Thoughts on civil(ised) society

Simon Armitage
Poet Laureate

I became interested in poetry at school. I was a very sleepy student until we started reading Ted Hughes and I just woke up. These little packages of information presented as black shapes against a white background felt like an electrifying jolt, and I think I knew at that point poetry was going to be […]

James Russell
Art Historian and Curator

We live in challenging times. The acrimonious debate over Brexit has left us confused and divided, and it isn’t easy to see where we go from here. Clearly we need to rediscover common ground with people of different views, but this requires a level of empathy and understanding sorely lacking in the last couple of […]

Frances Morris
Director, Tate Modern

Civil society happens in the public space – outside party politics or the family home or work place – of collective experience. Within civil society arts and culture play a key role in driving and mediating change. Works of art are peculiarly responsive to the socioeconomic and cultural context in which they are made. They […]

Tony Kettle

When I was growing up in the North East of England, my relatives were coal miners, shipyard workers and generally people who made things for a living (wage). Community was strong and proud, people pulled together to look after each other in the face of hardship and danger in their everyday lives. Ask the miners […]

Brinda Somaya
Architect and Urban Conservationist

There is no single answer to the question ‘What makes a society civilized?’ It is my belief that what one person might consider wild and uncivilized may actually have great depth and meaning to another. Coming from the East but having lived and studied in the West, my interpretation will naturally reflect my personal thoughts […]

Terry Waite CBE
Humanitarian and Author

A civilised society needs to be organised in such a way that members of that society feel they belong to a community and are able to participate to the best of their ability in decisions that affect their own well-being and the well-being of the country. This prerequisite involves political, social and economic decision-making. In […]

John Milbank
Theologian, Philosopher, Poet and Political Theorist

The term ‘civil society’ has become a thoroughly confused one. Originally, in the Middle Ages, it implied something like a Christian recension of the Republican ideal: a society including, but not exhausted by, a political dimension, with the latter construed in terms of self-rule by citizens, turn by turn. Later, in the eighteenth century, it […]

Tjinder Singh
Singer, Songwriter and Producer of the Band Cornershop

what in my view matters to civilised society? i think leisure, leisure is time to think, space to take in our environment, to reload, re-energise, to discuss, it is play, play is experimentation, it’s working out, it’s what we expect of our kids, and why we work hard to afford or allow them play leisure, […]

Magnus Macfarlane-Barrow
Founder and CEO of Mary’s Meals

Mary’s Meals is first of all a grassroots movement – this is an intrinsic part of our mission, and all who support it are of equal value no matter the type or size of donation…. Some development experts criticize Mary’s Meals (and advise the governments and institutional donors they work for not to fund us), […]

Romesh Gunesekera

A civilized society? In theory easy to find: enlightened, fair and caring to all. In practice, almost impossible to find without blemishes or gaping holes. So, it is up to you and me. First to establish an empathetic connection between the two of us, then the four of us, then the eight and so on. […]

Ken Loach
Film Director

It has become a cliché to say that our society is increasingly divided. The disparity in income, the choices people face, the turbulent effects of migration and the free movement of capital, the dominance of multi-national corporations – all contribute to conflict and instability. Civic society is correspondingly fractured, like the earth’s crust betraying the […]

Andrew Motion
Poet, Novelist and Biographer

Click on READ MORE to see a new poem by Andrew Motion

Baroness Julia Neuberger
Senior Rabbi, West London Synagogue

A civilised society is: A society that cares for the less fortunate. A society that looks outwards, not inwards. A society that spends less time online, and more time in relationships with real people. A society that recognises loneliness, grief and despair in others, and regards itself as under an obligation to alleviate that pain. A […]

Max Jeganathan
RZIM Regional Director, and Former Social Policy Adviser to the Australian Government

The word ‘civil’ has two distinct definitions that have very little to do with each other. The first is to be ‘courteous and polite’ and the second is to denote the distinction between ‘civil society’ and ‘military or ecclesiastical’ society. Historically, society’s great failure has been our inability to distinguish between the two and the […]

Kate Willard
Arts Council England

The ability and desire to create art are each reflective of a confident society and the individuals within it. Sustaining a civilised society requires the individuals within it to be confident. A society which creates, celebrates and shares art and creativity is able – if it so chooses – to build on this to develop […]

Dr John Sentamu
Archbishop of York

Like the Old Testament prophets, I suggest, it is essential for religion to speak truth to power. And so speaking up for the poor, the widow and the orphan flows from what the Church is and what it’s for. And it’s important for power to hear this religious voice, even if what is said is […]

Sir John Timpson
Founder and Chairman of Timpson

A few weeks ago a flock of Canada geese flew over my garden. I imagined them to be identical – looking the same, doing the same things at the same time and thinking in the same way. Maybe the geese were looking down on us thinking we too are like peas in a pod. If […]

Raymond Tallis
Philosopher, Medical Physician and Clinical Neuroscientist

Civil society is a necessarily ill-defined social space – or a collection of nested spaces and interconnected spaces. It is an intermediate zone between the state – with its instruments of control, regulation, protection and most importantly provision – and the private and informal, concentric and intersecting, circles of affection, allegiance and support represented by friends […]

Natalie Bennett
Former Green Party Leader

Back in 2014, when I first met the defenders of a single, iconic, tree in Sheffield, the Chelsea Road elm, they seemed few and isolated, and thousands of street trees in the city had already been felled with seemingly only nearby residents noticing. Fast forward four years, and we’ve now got a Sheffield internationally known […]

Christopher Le Brun
President of the Royal Academy of Arts

The visual arts are primarily characterised by making and doing, and particularly in the case of painting and sculpture, the experiences of the senses, especially touch. Recognizing the value and innate intelligence of touch is profoundly humanising, as it draws attention to individual temperament and its nature.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan
President of the Royal Society

