Thoughts on civil(ised) society

Wai Kit Ow Yeong – Educator and Writer

It was unexpectedly fruitful. During the process of creating a nature poetry anthology From Walden to Woodlands — which I co-edited with Mr Muzakkir Samat — we found that our project fortuitously brought together members of Singapore’s civil society from three disparate areas: environmentalism, inter-religious harmony and local literature. Even on the day of our […]

Emma DeSouza
Writer and Civil Rights Campaigner

Should an inhabitant of a modern Western democracy ask whether or not they live in a civilised society, the average person’s initial response would most likely lean towards – yes, of course. However, when one interrogates the key principles of a civilised society – effective government, religion, education, basic freedoms – through a more critical […]

Kim Leadbeater
MP, Chair of ‘More in Common’ and Ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation

A civilised society is fundamentally about how we treat our fellow human beings. That is one thing that, when I talk about my sister Jo – which I do a lot in public – and I think about the traits that she had, in terms of humility, and empathy, and understanding, and being prepared to […]

Osman Kavala
Human rights defender, philanthropist and political prisoner

Although the term ‘civil society’ has a long history, it acquired its modern meaning in a period when hierarchical relations determined by non-economic factors and community structures broke down, bourgeois societies emerged, and the functions of state organs were redefined according to written laws. In its current use, the word ‘civil’ continues to assign a […]

Helen Cann
Illustrator and map maker

You can tell a lot about a society from a map - how land and lives are interconnected and what features are deemed important enough to be shown; maps are always edited documents after all. As an illustrator specialising in creating hand drawn maps, I wondered what a map of a truly civil(ised) society would [...]

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 […]

Judith Moran
Director, Quaker Social Action

‘Every human being can be a builder and a contributor’. For the last twenty years, this quote, from Edgar Kahn, the founder of the Timebank movement, has sat on my office wall. To me, the essence of a civilised society is one where we all shuffle up and make space for all of our fellow citizens […]

Marina Lewycka

When my parents were six in 1917, the Tsarist state, with its sumptuous and barbaric civilisation based on religion and autocracy, collapsed; revolution and civil war followed, and in 1922 the USSR was born. In 1991, five years before my father’s death and ten years before my mother’s, the USSR collapsed. Thus almost the whole […]

Onjali Q. Rauf
Author and Human Rights Activist

Have you ever been so angry at the uncivilised state of play in the world, that you have found yourself rushing to pick up a pen, simply because through the act of controlling its motions upon a blank page, you were able to find the release you needed to calm your inner states? Or perhaps […]

Avi Loeb
Astrophysicist, Cosmologist and Author

One of the most fascinating conversations I had about my book Extraterrestrial was with kindergarten kids. They were genuinely curious and did not carry a baggage of prejudice or self-importance. At the end of our chat, they brought up the most consequential question for them: “What will the future of our civilization look like?” I […]

Judith Mackrell
Author and Dance Critic

The American choreographer William Forsythe has created some of the world’s most brilliantly abrasive dances, but in 2018 he presented a programme of works that was titled, with simple seriousness, ‘A Quiet Evening of Dance’. Two of the pieces were performed entirely in silence, and all five were constructed out of small, exquisitely detailed movements, […]

Yanis Varoufakis
Former Greek Finance Minister and Co-Founder of DiEM25

Imagine that a group of us are shipwrecked, Robinson Crusoe-like, on a far-away, uninhabited island. We soon branch out inland on foot looking for resources. Jack chances upon a fresh water spring, Jill discovers a few bushes producing edible fruit, the rest of us return back with nothing. In the ensuing meeting, Jack and Jill […]

P.J. O’Rourke
Political Satirist and Author

I understand that somewhere in the works of Hegel (unreadable to me), ‘civil society’ is defined as the part of social existence intermediate between the family and the state. Count me an honorary Hegelian pro tem. What a blessing and relief to humankind that there is such a place – neither dominated by bickering over […]

Jane Marshall
Community Activist

Rabindranath Tagore once said ‘humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their connection of human relationship, which gives living solidarity to man’s world’. In the post-Thatcherite, neoliberal existence, words like ‘solidarity’ have drifted from the vernacular of the general public. But here, in our community, we are striving to at least preserve the notion […]

