Towards reflection: The “Review of Reviews” reviewed . .

The past is constantly being reviewed and reinterpreted through the lens of the present. John Griffiths, the author of last year’s Review of Reviews looks back to see what we can still draw on from several pre-Covid strategies to inform our future planning for civil society’s recovery . . .

Recent weeks have seen our country’s history re-purposed as we search for lessons from historical precedent to explain our current predicament, selecting what moments to reference, or whom we choose to venerate or denigrate.  As the government’s borrowing surpassed levels last seen during the Second World War, the Prime Minister needed little prompting to resort to Churchillian war-time rhetoric, speaking of the virus as the “hidden enemy” and summoning the “Blitz spirit” to foster social unity and community action in the face of the pandemic. 

Whilst some question the appropriateness of these particular analogies, parallels with the social impact and legacy of the War are pertinent. Perversely, they also offer hope to those who see the 2020s, like the 1940s, as an opportunity to effect lasting and transformative social change.  

Referring to how the First World War hurried on the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky observed that “war is the locomotive of history.”  Another 20th Century Goliath, J.M. Keynes, argued similarly that it is “politically impossible for a capitalistic democracy to organise expenditure on the scale necessary to make the grand experiments [economic transformation] — except in war conditions.”  Indeed, recent histories of the last century provide considerable evidence that “the reduction in inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war.”[1]

It is these war-like conditions, brought on by our response to the coronavirus, which provide a window of opportunity to capture the zeitgeist, define a new form of social contract and rethink relationships between government, civil society and business.  And yet, as we begin to look for pointers and lessons from the pandemic, and find some succour from the community endeavour and social ingenuity born of the crisis, it is easy to overlook that many of the UK’s sociological failings had been laid bare well before Covid-19 shone an unflinching light on them.  

It would be a mistake, therefore, not to go back to some of the detailed pre-Covid analyses of c21st civil society, and of how we already needed to change.  As another blog in this series has reflected, the UK’s social evils and levels of inequality in particular, which were in plain sight before the pandemic, are now accelerating.  Whilst the Age of Coronavirus may prove to be the “tipping point,” confirming our commitment to resource and enable a healthy civil society, we could also tip the other way. The stakes have never been higher.

It is barely eighteen months since the wide-ranging Civil Society Futures’ Inquiry reported its findings. The underpinning research report, Civil Society in England: Its current state and future opportunity was far from alone in failing to foresee a global pandemic, but it still presented a daunting analysis of other forces shaping our future, ranging from the fracturing of society and irreversible environmental damage, to transformational political and economic restructuring; from growing personal precarity, to increasing geo-political uncertainty and rising nationalism.   

The Inquiry recommended a shared PACT, a set of principles for underpinning civil society’s future, which stemmed from its extensive consultations. The magnitude of the impact of Covid-19 may be such that we need to co-design “a different kind of conversation than the ones we have been involved in before.”  Nevertheless, as we potentially frame a new set of guiding principles for “building back better,” the PACT merits revisiting if only to learn whether we could indeed do better:

  • Power: significantly shifting power, sharing more decision-making and control, being a model for the rest of society and doing whatever is needed so that everyone can play a full part in the things which matter to them.
  • Accountability: holding each of us and our different organisations accountable first and foremost to the communities and people we exist to serve, changing our approach so that we become more accountable to each other and to future generations. 
  • Connectedness: broadening and deepening connections with people and communities which is a key purpose of civil society and critical to healing a fractured society; bridging economic, social and geographic divides and investing in a new social infrastructure for civil society.
  • Trust: (re)building trust – what the Inquiry refers to as civil society’s “core currency” and foundation; earning this by staying true to our values, standing up for them and trusting others with vital decisions that affect them.

Four themes which connect the reviews also remain as relevant to our recovery from Covid-19 as to our healing of the UK’s entrenched social divisions, which Brexit initially exposed and the pandemic has now exacerbated:

  1. Today’s adversity is breeding ingenuity, particularly in the form of individuals’ and communities’ social action; elective democracy’s apparent crisis may be participative democracy’s opportunity, yet this is not a zero-sum game.  Ensuring a healthy future for civil society is both an individual and collective responsibility, not a requirement of others.  The Covid-19 mutual aid website records as many as 740 groups having formed within the M25 alone. Feedback from a GLA survey suggests groups’ memberships average around 400-450 with over a quarter defined as active.  Engaged and responsible citizens are the bedrock of a modern civil society; the 20th century may have marked the hegemony of state-funded support, the c21st “needs ‘people power’ more than ever.”[2]
  2. The parameters of what constitutes civil society in the third decade of the c21st are much broader than was thought previously.  Neither defined by organisational form, nor as a specific “third” sector, but in terms of objective (what it is for) and control (who is in charge), a modern civil society “refers to all individuals and organisations, when undertaking activities with the primary purpose of delivering social value, independent of state control.”[3]   The new Recovery Board for London, has a twin focus on the economic and social aspects of recovery. Our having agreed aspirations and expectations of the future role for civil society in this endeavour will be one way of ensuring that these strands of work do not become siloed or, worse still, operate at odds with one another.
  3. The potency and importance of place in galvanizing social action, and as a focus for philanthropy (defined as the giving of “time, talent and treasure”).  In part this reflects and complements the direction of public policy over the last two decades, which has seen successive governments committed to devolving power to the nations, regions and communities of the UK, recognising that “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.”[4]   Place-based giving schemes in London which, pre-Covid, seemed to be tapping into a popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly fractured society, could well be further boosted by the long-term effects of lockdown as people commute less and give more as a way of reaffirming their sense of place and belonging.  The 13 active schemes have provided much-needed support to places during the pandemic, from United in Hammersmith and Fulham’s dissemination of micro-grants to local organisations; the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation’s match-giving approach to fundraising, to Haringey Giving’s collaboration with local SMEs, and Camden Giving’s participatory grant-making.
  4. Changed expectations of the role and responsibilities of the business community – coming from both inside and outside companies – were interpreted by the reviews as indicative of how boundaries between the private, public and voluntary sectors have become increasingly porous; how so many of today’s social challenges demand not just partnership working, but cross-sector solutions.  There is an entire section of the government’s Civil Society Strategy devoted to the private sector, one of five foundations deemed necessary to build (back) thriving communities.  However, Centre for London’s extensive survey of giving in the capital cautioned that while London’s businesses give around £330m per annum – about 6 per cent of the total across the capital - corporate philanthropy is not having the impact it could, as employers fail to apply the rigour they bring to their business to their charitable activities.  Centre for London called for a “whole city” approach to “giving more, giving better and giving together” – based on a shared understanding of the capital’s philanthropic priorities. 

Two years previously, just prior to the last Mayoral Election, London’s Fairness Commission argued for “the start of a new philanthropic age . . . an exemplary social philanthropic effort at a city level to focus on the challenges facing London’s poorest citizens.”  Four years on, as we try to recover from the biggest disruption to civil society since the War, the time is surely now for London’s leaders to crystallize that “Peabody Moment.” 


[1] Thomas Piketty Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) p.20;  See also: Peter Clarke The Locomotive of War: Money, Empire, Power and Guilt (2017).

[2] This statement from the Cabinet Office’s Civil Society Strategy (2018) has echoes in New Local Government Network’s (2019) thesis expounding the “community paradigm” of empowering and resourcing communities to create a non-hierarchical culture of cross-sector collaboration.

[3] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018, p.19

[4] Civil Society Strategy: Building a Future that Works for Everyone, 2018, p.20