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The year everything changed

How will the 2010s go down in history?

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The year 2018 was not just a year of royal weddings and Russian extra-judicial killings. It was also the year our polite official consensus on what civil society is — or wants — was challenged by new movements from outside the ideological mainstream. It was the year of uncivil society. And it holds lessons for the future.

What is uncivil society? First, let’s define its more familiar cousin, civil society. If business is about buying and selling things, and government is about setting rules and distributing the resources we hold in common, civil society is all the ways people organise outside these two structures. Churches, charities, clubs, societies, ad hoc groups — civil society incorporates any social organisation driven by ethical or community objectives.

Uncivil society is angrier and more militant than churches and clubs. It emerges when a significant grassroots group comes together to campaign for ethical or social aims that the mainstream views as foolish, wicked or simply unattainable.

This was the year we saw the emergence of Extinction Rebellion, the mass mobilisation of the Brexit pressure group Leave Means Leave (which morphed, in 2019, into the Brexit Party) and an increasingly organised feminist resistance to transgender activism. All these are, in different ways, social organisations driven by ethical and community objectives. But all have been largely excluded from institutional support — effectively excluded from civil society — by a process called ‘policy laundering’.

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In its most blatant form, policy laundering looks like government departments using taxpayer money to pay lobbyists to influence government. Back in 2012, the IEA released a report outlining all the ways taxpayer funding was being used in just this way, for example on food or alcohol regulations.

In response, in 2015 the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles tightened up charity funding guidelines with the aim of clamping down on this practice. His changes banned the use of government funding to support any activity that aimed to influence Parliament, government or political parties.

But this is easier said than done. Let us consider an example: the Scottish Trans Alliance. This is a project funded by the Scottish Government Equality Unit and delivered by the Equality Network, which is largely funded by the Scottish government as well as by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (funded by UK government).

The project delivers research, advisory, and training, including to government-funded bodies, who in turn repeat the ideas received via reports, training and consultancy back toward policymakers. Thus, a nested series of public sector grants has enabled government to conjure into existence a body that shapes public sector policy. Meanwhile, the pronouncements and statistics produced by this arms-length government body are treated by the (government funded) BBC as though emanating from independent civil society voices.

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The whole cycle amounts to a process of laundering, by semi-independent bodies, a series of policies the government already wanted to adopt so they look as though they come spontaneously from the society upon which they will in due course be visited.

The result looks like a thriving voice for civil society in the national debate. But in reality it is more like the government having a conversation with itself, via a series of proxies. Meanwhile, that part of civil society without insider status sits scratching its head trying to work out which form to fill in to get a seat at the table.

Under those circumstances, you might expect differences to emerge between the official conversation and what people actually think and feel on the ground. Taking our example of transgender activism: in 2018 then-Equalities Minister Maria Millar launched a consultation on changes to the Gender Recognition Act. The proposed changes would effectively have turned legal recognition as the opposite sex from a bureaucratic years-long procedure involving medical testimony into a simple matter of form-filling.

The initial proposal was developed in consultation with government funded LGBT charities, but included little input from women. Opposition to the GRA reforms first gained traction on the parenting messageboard Mumsnet and over 2018 morphed into the campaigning organisation Fair Play For Women (government funding: nil) and swelled the ranks of Transgender Trend (government funding: nil).

These groups, aided by a coalition of social conservatives, radical feminists, transsexuals, ordinary concerned women and the occasional man, challenged the GRA reform campaign led by Stonewall (2018 UK government grant funding: £233,000, Scottish government funding £90,000, earnings from delivering paid-for training courses to the public sector: higher still). The activism of this uncivil society movement drove so large a response to the consultation that at the time of writing, over a year after the consultation closed in October 2018, the consultation’s official web page still just says ‘We are analysing your feedback’.

This resistance was not received kindly. Women speaking up on the topic have been harassed, threatened and even sacked. But their uncivil society campaigning was effective and unmistakeably grassroots.

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Elsewhere, 2018 saw a polite ecosystem of climate change lobbying to government disrupted by the October 2018 launch of Extinction Rebellion, whose (today) approximately £2.5m war chest comprises crowdfunding and donations from private individuals and charities — but no government funding. With its colourful stunts and ability to annoy free-traders and eco-incrementalists alike, Extinction Rebellion is both grassroots and unmistakably a product of uncivil society.

A tour of 2018’s newly-militant uncivil society would not be complete without the Brexiters. Ordinary Leave voters displayed a touching faith in the political process, and largely stopped campaigning following the 2016 EU referendum in the expectation that their vote would simply be implemented.

But by 2018, concerted resistance by most of official civil society to the prospect of leaving the EU prompted a groundswell of astonished popular anger that drove the rapid growth of Leave Means Leave (government funding: nil). This movement morphed in 2019 into the Brexit Party, which then became the primary vehicle for Leavers to express their outrage, which they duly did by sending 29 Brexit Party MEPs to Brussels. This result, and the obvious passion of its raucous, well-attended rallies, arguably helped end May’s premiership.

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The Brexiters are the only one of 2018’s largest uncivil society movements to receive any kind of official acceptance so far. The quiet fury of Leave voters, mobilised by the Brexit Party, found recognition in Boris Johnson’s election slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, and landed Boris Johnson an 80-seat Conservative majority.

What other widely held views are still obscured by a too-narrow ideological consensus in ‘official’ civil society? Will other uncivil society movements be heard as well? Boris Johnson’s freshly-minted electoral majority may give us cautious ground for hope. But while the ecosystem of policy laundering remains largely unchallenged, we still have a long way to go.