In contrast to communist regimes, liberal democracies pride themselves on the role of a strong civil society existing independently of the ruling state ideology. Civil society under communism, to the extent it would exist at all, would be regulated, funded and governed in a way that was dominated by the state apparatus. Civil society groups would be a) restricted from political activities; b) significantly reliant on state funding; and c) not truly independent, with the state directly influencing decision making and governance.

Of course this is a far cry from the UK today. Isn't it?

1. Regulation: Many civil society organisations are regulated by charitable law. Certainly our leaders are - NCVO is a charity. ACEVO and NAVCA are charities. Most think tanks are charities. Yet a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which includes "securing or opposing a change in the law, policy or decisions" and "an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political". Charities must never support or oppose a particular political party or directly promote the policies of a particular party and must ensure that any involvement it has with political parties is balanced. Furthermore, organisations are incentivised by the state to adopt charitable status and thus fall under these rules through - as Dame Suzi Leather puts it - “generous tax breaks and other advantages".

2. Funding: The 2012 NCVO Almanac tells us that between a third and a half of the voluntary sector’s income comes from statutory sources.

3. Governance: The recent Panel on Independence of the Voluntary Sector reported that “state appears to exercise undue influence over the governance of charities…  in some cases there is a sole trustee who is a local government employee… pressure can be put on them to include a local authority representative on their Boards”.

So for civil society in the UK today, political acitivities are restricted, government funding is critical and the state can restrict the independent governance of the sector. As the Independence Panel concluded, there are “real and present risks” to independence and “indirect and sometimes direct pressure towards self-censorship, muting the voice of some in the sector”.

But when we are living through a crisis of trust in our financial institutions, politicians and the media, surely we need the independence, strength and ideas of civil society now more than ever? Instead of scrambling around trying to mitigate the suffering caused by the rules of the game, shouldn’t civil society be leading the charge to change the rules? Come on comrades - we have nothing to lose but our chains!