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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 15:26 GMT
Civil society: The ultimate Third Way?

civil society, n, polemic1. place where people are well behaved, considerate, active citizens; the public zone between the state and private life.

2. ADDITIONAL DEFINITION: used as a political phrase by President George W Bush and Conservative leader William Hague, to mean inter alia the adoption by religious and voluntary organisations of social work. Hague plans an Office of Civil Society.

CONTESTED USAGE: in neutral sense, civil society is unopposable, like motherhood and apple pie (even the most brutal dictator would doubtless like to claim his society was a civil one). But not everyone agrees with it in the specific political sense.

QUOTATIONS: 1. In neutral sense: "After decades of totalitarianism and centuries of autocracy, it would be silly to expect Russia to sprout a strong civil society." Economist, Nov. 2000.

2. In specific sense: "A civil society demands from each of us good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness." George W Bush inauguration speech, 20 Jan 2001.

2a. "Civil society is all the more important at a time when it is assumed by many that the welfare state alone can look after the needs of the vulnerable." William Hague, Nov. 2000. "Creating the responsible society" - His party's current slogan.

INDICATION THAT IT COULD BE IMPORTANT GENERAL ELECTION ISSUE: "This is the ultimate Third Way." Don Eberly, adviser to George Bush.

RELATED CONCEPTS: communitarianism (a buzzword of 1990s political ideology) - ie. emphasising needs of society and individuals' obligations to it rather than individual rights (see homepage of guru of communitarianism, Dr Amitai Etzioni on Internet links).

INTERESTING COMPARISON: "There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women, and there are families." Margaret Thatcher, 1987, quoted in Woman's Own.

Reader Mike Burton adds: Politicians should study politics. The term "civil society" has been in use for many years - I always associated it with Gramsci, but I think others used it before him. If it is now being used to denote "place where people are well behaved, considerate", ie society where people are civil, then the dumbing down process has gone further than I thought.

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