As we face a world in which populations seem to be bitterly divided in many countries, it is worth asking what makes for a civil society. I use the word civil to mean courteous, so I could as easily have said civilized society. The first requirement is the rule of law. Societies need to know […]

Danny Dorling
Professor of Geography

For me a civilised society is one in which the greedy and selfish are kept under control. The more the few are allowed to take from the many, the less civilised a society becomes. However, highly unequal societies are often, and ironically, remembered as being civilised. They tend to leave large stone memorials behind, and […]

Peter Hitchens
Journalist and Author

A civilised society begins with conscience. Its members must be free to think what they want, and expected to govern their own lives as far as possible. For this to work, they should themselves hold beliefs which oblige them to treat their neighbours well. No such arrangement will work if it is not generally observed. […]

Britta Byström

As a composer of orchestral music, I am dependent on big musical institutions: concert halls, opera houses, radio symphony orchestras. To form an orchestra by oneself (let alone finding a hall for it to play in!) would be an impossible task, or maybe one accomplished once in a lifetime – at very great expense. The […]

Rt Hon Lord Blunkett
Former Labour Party Politician

A House of Lords Select Committee addressing the issue of citizenship and civic renewal produced its report ‘The Ties that Bind us’ back in April 2018. The debate – somewhat wiped out by events surrounding the Brexit transition arrangements – took place on 9 November. The reason for raising this is to draw attention to […]

Antony Gormley

Click on READ MORE to see selected work by Antony Gormley.

Dawn Austwick
Chief Executive, Big Lottery Fund

When I was 11 my mother took me to see Peter Brook’s ground-breaking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It changed my life because it showed me the possibility of worlds beyond my own.  Years later I read his short book on the nature of theatre – ‘The Empty Space’. Reflecting on what makes a […]

Tim Farron

You might think being involved in British politics at this moment in time automatically disqualifies me from talking about what makes society civilised. Indeed some would go so far as to argue that politics has never been more divided, pettier and less civil. The press and the public are fed up, and they have a […]

David Shrigley

Click on READ MORE to see selected drawings by David Shrigley.

Tam Joseph

Man has developed all manner of strategies, including governments, religious belief, science, medicine, politics and technology, to subvert and negate civilised behaviour. However, it is a salient fact that humanity would have died out 40,000 years ago without the guiding influence of civilised society, which at that period essentially meant working for the common good. […]

Tim Kidd
UK Chief Commissioner, the Scouts

In considering what makes a civil society, we probably all start from our own experiences. I’ve been a Scout nearly all my life so this will definitely colour my view. For me, a civil society is one in which people truly listen to one another, appreciate different perspectives and therefore benefit from other people’s qualities […]

His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols
Archbishop of Westminster

How do we begin to define what can reasonably be seen as inimical to the society we wish to shape and protect? […] My own inclination is to view actions and values as ‘unacceptable’ if they clearly and unreasonably impede the development of professional and personal competences fit for our economy and professional standards, such […]

Caryl Phillips
Author and Playwright

I believe the key to a civil society has always been very simple: finding the courage to speak to one’s neighbours.

Ophelia Field
Author and Interim Director of Rights Watch UK

A ‘civilised society’ means, to my mind, one where the rule of law and democratic inclusivity, transparency and participation are all prioritised. This can be undermined by authoritarian tendencies in executive government but also the rise of authoritarian values in public opinion. It will be undermined by those who seek to define the ‘good citizen’ […]

Jim Al-Khalili
Author, Broadcaster and Professor of Theoretical Physics

As a scientist and a humanist, a civilised society for me is one built on a number of basic human traits rather than on any particular broad ideology. Of course, an argument that could be levelled against me is that humanism, or indeed my rationalist scientific worldview, are themselves also ideologies and no different from, […]

Rt Revd Dr John B Thomson
Bishop of Selby

What makes a society civilised? Civilisation is rooted in the notion of citizenship. To be a citizen is to have dignity and agency and be able to participate in the conversations and practices which enable a society to discover and share a good, common and flourishing public life as friends. A society is civilised to […]

Dr Lee Elliot Major
CEO, Sutton Trust

Equality and fairness should be at the heart of any civilised society, so that all talents are recognised and nurtured and social mobility is high. In a civilised society, there should be no link between educational opportunities and family income, so that all young people are given the chance to fulfil their potential, regardless of […]

Kate Pickett
Author and Professor of Epidemiology

Thinking about ‘civilised society’ in the context of England in 2018, I find myself in wholehearted agreement with Gandhi – who, when asked what he thought of Western civilisation, answered: “I think it would be a good idea”. For me, the two tests of whether or not a society is civilised are, first, whether or not […]

Sir David Spiegelhalter
Statistician and Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk

Government on behalf of all, not merely the supporters of whoever is in power. Restrictions on the power of privileged individuals, for example through planning regulations. As far as possible, equality of opportunity leading to active social mobility.  Lack of exploitation of individuals and groups, whether through race, gender, or economic status. The state willing […]

Ian Davies
Professor of Education

What makes a society ‘civilised’?   The question of what makes a society civilised is too big for one small piece of writing. I work within education and wish to restrict my comments to that area, but even that is too broad to allow for meaningful consideration of key issues. As such, I restrict myself […]

Robin Silver
Director, Salts Mill, Saltaire

Every organisation, however large or small, has its own set of rules. These may be written in a formal way, passed on orally or exist in a series of protocols some of which are embodied in documents and some of which are the traditions to which members of the organisation must adhere. Even the hermit […]