Susan Smith met Julia Unwin at the Gathering to discuss the future of civil society during this period of unrest
It’s early 2019 and the Brexit clouds are gathering, obscuring the outlook for ordinary people. Whether you believe the UK is about to step off a cliff or take a leap of faith, the economic, social and political implications of leaving the EU are completely unknown – and everyone is anxious.
Human beings don’t deal well with uncertainty, and as I sat down to lunch with Julia Unwin at the Gathering last month, the media was focussed on the dissolution of Westminster politics as eight Labour MPs and three Conservatives walked out on their parties.
As we speculated about what new political movement could come from such a grouping, Unwin rolled her eyes.
“Politics doesn’t change because a group of people sit in a different place in the House of Commons,” she told me. “That’s not politics. Politics is what’s happening in communities all over Scotland – and the connection they have with their politicians not just MPs but local councillors, community councillors.
“Politics is the parents of profoundly disabled children organising for a different offer for their kids. The most important thing that’s happening in politics is off-grid in places that are not represented and are not being taken seriously. That’s where change happens.”
Her words will be music to the ears of campaigners and third sector organisations in Scotland. Unwin is clear – civil society is where change happens.
And despite the growing anxiety we see all around us, now is a time of opportunity, she believes. Out of chaos comes order – and according to Unwin civil society is great at surfing the waves of disorder.
“If you go back to the nineteenth century, a lot of civil society organisations were born out of the industrial revolution,” she explained. “In the big cities in Scotland you can see the development of major institutions that came out of that terrifying time when people fled from the countryside to the cities to live very different and chaotic lives.
“Look at the time after the Second World War, when we were absolutely on our knees across the UK. Civil society responded to that.
“This is another such moment of change. If we just say it’s all too scary, then we are letting down the people who came before us.”
Unwin and I were squeezing in a quick lunch in the noisy SEC canteen ahead of a panel discussion on the Future of the Third Sector, where she was speaking. She was quick to deny the label of futurologist, but was invited to speak after leading a two year independent inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in England, which concluded last year.
The Future of Civil Society in Scotland Inquiry
What are the challenges and opportunities unique to civil society in Scotland? This will be the focus of a new inquiry mirroring Unwin’s Future of Civil Society in England investigation. North of the border there is a smaller and more rural population, third sector organisations tend to reflect that in their own size and the higher chance of being isolated from central belt activities. There is also a thriving social enterprise sector, and organisations tend to have a closer relationship with government – potentially a help and a hindrance.
The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) published its Third Sector Forecast research at the Gathering, uncovering some of the many challenges third sector organisations are facing. It highlighted fears over finances and a belief that more people will be turning to third sector organisations in the future. Like the Civil Society Futures report in England, however, it also highlighted an optimism in the sector – a belief that organisations can rise to the challenges ahead.
These are some of the issues that will be explored in the Scottish inquiry. SCVO, The Corra Foundation, The Robertson Trust, The National Lottery Communities Fund and the Royal Society of Edinburgh will be working together on the project, which will be headed by Chris Creegan, the former chief executive of the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability.
The project is still in its formative stage, but email [email protected] to get involved.
The former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has sat as a charity commissioner, chair of the Refugee Council and deputy chair of the Food Standards Agency. She is currently a non-executive director of the Mears Group plc, of Yorkshire Water, of the Financial Reporting Council, and a Carnegie UK Trust fellow. Keen to keep a presence in Scotland too, she also sits on the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisors and is an advisor to Scotland’s Corra Foundation.
With all of that behind her, it is safe to assume Unwin must know a thing or two about the third sector. Yet several times in our conversation she said she was shocked by things that were uncovered in the inquiry.
The resulting Civil Society Futures report paints a picture of a vibrant and active third sector across England, but is also includes some hard reality checks for those working at the more established end of the sector – like Unwin herself.
Civil society is angry, she said. This anger springs from a resentment that its messages are not being taken seriously enough. There’s a lack of trust between the bigger and smaller organisations, and between funders and fundees in both directions.
It was hard for her to hear some of what was said, but Unwin visited communities up and down England and did just that, discovering that civil society is the canary in the mine – it is ignored at our peril.
“We have just had the most divisive referendum across the UK. Who knew in England, Hartlepool, Hull and Cornwall would vote the way they did? Not Westminster but civil society. The organisations close to the ground knew what was happening, they knew how dispossessed people felt but they weren’t heard.”
The unrest society is experiencing isn’t just apparent to civil society – it’s happening there. Unwin said there’s a new movement that isn’t about setting up charities or trade unions. Its snapping at the heels of established civil society and it’s organising in different ways – online, by mobile and internationally. Extinction Rebellion, which held a protest in Glasgow just a few weeks after we spoke, is an example of young disenfranchised people across Europe taking control of a social issue in non-orthodox way.
“Look at Extinction Rebellion – it is a different form of organising that makes me really uncomfortable,” said Unwin. “But I know when I’m really uncomfortable probably something important is happening. They might well know something that those of us who’ve been supporting the same charity for 30 years don’t.”
This new movement is a threat and an opportunity. Recent fundraising and safeguarding scandals show that the conventional third sector is not immune to weakness. While the likes of Extinction Rebellion threaten to knowingly and purposefully break the law for the social good, the mainstream sector’s protectionism and near-sightedness has proven to be just as risky.
So how should both the new and radical and the mature and experienced parts of civil society respond to the shifting sands?
To survive, Unwin said, we need to rise above the chaos and come together with a unifying set of principles that puts values first. The Civil Society Futures report suggests a PACT, which stands for Power, Accountability, Connection and Trust.
It is the last of these that seems to be playing on Unwin’s mind the most – if we want to meet the needs of some of the most demanding and important people on the planet, as she stated, we need to work together. The mainstream third sector needs to listen and hear the growing rumble of new voices and movements, to join the clamour for change, if it wants to survive.
“I think we’ve lost sight of the notion that our deep connections are our strongest currency” said Unwin. “That’s the currency we have and I think we need to quite consciously connect parts of civil society to each other.
“A bad headline in the Mail is nothing now. It can feel very hurtful, I know I’ve been on the receiving end of nastiness, but it’s nothing compared to the mobilisation of people that’s possible outside the mainstream media. It’s nothing compared to the trust people have in you as a spokesperson of an organisation. A healthy civil society builds its connections and invests in trust, now that’s more important than anything else.”