a1 Dept of Economic and Social History, Edinburgh University, Edinburgh, EH8 9JY
The concept of civil society provides a useful means of evaluating the social and political relationships of British towns. Civil society refers to the non-prescriptive relationships that lie between the state and kin. Such relationships are associated with the existence of the free market, the rule of law and a strong voluntary associational culture. Both theoretical analysis and historical evidence link civil society with the nature of urban places, their complexity, their function as a central place and their operation as a focus for flows of information. Between 1780 and 1820 the agencies of civil society in Britain provided an arena for making choices, for reasoned informed debate and for the collective provision and consumption of services in an open and pluralist manner.