Civic Virtues, Formative Institutions, and Flourishing Communities

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 Virtues, Formative Institutions, and Flourishing Communities, to be held on Tuesday 5th July 2022.

Chaired by Senior Research Fellow, Lord James O’Shaughnessy, the webinar will welcome MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, Jesse Norman and former MP and Minister and now the Director of both the Centre for English Identity and Politics and the Southern Policy Centre, Professor John Denham

Further details can be found here – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/civic-virtues-formative-institutions-and-flourishing-communities-webinar-tickets-367463111057

‘Formation of character occurs best when people live in communities with others, and when communities are animated by a vision of the good. This recognises that we acquire virtues, including civic virtues, in the company of others and that human beings cannot realise their potential in isolation from their communities. Given this, the richer a community’s civic virtues, the greater the chance that individual members will flourish.’

Civic and Civil Institutions

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. Institutions can play a formative role in developing the civic virtues of citizens, acting as the interface between individual citizens, collaborative organisations, and the state. In this way, and when framed and operated positively, institutions can serve to bring citizens from different walks of life and with diverse interests together, helping to cultivate the social capital required to sustain flourishing communities. Civic and civil institutions can act to fill the space between different groups of citizens, bridging the divides often created by questions of identity or political ideology. This is a civic approach to plurality, one which identifies for the state and civil society a role in ensuring that the interests of individuals and groups become known in public life through engagement and discourse. The sites for civic dialogue between citizens are not limited to the civic sphere but extend to the institutions of civil society, including, for example, the voluntary institutions of the family, community groups and religious-based organisations that exist in the space between the public and private spheres. Formation of character occurs best when people live in communities with others, and when communities are animated by a vision of the good. This recognises that we acquire virtues, including civic virtues, in the company of others and that human beings cannot realise their potential in isolation from their communities. Given this, the richer a community’s civic virtues, the greater the chance that individual members will flourish.

‘Formative institutions play an important role in this regard. Encouraging democratic engagement, bringing citizens together, and helping communities to flourish is often a core purpose of civic and civil institutions, raising important and significant questions about the relationships between these institutions, citizens and crucially, the role of the state.’

Bringing Citizens Together

Formative institutions play an important role in this regard. Encouraging democratic engagement, bringing citizens together, and helping communities to flourish is often a core purpose of civic and civil institutions, raising important and significant questions about the relationships between these institutions, citizens and crucially, the role of the state. In ways that are still evident today, all of Britain’s mainstream political traditions have in different ways emphasised the importance of mutualism, co-operatives and organic, voluntary relationships and connections within what is now commonly termed civil society. Prior to the Second World War, public services were delivered by a patchwork of local, independent civic organisations. Some of these organisations were subsumed in the institutional frameworks of the state in the aftermath of the War as the welfare state expanded, others continued to flourish independently of the state.

In meeting individual and communal needs – whether related to health or education – some have suggested that citizens have come to rely too heavily on state institutions, while others have suggested that the existence of civil institutions can, at times, signify the failure of the state (or of governments) to make adequate welfare provision. Over at least the last fifty years, state institutions have increasing been impacted by market logics, changing (for good or ill so far as civic virtues are concerned) the relationship between these institutions and citizens. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, it appears that politicians, policy-makers and public figures from across the political spectrum are seeking a greater balance between public and private, with a thriving civil society placed at the centre of any future consensus. This is not about returning to the past – whether characterised by the often-insecure civic pattern which defined the early-twentieth century or the large-scale state institutions of the post-war period. Rather, the task is to develop a rich patchwork of institutions, local, national and global, which successfully balances the public and the private interest and in which the relationship between the state and the organisations of civil society is of mutual benefit.

This ‘gravitational state’ agenda is not about imposing large, national state institutions but seeks to place the ‘design and delivery of public services in the hands of the communities they serve’ and to build ‘connections and relationships between people that, over time, add up to social capital.’ This community paradigm requires flourishing local institutions – whether it is a library or a dance studio, a youth centre or a pub – where individuals can meet together as one community and develop meaningful and lasting cohesion.

The Role of the State

The role of the state in developing, enabling and sustaining this patchwork remains an important question. There remains scepticism as to whether the state is always the best actor to provide the formative institutions and organisations from which civic virtues can grow and flourish. A long-standing idea, argued by William Beveridge and echoed by a number of public figures today, is that the state must be careful not to stifle or obstruct more spontaneous or voluntary action. According to Conservative MP, Steve Baker, for example, ‘relationships are at their best, their most healthy and virtuous when they are voluntary’. Yet, some form of state provision remains crucial to any analysis and strategy for flourishing communities. This role for the state is one that has changed over time and which will continue to evolve. In the words of the think-tank New Local, there is an emphasis on a new ‘community paradigm’ with the state providing the framework for local or voluntary action, and power being shared with and among citizens. Here the state can be characterised as acting in what a recent Demos publication refers to as a ‘gravitational’ manner, pulling individuals into society to help rebuild communities, empower citizens and unite a demos to tackle collectively the vast challenges our century presents. This ‘gravitational state’ agenda is not about imposing large, national state institutions but seeks to place the ‘design and delivery of public services in the hands of the communities they serve’ and to build ‘connections and relationships between people that, over time, add up to social capital.’ This community paradigm requires flourishing local institutions – whether it is a library or a dance studio, a youth centre or a pub – where individuals can meet together as one community and develop meaningful and lasting cohesion.

Revitalising Community Spaces

In revitalising these community spaces and developing ‘policies of belonging’ the think-tank Onward have prioritised giving communities greater power and capital to repair their social fabric, including creating Community Improvement Districts, giving every local area the right to form a town or parish council to improve hyperlocal governance, and using the New Infrastructure Levy to create local funds to support hyperlocal social and economic infrastructure. There is evidence that calls for a greater focus on local decision-making and community flourishing are being heard in government. The recently published Levelling Up White Paper promises the ‘biggest shift of power from Whitehall to local leaders in modern times’, as well as a Youth Investment Fund to deliver up to 300 new and refurbished youth facilities in the most deprived parts of England. Whist there may be disagreement about the precise role of state institutions, there is growing evidence of an emerging political consensus over the importance of civic virtues and thriving local communities for individual and social flourishing.

The questions that remain outstanding

  • In order to foster civic virtues and underpin the common good, in what way do existing institutions have to change? Do we require new institutions? How might these institutions be successfully embedded into local and national life?
  • What is the role of the state in developing the civic virtues of its citizens? What role do state institutions play in sustaining flourishing communities and how do, and should, these institutions relate to non-state organisations?
  • What existing practices and examples are available that provide clear examples of flourishing organisations and communities that illustrate a productive role of/for the state?
  • What are the obstacles or barriers to building formative institutions that bring citizens together, enable them to exercise civic virtue, and help communities to flourish? 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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