Defending our Democratic Space, published today (2 August 2023), documents cumulative threats over more than a decade to vital elements of our democracy that enable people to have a voice, amplify that voice to decision-makers, and help hold politicians to account.
It calls on politicians to reverse that trend, warning failure to do so will undermine their legitimacy and ability to deliver for the British people, and ultimately damage democracy itself.
It also calls on the not-for-profit sector to take a leadership role to raise awareness of the importance of our democratic space (1), build new alliances within and beyond civil society, and work with others to create a shared vision for it. Research undertaken for this report suggests it is possible to find common ground across political divides on big issues like integrity, accountability, and transparency.
The report is based on discussions with charities and grassroots campaigners, thinktanks, Parliamentarians and others, including people across the political spectrum. The message is clear: the overall problem is serious, growing, and largely going unnoticed. One interviewee likened it to a boiled frog who fails to realise the water is slowly getting warmer until it is too late. Former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, publicly warned last year about many of the threats contained in this report, and said it was critical for politicians to uphold and protect ‘the values we have as individuals, and the trust we inspire as a nation.’(2)
The water may not yet be boiling but polls already show people don’t think politicians listen or deliver for them and are concerned about their loss of integrity and transparency.(3) Many also actively support charities and other civil society organisations and can’t understand why they are under political attack. They know they are a vital conduit for their views on issues that matter to them, helping to create good policies, services, and laws through advice and campaigning, working with others to curate and create our common culture, and sometimes challenging the government in the courts when laws are broken. They appreciate the critical role of the media and judiciary in ensuring all voices are heard and government is held to account, and wonder when they too are attacked. People are shocked that the Government ‘cancels’ experts who have criticised their policies.
Sue Tibballs, CEO of the Sheila McKechnie Foundation which co-authored this report, said:
‘In the run up to the next election, all political parties need to step up and commit to policies that will protect those precious aspects of UK democracy that enable people, and those who represent them, to have a voice and a say. Too many people already feel they’re not listened to by their elected representatives, that their everyday concerns are ignored, and that they lack control. Attacks on the ability of charities to campaign and raise issues with the government or restrictions on the right to peaceful protest can only make this worse.’
Caroline Slocock, Director of Civil Exchange which co-authored this report, said:
‘Successive UK administrations have shown a loss of integrity and respect for the law and democratic institutions, eroding transparency, accountability and trust. Some politicians and commentators are even portraying judges, lawyers, charities, campaigners and parts of the media as a block to democracy, rather than vital elements of it. We’re calling on charities to create a broad coalition of interests across the political spectrum and sectors to defend and re-imagine a democratic space where people’s voices count and our democratic institutions are truly accountable.’
Civicus, which monitors trends worldwide, this year put the UK on the same alert as Poland, Hungary, and South Africa.
Threats to our democratic space mentioned in the report include:
- New laws that mean ordinary people wanting to protest peacefully about a new road or library closure may now be put off by the thought of being arrested; or that a teenager feeling they have no choice but to protest about inaction on global warming may face a criminal record that will damage their future career.
- Ministers making widespread use of powers to make laws that cannot be amended by Parliament and receive limited scrutiny, and which can even overturn Parliament’s express wishes – for example, the Government used powers in the Public Order Act to redefine ‘serious disruption’ as ‘more than minor’, effectively overruling a successful House of Lords amendment to the Act itself that ruled this out.
- Many charities being afraid to speak up about problems they see, partly because of the chilling effect of the Lobbying Act 2014, partly because of restrictions when they receive government money, and partly due to the hostile, so-called ‘culture war’ rhetoric they increasingly encounter.
- Government attempts in 2020 to curtail the independence of museums and galleries to curate their own exhibitions, on the grounds that they are ‘motivated by activism or politics’.
- Reduction in access to legal aid for the public, an increase in costs and financial risks for charities seeking judicial review of certain government decisions, and the restriction of access to judicial review as an appeal route for some types of case.
A fuller list is included in the appendix.
The report points to longer-term drivers behind these trends, such as the disproportionate influence of big business and media moguls or the polarising effect of social media, which are likely to remain whichever administration is in power.
The full report can be found at www.smk.org.uk/democraticspace.
For more information, please contact Chloe Hardy or 020 3687 3182. Sue Tibballs and Caroline Slocock (0780 7771255) are available for interview.
NOTES FOR EDITORS
- The ‘Democratic space’ is a new term invented to capture the space in which people and civil society organisations help shape the policies, services, laws, and culture that affect everyone’s lives
- In democracy we trust?, speech by Sir John Major at the Institute for Government on 10 February 2022.
- For example, IPPR polling published in 2022 found a dramatic fall in trust in politicians, with two thirds of the public saying politicians are ‘merely out for themselves’ and only 4 per cent thinking Parliamentarians are doing their best for their country (Revealed: Trust in politicians at lowest level on record, 5 December 2022. Similar concerns are reflected in polling included in Public Preferences for Integrity and Accountability in Politics, Constitution Unit, March 2023; and Talking politics: support for democratic reform, IPPR, June 2023. For more information, see pages 26 and 35 of Defending our Democratic Space.
About the report
Defending our democratic space: a call to action reflects research conducted throughout 2022 by SMK and Civil Exchange. It included 32 interviews, four roundtables, co-hosting of a wider event, and numerous follow-up conversations with participants and funders. Discussions involved people from civil society and beyond – charity and not-for-profit leaders, people from grassroots campaigns and movements, representatives from charitable foundations, thinktanks, the museums and galleries sector, the trade union movement, and individuals who are Parliamentarians or former senior civil servants. Interviewees included people across the political spectrum. New threats and commentary were also monitored during this period. Initial work was supported by a group of charitable foundations. This report was supported by the Funders Initiative for Civic Space (FICS).
The Sheila McKechnie Foundation (SMK) is a charity that supports change-makers, bringing the latest thinking and tactics for social change to life in its training and consultancy. It acts as a powerful champion for the right to campaign. And it brings the campaign community together to grow solidarity, and to share knowledge and ideas. It has been monitoring the impact of threats to civil society for more than five years. (England and Wales Charity No. 1108210, Scotland Charity No. SC044207)
Civil Exchange is a not-for-profit think tank which exists to strengthen civil society and help government and civil society work better together. Between 2011 and 2017 it published a series of reports with the Baring Foundation documenting threats to the independence of the voluntary sector and it has been continuing to monitor the relationship between government and civil society ever since, working with SMK since 2022.