UK needs more civic participation

A vibrant civil society is what we need in a pluralist democracy.

Distinct cultures make the UK economically and culturally richer, writes Bari [Getty]
Distinct cultures make the UK economically and culturally richer, writes Bari [Getty]

Over the centuries Britain has embraced, and made itself the home of many races, cultures and religions. Every people have brought their distinct cultures to make it economically and culturally richer. Some communities arrived here with a lower level playing field compared to others and as such there were inevitable hiccups with social inclusion in the beginning. Nowadays Britain has become a successful pluralist country.

The London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games showcased the “Best of Britain”. Its incredible success was due to a prolonged cross-party consensus (since the bid in 2005) and civic participation from all citizens with their energy, creativity and humour. As a member of the Organising Committee, I witnessed the amazingly high level of civic engagement, with enhanced social activism for the common good from all our communities before and during the summer of 2012.

British expats slam UK’s immigration policies in election run-up

A government alone, however efficient, cannot run a country effectively and harness all its potentials; citizen involvement and people power work in tandem in elected democracy to shape a nation and take it forward. A vibrant civil society, including a strong voluntary sector, is the eyes and ears of any country where public representatives in the national and local governments are accountable to its citizens.

Renewed Compact

After coming to power, the Coalition Government made a renewed Compact with civil society organisations (CSO) in England in 2010 to “improve the partnership between the government and civil society organisations, for the benefit of citizens and communities”.

Britain is acknowledged as the most charitable country in the developed world, thanks to its faith communities that have excelled in philanthropy. Some 164,097 charities in England and Wales, registered with the Charity Commission, have a staggering total annual income of about $97bn.

Charity and philanthropy depend on citizens’ proactive social activism for the good of humanity, at home and abroad, in areas such as poverty alleviation, social justice, equality, clean environment and healthy politics. Dedicated volunteering from underperforming communities can lift them up which also enhances better community relations.

This year’s general election on May 7, with a very uncertain electoral outcome, has made Britain remarkably lively but also worried. Many CSOs, up and down the country, did their best in urging people to register to vote; they are still organising hustings with various candidates to put forward their demands and also to encourage political debates on important national and local issues.

Through direct civic action, it energises grassroots CSOs in local neighbourhoods to do small but powerful things…


In this animated atmosphere some well-known civil society organisations stand out. Their activities have multiplied in the last few months to improve the health of Britain’s politics.

One such outfit is Citizens UK (CUK) which made its name in the last decade for its success in persuading many institutions and businesses to introduce a minimum living wage for low-paid workers. CUK is composed of faith groups (churches, mosques and synagogues), schools, colleges, universities, student groups, and unions.

Direct civic action

Through direct civic action, it energises grassroots CSOs in local neighbourhoods to do small but powerful things – such as preventing factories from contaminating the area with noxious smells, stopping drug dealing in school neighbourhoods and getting safe road-crossings established.

It came to national prominence during the last general election in 2010, when all three national leaders of the UK’s three largest political parties addressed a large meeting in Westminster Central Hall.

Another example, Operation Black Vote (OBV), has been raising awareness of civic responsibilities among black and minority ethnic communities through various projects for decades. The OBV undertakes mentoring schemes, lobbying political parties and civic institutions on the benefits of representative bodies and increasing the awareness of equality and human rights. It wants to improve political engagement of disadvantaged communities with the national democratic process through voter registration and other civic campaigns.

The voluntary sector for the diverse Muslim community has always been vibrant, but the ethos of philanthropy and social activism gets an enormous boost during the month of Ramadan. One such group, the Muslim Agency for Development Education in Europe, is a youth-led movement that works on environmental issues. Its social action is about justice and environmental stewardship by being smart, ethical and green in the way we all live.

Half a century ago, the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr made his remarkable observation about our journey on earth: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”

Since then our society has changed immeasurably and our life has become more complex and challenging.

We need a 21st century solution for 21st century issues and challenges where strong civil societies, guided by universal human values, across the world will not only enhance our material well-being but also keep us rooted to ethics and spirituality.

Muhammad Abdul Bari is the former secretary-general of Muslim Council of Britain. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


More from Author
Most Read