Britain's leading civil society organisation, Citizens UK (CUK), hosted a large assembly in Westminster Central Hall recently ahead of the general election on May 7. In the presence of over 2,200 representatives from across the country, leaders from the three main Westminster parties answered a series of questions pertaining to four key areas of the CUK Manifesto.
This year's general election, with a very uncertain electoral outcome, has made Britain worried, but remarkably lively. Many Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), up and down the country, have done their best in urging people to register to vote; political hustings are still going on with various parliamentary candidates up and down the country. This has proved vital for the encouragement of political debates on important national and local issues.
In this animated atmosphere some well-known CSOs and minority ethnic or religious communities have played noteworthy roles. Their activities have multiplied in the last few months to improve the health of Britain's politics.
CUK made its name in the last decade for their success in persuading many local government authorities, 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. Through direct civic action it energises grass-root civil society activists in local neighbourhoods to do small but powerful and necessary 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 the same Westminster venue.
Another example, Operation Black Vote (OBV), has been raising awareness of civic responsibilities amongst Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) 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 always gets an enormous boost during the month of Ramadan which is arriving in a few weeks time. One such group, the Muslim Agency for Development Education (MADE) 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.
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. Britain, in spite of occasional hiccups, has now become a good model of a pluralist country.
One premier example of success was the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics Games that showcased the 'Best of Britain'. It was possible due to a prolonged cross-party consensus (since the bid in 2005) and civic participation from citizens with their energy, activism and creative humour. As a member of the Organising Committee I witnessed the amazingly high level of civic engagement, with heightened social activism for the common good from all our communities before and during the summer of 2012.
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. 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."
In charity sector, one vital ingredient of civil society, Britain is acknowledged as the best in the developed world, thanks to its faith communities that have excelled others in philanthropy. 164,097 charities in England and Wales, registered with the Charity Commission, have a staggering total annual income of £64bn!
Charity and philanthropy depend on citizens' concern and proactive 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 under-performing communities can lift them up which also enhances better community relations.
A vibrant civil society is the anchor for moral and ethical public life. 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 life has become more complex; we must keep pace in addressing them with wholesome public discourse.
We need a 21st century solution for 21st century 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.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is the former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.