Gavin Esler
Broadcaster and Author

The literary critic F.R. Leavis offered the world many shrewd observations, but the one which as a student I found most useful was the idea of ‘close reading.’ Leavis suggested that looking deeply into the meaning of just a few words could offer useful clues about the whole of a literary work. As a university […]

Bridget Christie
Comedian, Actress and Writer

Before we had children my husband and I went to Florence for the weekend. It was quite a raucous flight over. People laughed, babies cried, a man sitting behind us snored loudly, the red wine ran out. There were no free nuts to begin with. Across the aisle from us another man, who was trying […]

Jonathon Porritt
Writer, Broadcaster and Campaigner

First and foremost, whatever else it may be that people believe are the critical features of a civilised society, they are all completely irrelevant unless we can transform our relationship with the natural world. There will be no civilised society for anyone, anywhere in the world, of any kind until we turn away from the […]

Regina Catrambone
Philanthropist and Co-Founder of MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station)

What makes a society civilized? It is an important question and one which might seem to require recourse to religion, philosophy, or politics. Or one could simply look out to sea and watch as vulnerable people, in desperate flight from violence, poverty and the impact of climate change, risk drowning in their attempt to reach […]

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. […]

Rt Hon. Justine Greening
Former Cabinet Minister

We might say that what marks out civil society is that beyond our common existence in some sort of the same proximity, there are other things that bind us together, that give us a sense of being more than simply an individual, or a family, and instead being part of a community, and perhaps, beyond […]

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, […]

Husna Ahmad
Humanitarian and Writer

Freedom to walk the streets and parks of Britain. Freedom to raise my children in safety and security. Freedom to practise my religion and wear the hijab without fear or hindrance. Freedom to speak out against injustice and promote ethical and universal values. This is what a civil society means to me. I had a […]

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. […]

Jennie Street
Managing Director, Rhubarb Farm

Rhubarb Farm CIC is a small social horticultural enterprise on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. We grow fruit and vegetables, but this is the vehicle to engage vulnerable, disaffected and isolated people in the rural communities of the old coalfield villages and towns in the area. Our aim is to help people change their lives for the [...]

David Robinson
Founder of the Relationships Project

At 19, I went for a job as a children’s residential worker with Tower Hamlets council in east London. At the time the big ‘village homes’ had been largely superseded by much smaller community-based homes, but the institution that I applied to still had 12 houses on a single site and over 100 children in […]

Usarae Gul
Artist and Textile Designer

I’m writing this during the global pandemic of COVID-19 in 2020. There is confusion, loss of normality, people are hysterically buying groceries; there is fear as death tolls rise, we are forced to physically isolate and the vulnerable are hit the hardest. I have very suddenly witnessed how thin the veneer of civilisation is. The [...]

Matthew Parris
Political writer and broadcaster

The coat of arms of the Colombian republic is crowded with incompatibilities. A warlike condor brings an olive laurel, symbol of peace; the pomegranate (a non-native fruit) was a symbol of imperial Spanish rule, which the republic threw off; and the little map includes the isthmus of Panama, lost more than a century ago. But […]

Dame Julia Unwin
Former CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

The historic arc of civil society in the UK follows the crises and moments of major change. The industrial revolution saw people leave their rural lives for new work in towns and cities and triggered a major moral panic about the welfare and morality of people freed from the bounds of village and family life. […]

John Boughton
Social Historian

A civilised society guarantees everyone a decent home – somewhere to feel safe and secure, a place to retreat to or a base from which to take on the world. I’m not too prescriptive about the type of home so long as it’s safe, secure, sanitary and affordable. I study public housing and I’ve seen […]

Gillian Darley

In the last few years there’s hardly been a day when the hairline fracture between what I consider civil society, here a subjective not an analytic judgement, and what lies beyond, doesn’t begin to yawn like a chasm. As the authors of Risk and Culture put it, ‘The perception of risk is a social process.’ […]

Rosie Carter
Senior Policy Officer, HOPE not hate

A civilised society relies on the relationships between its members. It is one where people are not valued differently just because of who they are, where hate is not given a chance. My work at HOPE not hate has been dedicated to challenging those who seek to create division and hate in our society, limiting […]

