The Role of Civil Society (Hukukun Ustunlugu Konferansi)

Lecture by Lord Alton of Liverpool
in Istanbul on 2 November 2000

There is a story concerning a politician, a doctor and a planner. They were arguing about whose was the oldest profession: “Mine is,” said the doctor, “because a doctor took the rib out of Adam to make Eve”. “Mine is,” said the planner, “because a planner created order out of the chaos which existed in the firmament.” “No, mine is,” said the politician, “because we created the chaos.”

Chaotic though many democratic societies may be, nevertheless they offer the best model for the development of a civil society. Let me begin with some admissions of failure. Britain is by no means a perfect society. I know from my eight year as a local councillor, my eighteen years in the House of Commons, and from my three years in the House of Lords, that our society and our system has many defects. In the City of Liverpool, which I had the privilege to represent, we are faced with widespread civic disaggregation and a loss of civic responsibility. In one Council Ward election, just six per cent of the electorate voted. This points to deep alienation in some of the poorer areas. There has also been a loss of patriotic commitment as an exaggerated emphasis has been placed on individual autonomy and rights rather than on duties and obligations. The cult of individualism has led to a loss of good citizenship. Yet, as Winston Churchill once observed democracy is “the least worse alternative” available to us. The challenge for us is to make democracy effective. Just as Rome was not built in a day – nor was Britain’s democratic society. Since Simon de Montfort and the barons came to Westminster to challenge the King in 1265 we have witnessed, in every generation, the evolution of the institutions which govern our society. In Britain we are coming to terms with the need to renew our civil society and so my reflections today are not meant as a blueprint for Thomas More’s “Utopia” but as a sharing of experiences and opinions which at a practical level may have some relevance in Turkey. Post Helsinki, Turkey stands on the threshold of applying for membership of the European Community. Many of us who regard ourselves as Turkey’s friends want to see Turkey bring her gifts to the table. The litmus test for modern nations seeking such a seat are human rights and democratic values. This seminar, jointly organised by Bilgi University and The British Council could not, therefore, be more opportune, more relevant or more timely.

I shall divide my remarks into three parts:

1. The Question Of Ideology

2. The Stabilising Tendency of Custom and the Virtues; and

3. The Quest For The Common Good.

The history of the twentieth century was a history of societies ravaged by ideologies. Some reduce man to a series of social and economic relationships where the whole concept of the person as an autonomous subject linked to others through a network of mutually important personal and communal relationships, and encouraged to take moral decisions, disappears. The responsibility of the individual to face good or evil is eliminated and social order becomes distorted. Civil society disintegrates and it is corrupted as people are deprived of something which they can call “their own” and of the possibility of either having a personal stake in their community or earning a living through their own endeavour. They come to depend on the social machine and upon those who manipulate and control it. Any understanding of human freedom which detaches it from obedience to the truth – and consequently from the duty to respect the rights of others, especially the most vulnerable – breeds a self-love and self interest which militates against the demands of justice. Such an approach to life may be seen in the disastrous wars which ravaged Europe between 1914 and 1945. Some of these wars stemmed from militarism and exaggerated nationalism, others stemmed from related forms of totalitarianism, others derived from the class struggle, others again were civil wars or wars of an ideological nature. The outcome was the extermination of entire peoples and social groups. When hatred and injustice are sanctioned and organised by ideologies they take possession of entire nations.

Tragically, today, new ideologies which exalt violence – such as those which fomented the conflicts in the Balkans or in South East Asia – are exacting a new price. However, the silence of weapons does not itself betoken true peace. For this to happen, the causes of war must be removed and genuine reconciliation between peoples facilitated. For most of the last fifty years half of Europe fell under Communist domination and dictatorship while the other half of Europe organised itself to resist Communism. One part of Europe suffocated its people within boundaries where historical memory and centuries old culture was ruthlessly suppressed. Forcible relocation and deportation was followed by an insane arms race which consumed the resources needed for the construction of civil societies. Scientific and technological progress was inhibited and instead of contributing to mankind’s well-being was diverted into ever more destructive weapons. In those parts of the world where it was decided to resist Marxism, systems of “national security” were created – which attempted to control their society in ways which would prevent Marxist infiltration. As they increased the power of the State – in order to protect the State from Communism – they have destroyed the very freedoms and values of the person for whose sake it is necessary to oppose Communism. In other societies it was decided to resist Communism by nurturing affluence and materialism. The consumer society – “I shop therefore I am ” – seeks to destroy Marxism by sheer materialism. The free-market society may provide higher standards of living than Marxism but it, too, loses something by excluding spiritual values and by failing to focus on the voluntarism, charity and generosity, which nurture a truly humane civil society. When consumer societies talk endlessly about individual choice but deny value to ethics, law, culture, and religion, it is merely aping the worst characteristics of Marxism for it has reduced man to a commodity to be judged in terms of economic output or by the satisfaction of material needs. Post colonial societies often find themselves trapped by materialistic forces which are completely disinterested in the development of civil societies. Large foreign companies are often no different from the old colonial masters or from the ideological empires in as much as they only wish to pursue their own interests and ignore the aspirations of the nations whose raw materials and people they so readily exploit. After World War Two, and in reaction to its horrors, the founding fathers of the European Community saw the desperate need for an alternative to these options. Theirs was not an ideological response but one which was based on a more lively sense of human rights and the rights of nations. The focal point has been the development of the European Union and the United Nations Organisation. As we experience the phenomenon of globalisation the new “lingua franca” of human rights is a language which we have all been learning to speak. In a post-ideological world it is a good omen for our future development.

