policy consultation, so we can create a forward-looking agenda and a new vision for our country and society. 

As NCVO we will be there to support you in your piece of the work of building the future of our country. Our mission, as ever, is to make your lives a little easier, to share knowledge, to pool resources, and to help you address the challenges you face. 

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the year ahead and what we can do in partnership with you to show that the world is changed, for the better, by charity. 


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Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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