So off we go with the name game once more.
A couple of years ago the Conservatives said the Office of the Third Sector would be renamed the Office of Civil Society to denote the increased importance they wanted to give it. Then they said there had been a rethink and money was too tight for such a bigging-up. And just before the election they went back to plan A, not because money was less tight again but because David Cameron didn’t like the term ‘third sector.’
He was probably influenced by the sentimentalists who argue that it should, if anything, be the ‘first sector’ and that ‘third sector’ is too easily equated with ‘third rate.’ So the Office of Civil Society it is, and Nick Hurd rejoices in the name of Minister for Civil Society. Well, at least they stopped short of the Office of Big Society.
But the questions still remain: what is civil society, and do people understand the term any more readily than ‘third sector’, or the various other unsatisfactory alternatives that have been touted?
The National Council for Voluntary Organisations has firmly hitched its wagon to the ‘civil society’ horse, as has one sector media organisation. The NCVO Almanac makes it clear that civil society, in its view, includes universities and trade associations, for example. Does the NCVO, or the media organisation, or the new OCS, take a day to day interest in or have any responsibility for, those parts of society? Of course they don’t. Maybe there’s a grandiosity and feel-good effect created by the term. At least the NCVO has stopped short of becoming the National Council for Civil Society Organisations.
‘Civil society’ is a term imported from countries with entirely different political, social and philosophical traditions. Most people in Britain don’t readily recognise what it is meant to mean, and the attempt to use it creates a raft of inconsistency and contradiction. Are charities, trade associations and housing associations really in the same boat?
The term might slowly become adapted and catch on – who knows? But the fact is there is no short phrase that is capable of satisfactorily and simultaneously encompassing the huge range and size of charities, social enterprises and community organisations in this country. The wide and useful American term ‘non-profit’, even in its Anglicised form ‘not for profit’, would not cover social enterprises.
So all that’s happened here, really, is that one unsatisfactory term has been swapped for another – on one man’s whim, in the case of the OCS. And no doubt when we get half-used to the new name there will be another change.