Civic Virtue, Service and the Voluntary Spirit

Professor Andrew Peterson and Dr. David Civil

That which follows was first written as a position paper, shared with the panel for the Jubilee Centre’s public webinar, Civic Virtue, Service and the Voluntary Spirit, held on Tuesday 18th January 2022.

Chaired by Senior Research Fellow, Lord James O’Shaughnessy, this session welcomed Labour Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, Rushanara Ali, Danny Kruger, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Devizes, and Helen Goulden, Chief Executive Officer of The Young Foundation.

‘A flourishing civic and associational life is both a product of a virtuous citizenry and a vital precondition for the further development and habituation of civic virtues. To create such a flourishing environment requires the development of a voluntary spirit amongst citizens, within civil society, and throughout communities.’

Common Good Politics

All of Britain’s main political parties have had, at some point in their respective histories, a strong association with common good politics. While these associations might have been obscured in more recent decades, there is evidence that within and across political parties – and indeed in public life more generally – a renewed focus on how to repair and sustain flourishing communities could form the basis of a new political consensus. At the heart of any vision of the common good lies a set of civic virtues such as community mindedness, active citizenship and service to others. A flourishing civic and associational life is both a product of a virtuous citizenry and a vital precondition for the further development and habituation of civic virtues. To create such a flourishing environment requires the development of a voluntary spirit amongst citizens, within civil society, and throughout communities. Often this spirit is caricatured as a euphemism for reducing or marginalising the role of the state, but this spirit can also be understood as a consistent working towards a positive and mutually beneficial relationship between the state and citizens (within which the organisations of civil society play a crucial role). All of Britain’s mainstream political traditions – from liberalism to social democracy to conservatism – have recognised the importance of encouraging voluntarism, mutual aid and social entrepreneurship outside of, but still supported by, state structures. Any vision of the common good cannot be over reliant on either the state or the market. Instead a politics of the common good is founded on processes and institutions that help to balance a plurality of interests and through which citizens can serve others and their communities. Here the state and the market act as important, but not privileged, actors.  

The Voluntary Spirit

In last twenty five years multiple policies to encourage and harness this voluntary spirit in service of the common good have been implemented – in education, in communities and local government, in the Home Office, in housing and in other areas of society. These policies have all sought to recognise and develop the civic virtues of voluntary service, community-mindedness and active citizenship. Yet, questions remain about how successful attempts to recognise and reward this voluntary spirit have been, and indeed about ways that hopeful and positive forms of voluntary spirit that form a core part of life in contemporary Britain can be harnessed and widened. According to a report from the Centre for the Future of Democracy, young people’s faith in democratic politics is lower than any other age group. Millennials across the world are more disillusioned with democracy than Generation X or baby boomers were at the same stage of life. As recent research by Onward has argued, encouraging a voluntary spirit to repair the social fabric is being hampered by a lack of time, a lack of security or sense of belonging, and a lack of suitable institutions. In particular, these deficits impact acutely on young people. Work by the Young Foundation, for example, has highlighted how youth social action programmes are being impeded by, amongst other factors: a lack of integration between and across various programmes; a failure to develop the notion of civic momentum; and the marginalisation of young people’s voices in the design and implementation of service learning opportunities. There is evidence, however, that the Covid-19 pandemic is transforming the voluntary landscape. The organisation nfpSynergy recently reported that the pandemic had seen volunteering rates among the under-30s rise from 30 to 40 per cent in just three months.

‘As recent research by Onward has argued, encouraging a voluntary spirit to repair the social fabric is being hampered by a lack of time, a lack of security or sense of belonging, and a lack of suitable institutions. In particular, these deficits impact acutely on young people.’

As Britain emerges from the pandemic there is a growing sense of urgency across the political spectrum about capturing and furthering this voluntary spirit. The Chair of the APPG on Philanthropy and Social Investment and Labour MP Rushanara Ali, recently praised the ‘central role’ played by charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises in meeting the various challenges posed by the pandemic ‘head-on’. In her letter to the Chancellor Rishi Sunak she called for greater government support for civil society. In their report The Policies of Belonging, the think-tank Onward encourages Government to give individuals and communities the power and the capital to repair their social fabric. Amongst other policy proposals, this programme involves introducing a ‘Year to Serve’ youth employment scheme to provide 18-24 year olds with civic service opportunities, a new civic leadership programme, the creation of Community Improvement Districts as well as the development of civic universities. Similarly, Danny Kruger’s recent report, Levelling Up Our Communities, outlines proposals to ‘sustain the community spirit we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic.’ The experience of the recent crisis – embodied in the willingness of local people to step forward and collaborate, the flexibility shown by public services, and the social commitment of businesses – shows what is possible.

Community Power

These reports reflect a growing sense that both the state and the market cannot meet the social needs of citizens by themselves. In the place of market power or state power the reports suggest a need for the development of community power which would be responsive to local and national needs and which would be led by citizens themselves. The challenge of the moment is to ensure that the civic momentum of the last year is not squandered and the opportunity to embed a voluntary spirit into our national politics is not lost. If national political parties are serious about repairing the social fabric and restoring the common good questions about the role of mutual aid, social entrepreneurship and voluntary action will be front and centre.

The questions that remain…

  • What is the role of the state in facilitating and enabling a voluntary spirt?
  • How can we capitalise on the upsurge in social action and community-mindedness witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic?
  • How can specific contextual features of local communities be recognised and supported in any endeavours to build the voluntary spirit?
  • What are the obstacles or barriers to civic engagement, including that of young people? How might these challenges be overcome?

Civic Virtues Through Service to Others

This session draws upon previous, applied research of the Centre and its staff looking at the topics of service, social action, civic virtue, and the common good particularly in reference to young people and those that support them. This includes the ongoing Civic Virtues Through Service to Others project.

Further details, insights and publications can be found by visiting the project pages on the Jubilee Centre website.

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