In the UK there is a rich tradition of charity, mutual help, volunteering and advocacy that can be traced back into the Middle Ages. There has been a further realignment of roles and responsibilities with a greater emphasis on self-help and community action. Although the new government has indicated commitment to civil society values through new policy frameworks (Big Society), there have been limited tangible results. Against a background of decreasing private donations, a reduction in statutory funding together with increased competition for public service delivery have created a decision point for many CSOs. With falling numbers of charities being registered, and some organisations either closing or merging, it is not clear what role civil society will be able to play in the Big Society.
This paper is a part of the Civil Society at a Crossroads initiative, a project supported by partners in several countries to explore issues confronting civil society globally. The initiative recognises that the challenges to civil society are as diverse as the contexts in which it is embedded. This paper was requested by members of the group aware of the long recorded history of civil society in the UK. They were interested in the background to many of the assumptions, approaches and legal history which have influenced civil society across the world.