In 2018, I was asked by colleagues in Electoral Reform Society Scotland to chair a panel at a conference called Democracy 21. It was built around a pretty simple premise: people should have the collective power to make good things happen for themselves and their communities and also use that power to stop bad things happening.
Nearly 500 people attended, including academics and legislators. But primarily it represented the strength of Scotland’s civil society. It was packed with community groups, activists, community organisers, artists and creators who were there to discuss the challenges that democracy was up against.
It obviously made me think about civil society in Wales. Our impact, our involvement, and could we compare?
Historically there may have already been a reasonably coherent civil society in Scotland, as they had stronger institutions even before their Parliament was reconvened in 1999. Of course, in Wales we have also had a civil society. If you look at active community groups in the post-war years up until the eighties, it was a very strong one. But would we really be able to call it a distinctly Welsh civil society?
Devolution for both nations have developed their respective civil societies further. Say what you like, but our institutions are not only closer to the people they seek to represent in distance, but in our opportunity to influence them.
One of the issues is that many of the groups that are involved in civil society don’t actually know they are part of it. It is easy for a community group – quietly working tirelessly to change the lives of people in their square-mile – to think of their work in isolation, but they are part of the community we know as civil society. How do we let them know? How do we involve them and what is expected of them when they do?
What about our functioning civil society that has developed alongside the fledgling political institutions of Wales? Where next for them…us? And how do we give Welsh civil society the boost it needs to start emulating Scotland’s distinct and strong civil voice?
ERS Cymru, alongside the Bevan Foundation, asked those very questions at the end of last year in an event held in the Pierhead in Cardiff Bay. We looked at where we are now but the main object was to draft recommendations for what needed to happen next.
We asked our 50 or so delegates to work in groups and come up with specific recommendations on how to improve civil society.
The room as a whole then voted to back (or not) each group’s recommendations and that left us with a list of 11 recommendations, including participatory budgeting, annual leave/time off for democratic engagement, a new civil society code, and a review into the health of civil society in Wales.
The challenge we have is getting beyond that room. 50 people in Cardiff Bay should not be solely responsible for coming up with ideas of how to strengthen civil society across the whole of Wales. That’s why we need you to take a look, add your comments and own ideas and share this among your networks so they can do the same.
If we are going to ever address some of the fundamental challenges facing Welsh civil society then we need a wide conversation about how to do that within but crucially beyond Cardiff Bay.
Everybody has had to step up recently. As the pandemic hit, our communities and Welsh civil society were part of the enormous effort to make sure people who needed help, received it. From national charities to small village organising committees, civil society has reacted to this disaster the only way they can: by mobilising, by being inventive and resourceful and by meeting any threat head-on.
When this is all over, we need those charities, organisations and groups – large and small – to step up once again. Those connections must endure and make sure their voices and the people they represent are heard in decision making on every level – from local councils to their Parliaments in Cardiff and London.
A gathering of 450 people to talk about Welsh democracy and community empowerment seems a very long way off, but we can be taking steps to bridge the gap and strengthen our civil society for the benefit of all of the people it represents and supports.
A version of this piece was first published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs in 2019, with changes made w/b 6th April 2020.