I went to a most interesting talk recently by Stuart Etherington, NCVO Chief Executive, on whether 'Civil society is in danger of being hugged to death by government, local and national'.
He described the growing importance of 'civil society', meaning those activities which are governed by neither the state nor the market and made up of both charities (rooted in philanthropy) and co-operatives (based on mutuality and self-help) and highlighted the focus by politicians in Great Britain on understanding how government should be engaging with civil society.
Should the state simply be smaller? Or do we need a radical rethink of the role of the state, especially in areas such as building communities and social capital, where the work of civil society , or 'the voluntary sector', is so effective.
Perhaps the role of the state in such areas is one of 'enabler' rather than 'doer' . If so, then the question is: How do we do this, what mechanisms can government use to enable the voluntary sector to do what it does best? How can government help us to help ourselves, and to help our neighbours?
Listening to all this, I thought back to a talk I heard many years ago, describing the various institutions of society - family, church, government and economy - each of which have their proper area of operation. If any of them expand to exceed this area or, indeed, shrink so that they no longer fulfil their role, then the whole of society suffers.
The speaker's contention, with which I agreed, was that the economy had gained an importance far greater than it should, and that the influence and status of both the family and the church had shrunk, to our detriment. This is reflected in David Cameron's speeches in recent months, suggesting that happiness rather than economic growth should be the measure of our success.
I think that the state has also exceeded its boundaries and is intruding into areas in which it should not be.
When the welfare state was set up in 1944, the state usurped the role of the church and, to some extent, that of the family, rather than complementing them. Now, faced with the challenges of an ageing population, advances in medical technology, widespread family breakdown and an increasingly fragmented society, the government is finding it cannot cope alone and is turning to the voluntary sector for help.
Clearly, the family, church government and market all need to work together for the benefit of us all. The national debates currently taking place, on the interaction between the state and the voluntary sector, on the scope and the remit of the NHS, and on the place of Christianity in our national life, are all attempts to address this fundamental question:
What is the proper role and remit of the institutions of society: the government, the family, the church and the economy?