William Wallace writes: Active citizenship

The Financial Times is the most politically liberal national newspaper – sadly, read only by a fraction of those who get the Daily MailMartin Wolf’s ‘Big Read: the New Social Contract’ in the FT of 6th July laid out very clearly the links between active citizenship, stable democracy, and limits to economic inequality:

Citizenship…is the tie that binds people together in a shared endeavour…  In today’s world, citizenship needs to have three aspects: loyalty to democratic political and legal institutions and the values of open debate and tolerance that underpin them; concern for the ability of all fellow citizens to lead a fulfilled life; and the wish to build an economy that allows the citizens and their institutions to flourish.

Liberal Democrats have not been sufficiently vocal about the drift within the UK to passive citizenship and populist central government.  Local democracy has been squeezed; civic education is minimal; political campaigning is increasingly dominated by well-financed professional advisers.

But Wolf is concerned to analyse the economic factors behind the decline in democratic activism and open debate.  He notes the decline of the skilled working class with the collapse of the UK’s industrial base, the importance of education in gaining employment and worthwhile incomes in the post-industrial economy,  and the consequent widening gap between rich and poor.  He also underlines ‘the inordinate growth of finance’, ‘the decline of competition’ and increasing corporate tax avoidance as banks and corporations have consolidated and exploited offshore loopholes.  The result has been ‘a strong sense of unfairness’ in our society (and in other countries), and the exploitation of ‘coalitions of the disaffected’ by populist groups.

His remedy is ‘a return to the idea of citizenship’ in which the state and its citizens recognise mutual obligations.  ‘The first concern of democratic states is the welfare of all their citizens.’  That means full education for all, support to the disabled or ill to play their part as citizens, and protection and rights at work.  In return, citizens and corporations ‘should expect to pay taxes sufficient to sustain such a society’, and those taxes should promote ‘a vigorous middle class’ without extremes of wealth or poverty.

All this may sound self-evident to the committed liberal.  But it’s a radical manifesto for our corporate elite, and for the wealthy financiers who have funded the anti-democratic populists who have exploited the resentments of the left-behind.

It differs, too, from the classic Labour approach of a state that provide services for inactive citizens to receive.  It assumes a higher overall level of taxation, incursions into the cultures of high pay and offshore wealth, and a focus on fairness and equal opportunity: an explicit social contract between state and citizen.

It also assumes a distinction between citizens and non-citizens which many liberals may find difficult to accept: not only limiting the ease with which Russian oligarchs and Gulf Sheikhs can exploit the openness of our economy and society, but also ease of access for poorer non-citizens, from poorer countries.

Can we persuade the disillusioned British public to accept that there is an unavoidable link between the character of our political institutions, the fairness of our economic structures, and the quality of our society?  The radical way in which Gove, Cummings and Johnson are attempting to reshape our institutions should make it easier to do so.

This is the core and origin of political Liberalism: Wolf starts with a quotation from Aristotle’s Politics, which also inspired John Locke and John Stuart Mill.  I hope he has made many FT readers think a little more critically about the condition our state and society have sunk into.  We need to get a much wider public to think the same way.



* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • Not a fan of this concept of nationalist liberalism.

  • I suspect “active citizenship” isn’t that dissimilar to what David Selbourne wrote about in his book “The Principle of Duty: An Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order”, just that Martin Wolf’s piece makes the concept more understandable and gives it current relevance.

  • William Wallace,

    You mention a social contract. How do you feel about the concept of a new Beveridge-type Social Contract which Katharine Pindar and I are advocating to deal with the five social ills of:
    Poor health and health care;
    Deficient skills, education and training;
    Homelessness and lack of sufficient affordable homes;
    and Unemployment and underemployment?

    I think the three aspects of citizenship which you quote from Martin Wolf are fine, but I am not sure how ‘active’ any of them are.

    Perhaps the issue is the idea that there is little point in voting because nothing changes and all political parties are the same. There was a general consensus on economic policy in the 1950s and 60s. I wonder how far it was expressed then. I think it was even said in the 1980s when I would argue there was little consensus. And it may have taken off under new Labour in the 1990s.