Dr John Sentamu
Former 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 […]

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 […]

Sir Bernard Ingham
Journalist and Former Civil Servant

You will, of course, be aware that many might think I am the last person to pontificate on a civil society since I was with Margaret Thatcher when she said “There is no such thing as society”. I saw trouble coming – and, indeed, the quote has been abused by many, including even the retiring […]

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 […]

Eric Kaufmann
Political Scientist

In my view a civilised society respects the human and expressive rights of the individual. The state has a role in taxation, redistribution and provision of public goods, but this should reflect the balance between wealth creation and egalitarianism favoured by the median voter. Civil society is important, but too often this sector is dominated […]

Dom Heffer

Click on READ MORE to see a new painting by Dom Heffer

Eileen Rudden
Trustee, OPAAL (Older People’s Advocacy Alliance)

Civil is a Latin word meaning communities or associations that are separate from the state and for those living in democracies, oversee activities not ruled by the state. These institutions include religious, cultural, economic and other activities. Importantly, some civil society organisations actively engage with governments and often have reactions that are both negative and […]

Anthony Horowitz
Novelist and Screenwriter

I would like to say that reading makes you civilised – or, at least, that it is impossible to be civilised if you do not read. Unfortunately, this is simplistic and not entirely true. You can read an engineering manual, pornography, a tabloid newspaper, the novelisation of your favourite TV programme or a history of […]

Kate Mavor
Chief Executive, English Heritage

A civilised society is one that not only looks forward, to a better world for those who live within it, but also looks back, developing an understanding of its past, and using that understanding to inform the present and the future. English Heritage believes that history matters. Each year, we enable more than ten million […]

Beckie Rowland
Recruitment Advisor for Community Placements, Greggs

Fresh Start reaches candidates who would not normally apply through our mainstream recruitment processes, and allows Greggs to offer routes to employment for those from more diverse backgrounds. Over the last five years, Fresh Start has enabled us to reach 4,328 candidates, a number that is constantly growing. I personally began working on Fresh Start […]

Kate Macintosh

From my bedroom window I see the Hampshire county jail, recently featured in a TV series on crime and our penal system. This depicted an institution 25% under-staffed, in which the prisoners were deprived of exercise periods for fear of uncontrollable violence, with staff reduced to a daily struggle to detect the ingenious devices by […]

David Shrigley

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

Anne Magurran

I grew up in Northern Ireland, in Lurgan – part of the so-called ‘murder triangle’ – during the Troubles. Our house was in the centre of town, within the controlled zone. Every car journey meant negotiating the security checkpoint, and there was the persistent anxiety of having to evacuate at short notice because of 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 […]

Anna Funder
Writer and Novelist

The week I moved to Brooklyn I had my haircut in a salon called Medusa’s. The hairdresser looked like a young Natalie Wood, but with tattoos blooming down her forearm. As she worked shampooing my hair, she told me her divorce had come through that day. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, not knowing what else to […]

Alan Titchmarsh
Gardener, Broadcaster and Novelist

The factors that make up a civilised society seem to me to have changed considerably over the last century. Advances in medicine, the influence of technology and the maintenance of peace in Europe have all conspired to improve lives but also to change the priorities of society. Once something appears to be settled, it is […]

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 […]

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 […]

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 […]

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), […]

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 […]

Andrew Motion
Poet, Novelist and Biographer

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

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 […]

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 […]

Baroness 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.

Danny Dorling
Human Geographer

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 […]

James Anderson
Community Plumber and Founder of DEPHER

A civilised society is only as community-minded as the community itself.  If you remove the ingredients that the community needs then it will collapse like a badly-made sponge. The community and the civil society are like night and day, they both rely on each other to exist and thrive. When you divide society, with gender […]

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 […]

Su Sayer CBE
Chair, Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)

Civil society is often the glue that binds communities together. It unites people who have strong values and a passion for making life better for others. It brings selfless people, both paid and unpaid, together with a common purpose. It benefits both those who give their talents and those who receive them. It increases people’s […]

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 Theoretical Physicist

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 Epidemiologist

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

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 […]