Often when discussing the necessary culture and institutions required for democracy to flourish, the need for ‘civil society’ is extolled – that is, the networks of non-state organisations which are formed by people coming together to deliver services or to campaign for change. These civil society organisations are seen by many as vital to an open and plural politics.
In Scotland at least, the value of civil society organisations to our democracy appears to have been recognised. The Scottish charity watchdog has issued guidance to Scottish charities giving them the green light to campaign directly during the independence referendum next year. The debate will be richer and more meaningful for voters now that it has been opened up to a wide variety of civil society voices.
But in the UK as a whole, the government is pushing forward legislation that clamps down on the ability of civil society to take an active role in politics. The lobbying bill, which is shortly coming to the floor of the Commons, not only fails to address properly the problem of anti-democratic lobbying. It also threatens to curtail the democracy-enhancing activities of civil society organisations by severely limiting the amount of money they can spend prior to elections.
It is right to prevent parties from avoiding spending limits and evading public scrutiny by channelling money through third parties during elections. But there are already adequate safeguards against this. Charities are already severely restricted by charity law as to how they campaign in politics. And non-charity campaign groups who wish to take part in politics are already controlled by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act if they seek to campaign for particular parties or candidates.
There appears to be a worrying divergence across the UK between attempts to open up politics in Scotland and attempts to narrow things down even further in Westminster. The government should be celebrating civil society organisations’ capacity for improving our politics, not regulating against it.