Nick Pearce, IPR: Movements Must be Built From the Bottom Up

John Newton
John Newton, former slaver, Anglican priest  and abolitionist

Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at the University of Bath. He has been director of the IPPR and was Head of the No 10 Policy Unit.

In this blog, he talks about the need for Civil Society to have a voice demanding change and reform from those in power. Movements tend to be successful when they can gather around a clear goal. They need to be able to claim a moral value and legitimacy that  can only come from effective, willing and motivated activists that are not dictated to by people in power, but by a desire for change. 

“Before he became an Anglican priest in the late 18th century, and wrote the much loved hymn, Amazing Grace, John Newton was a slave trade sea captain. He bought and sold slaves, raping, torturing and killing them in the course of his journeys across the Atlantic. Despite being a deeply religious man, he had no moral scruples about it. Only later in life did he come to look back in horror on what he had done, when the abolitionist movement had begun seriously to challenge the slave trade.


Newton’s case encapsulates “the stunning transformation of moral consciousness”, as the philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson puts it, that swept across the world in opposition to slavery in the century or so that followed the late 18th century. Anderson uses Newton’s biography to open an important and illuminating lecture on how moral progress is achieved. In it, she takes the history of the abolition of slavery as the starting point of an exploration into how social movements can challenge and then change social norms by establishing new ways of living that vindicate their moral claims. In particular, she looks at how the powerful can confuse their self-interest with moral right, cloaking oppression and injustice in moral claims, until these are contested by social movements who succeed in creating social institutions and practices based on new norms. There is nothing inevitable about this, however. Social movements can be reactionary, as well as progressive, and they can fail in their efforts to establish new ways of organising society.

Social movements have critical roles in fostering social change: they mobilise and unify people around clear goals, and demonstrate their moral worth and commitment in their campaigns and organising activities. When we think about “doing good”, these questions of agency become important. Moral progress is not handed down from on high, but won through active participation. Anderson’s essay draws our attention to how we learn by doing, and how we succeed in making lasting change when our experiments in living become successfully embedded in new institutions, socio-economic organisations, and legal frameworks.

What does this mean in practice? A myriad of things, of course. But an example from our recent experience might help to explain the argument: the campaign for a Living Wage. This started as an initiative of faith groups and citizen activists, mobilising around a clear, morally charged goal of ensuring that wages are high enough for people to live on, such that they can enjoy their lives outside of work, with friends and family. It was grounded in active organising. It spread out of the voluntary sector into the private and public sectors. It got backing from foundations and corporations, and then public authorities, like the Greater London Authority. Eventually, political parties came to support it and more and more companies started to pay a Living Wage. The journey is not over, by any means, but lots of progress has been made.”

Nick Pearce
Nick Pearce, Director of Institute for Policy Research

For more on social movements, systems change, and queuing at Vauxhall Station, read Matthew Taylor on Coordination Theory. 

Want to know what movements are doing wrong? Read Steve Haines on why technology has failed to disrupt and transform Doing Good, and the potential for change in the Future.

Birmingham Impact Hub want funders like the Big Lottery Fund to use their resources to support big social movements, much like 19th century philanthropists helped fund the abolitionist movement. Does this approach work in the modern world?

Let us know what you think: leave a comment below, write a blog and let us know and tweet at #FutureGood, @IPR_NickP and @UniofBathIPR

One thought

  1. What you don’t fully acknowledge is the conflict side of social movments and the irony that a shrinking state and misc. commentators now exhort social movements as a cover for cuts and or remedy for a range of morbid social symptoms. It would be helpful to define your terms a bit more – what exactly do you mean by civil society (re intro to the blog) and presumably civil society organisations? Specifically what is the constituency that makes up the overwhelming majority of CSOs? Hint – it isn’t charities or social enterprises. Further question – to what extent has recent public policy helped or hindered CSOs, given the focus on service delivery, social makrets, impact anf governance?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s