One notable feature of British conservatism has been it's willingness to discuss issues that are not always on the right's radar. They have been ahead of the curve in discussing income inequality and the lack of upward mobility in developed societies.
The policy idea most strongly associated with these sentiments is Prime Minister Cameron's embrace of the 'Big Society'. The phrase refers to the idea that the state currently has too prominent a role in life and that its presence crowds out the organs of civil society. While the term has received its fair share of criticism the program does seek to address a real problem: civil society is weaker.
Writing in the Times (unfortunately, behind a paywall) Niall Ferguson explores this by recounting an attempt to get a local coastline cleaned up:
I bought the house mainly to be beside the sea. But there was a catch. The lovely stretch of coastline in front of it was hideously strewn with rubbish. Thousands of plastic bottles littered the sands and rocks. Plastic bags fluttered in the wind, caught on the thorns of the wild burnet roses. Beer and soft-drink cans lay rusting in the dunes. Crisp packets floated in the waves like repulsive opaque jellyfish.
Dismayed, I asked the locals who was responsible for keeping the coastline clean. “The council is supposed to do it, down by here,” one of them explained. “But they don’t do nothing about it, do they?” This was not so much Under Milk Wood as Under Milk Carton. Infuriated, and perhaps evincing the first symptoms of an obsessive-compulsive disorder, I took to carrying and filling black binliners whenever I went for a walk. But it was a task far beyond the capacity of one man.
And that was when it happened. I asked for volunteers. The proposition was simple: come and make this place look as it should; lunch provided. The first beach clear-up was a modest affair. The second was more of a success.
It was when the local branch of the Lions Club got involved, however, that the breakthrough came. I had never heard of the Lions Club. I learnt that it’s originally an American association, not unlike the Rotary Club. Both were founded by Chicago businessmen about a century ago and both are secular networks whose members dedicate time to various good causes.
My Welsh experience taught me the power of the voluntary association as an institution. Together, spontaneously, without any public sector involvement, without any profit motive, without any legal obligation or power, we had turned a depressing dumping ground back into a beauty spot. Now, I ask myself, how many other problems could be solved in this simple and yet satisfying way?
Properly understood, “civil society” is the realm of voluntary associations, institutions established by citizens with an objective other than private profit. These can range from schools to clubs dedicated to the full range of human activities, from acrobatics to zoology, by way of beach clearing.
There was a time when the average Briton or American belonged to a startlingly large number of clubs and societies. I want to suggest that the opposite of civil society is uncivil society, where even the problem of antisocial behaviour becomes a problem for the state. So the Citizenship Survey for England makes for truly dismal reading. In 2009-10 only one in ten people had any involvement in decision-making about local services or in the provision of these services (for example, being a school governor or a magistrate); only a quarter of people participated in any kind of formal volunteering at least once a month (of which most either organised or helped to run an event — usually a sporting event — or participated in raising money for one). The share of people informally volunteering at least once a month (for example to help elderly neighbours) fell to 29 per cent, down from 35 per cent the previous year. The share giving informal help at least once a year fell from 62 to 54 per cent.
Like Tocqueville, I believe that spontaneous local activism by citizens is better than central state action, not just in terms of its results, but more importantly in terms of its effect on us as citizens. For true citizenship is not just about voting, earning and staying on the right side of the law. It is also about participating in the “troop” — the wider group beyond our families — which is precisely where we learn how to develop and enforce rules of conduct. In short, to govern ourselves. To educate our children. To care for the helpless. To fight crime. To clear the beach of rubbish.