The second area which I wish to address concerns the stabilising tendency of custom and virtue. In the construction of civil societies we must build on custom and on virtue rather than political ideology.Voting - Democracy in action

Among the ancients Aristotle is best known for his belief that everyone should pursue virtue and for his upholding of communal existence, or koinonia. The koinonia was not about civic structures of government but about the qualities in mankind which made civic co-existence a possibility. In “Politics” he wrote that we are “not like solitary pieces in chequers.” he said “adios, or shame, would attach to those who refused to play their part. In ancient Rome, Cicero held that “the whole glory of virtue is in activity.” Aristotle’s ancient virtues remain for me the key to building a civil society. These are the virtues which he recommended:

Prudence; and

How a person measures up to these virtues and acts as a moral agent affects everything from how they behave towards their neighbours and their environment to how they uphold ethical standards in politics or commerce. We begin building a civil society by our own actions towards one another – by our willingness to serve rather than to dominate and by our willingness to embrace values which run counter to those which may prevail throughout mainstream society. The Green Movement, with its emphasis in preserving our environment and heritage for future generations is a wonderful example of citizens who have taken a personal stand in the interests of society as a whole. The young Turks who have been planting trees in Anatolia are a good example of virtuous citizenship in action.

The virtues must be cultivated in the context of the culture and customs of that society rather than by importing Pax Americana or its European equivalent. Thomas Hill Green, a great nineteenth century idealist, moral philosopher and exponent of ethical liberalism, held that virtue was best understood as a personal outpouring for the common good.

This is my third and final point. It is less by imposed changes of a mechanical kind or of an ideological nature and more through internal development that new things properly come into being in the social order. This is the way to achieve the common good and to create a civil society. The virtues are acquired by practice. They are internal qualities perfecting the interior person and, thus, inter alia, society as a whole.

A thriving democracy and the common good presupposes legal institutions which protect liberty and prevent the exercise of the suffrage from being distorted. It also implies – and perhaps this above all else – the education and formation of the masses. By this I do not simply mean institutions of learning which enrich the intellect but ethical education which forms the virtues and good tendencies, which engenders a spontaneous uprightness of the will, and shapes instincts and conscience. The wolves are always waiting at the door, waiting to destroy civil society and education is our best defence. The bad comes to pass more frequently than the good. All the more reason to create political and civil structures and institutions which are organised in accordance with the order of nature and justice and centre on the common good. Laws are only truly laws if they are just – and they are binding in conscience only if they are just. Real, not feigned justice, is the foundation of authority in the law as it is for stability and peace within the community. The Common Good and a Civil Society require the progress of social justice; the organic development of institutions of law; the participation in more and more extensive ways of people in political life; the creation of conditions which really do offer each an equal opportunity to bring their gifts to fruit and which rewards the efforts of its labour for common use; and the cultivation of that inner liberty which gives mastery over self; and, finally, a love of knowledge and truth.

My Irish speaking mother brought me up to believe in the common good. An Old Irish saying has it that: “It is in the shelter of each other’s lives that the people live.” My British father, a soldier in his youth, whose brother was killed while serving in the Royal Air Force, brought me up to believe in the importance of duty. These building blocks of the common good and personal duty are key components in creating a non-ideological civil society. As Britain and Turkey share their respective experiences I hope that we will grow ever closer and work alongside each other in building a more humane and just society. In doing so perhaps both our countries can thereby avoid the chaos which is undoubtedly the alternative to a civil society.