  • Jenny Barnes 10th Jul '20 - 7:24am

    “All political parties are the same “
    One reason LDs did well in the 2010 election was that they were seen to be different. Now – not so much

  • richard underhill 10th Jul '20 - 8:44am

    9th Jul ’20 – 10:01pm
    ” we should be a little nervous about rich people from autocratic states owning property and exercising influence within the UK without the obligations of citizenship”
    So do we want to nationalise Chelsea Football Club?
    I declare an interest as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur
    When we were the first club to win the double it we defeated Chelsea in the FA Cup.

  • Antony Watts 10th Jul '20 - 9:32am

    Citizenship has another requisite. You should be recoginised as a full citizen if the UK has a treaty of freedom of movement with the other country – as it was across the EU.

    This aspect of agreeing that you have common laws is vital to allowing mutual citizenship.

  • Much as I respect Spurs, they never won the title three years on the trot as Huddersfield Town did, or the Cup before Bradford City did.

    Too much money has killed the spirit of the game.

  • Steve Trevethan 10th Jul '20 - 12:16pm

    Does our alleged sovereign state have an active but unstated policy of what might be called “Carpark Capitalism” whereby anybody can buy anything irrespective of the possible consequences for its citizens and their children?
    Might it be beneficial to move from the similarly submerged policy of having citizens classified as “customers” and not citizens?
    Might the affective/emotional impact of such a change make us more alert to our socio-political contexts?

  • I’ve been thinking a lot recently about TH Marshall’s “Citizenship and Social Class” as something that stuck in my head from my degree. And to be honest, while I would like to see the final stage of citizenship in his terms “social citizenship” realised, it strikes me that in all sorts of ways we have not even achieved step one – “civil” citizenship, never mind “political” citizenship he claimed had been more or less achieved a century ago now.

    Further, surely making one of the essential characteristics of “citizenship” an engagement with a set of institutions, and “democracy” such as we call it, is already a step too far. Such institutions have been and are still about power *over* people rather than power *of* the people. A good citizen should be free to collaborate with their rest of his community to challenge, not necessarily agree to that mechanism. To decide when they need nannying and governing not just to accept that we do.

    But it is significant that it is Martin Wolff writing this, and talking about contributing in tax and so on, because he is a firm advocate of land taxes. That really would be a leveller. Taxing everyone for doing what society wants of them – working, producing, investing in productive capital, trading and using that tax effectively to subsidise those who titles deeds tell them they own the country, and causing ever increasing hardship to the half that don’t have that privilege, violates all three levels of Marshall’s ideas of citizenship. Whereas sharing that rent takes us straight to his ultimate goal of “social citizenship” quite literally sharing in the social surplus of the country equally.

    I find at present though, and on the evidence of history, I cannot personally buy in to any notion of a “social contract” that is bound to obedience to and engagement with the very institutions that have upheld these inequities for centuries and continue to do so.

  • Peter Martin 10th Jul '20 - 2:06pm

    @ Richard Underhill,

    “So do we want to nationalise Chelsea Football Club?”

    No. But we should be looking at the German Model of Football Club ownership which has a requirement of 51% of ownership by supporters.

    Football Clubs should be just that. ie Clubs and not the personal possessions of those who have acquired money piles in dubious circumstances.


  • Sue Sutherland 10th Jul '20 - 2:36pm

    I would like to go further than Jock Coats and say that in a fully functional Liberal democracy the concept of the State and its citizens should play no part. Instead a nation should be regarded as a community, composed of many different communities, which should operate for the good of that community as a whole. We have seen community action in play at many different levels during the pandemic. Most people have willingly given up their freedom to protect the most vulnerable in our UK countries.
    Labour and Tories battle over the role of the state, which has resulted in a decline in public services for us all. Instead we should be looking at the value of that service to the community as a whole before deciding whether the national community should pay for it.
    The state is, in fact, just the bureaucratic arm of the elected government and our role as Lib Dems should be to create a society in which no one is at the mercy of those who are administering government policy. Just as we try to devolve power to and within local communities, we should also create policies to involve members of the national community in the operation of the national government. Regionalisation would help with this if power and accountability is delegated to the regions which should also involve members of that regional community in the decision making process. The Tories’ idea of sending government departments outside London will have little effect on the democratic process.
    Until we get out of the sterile arguments about the state, about the Left and the Right, we won’t be able to express our beliefs in terms of policies because we aren’t seeking power for the few or the many. We are seeking the welfare of our national community as a whole and this means that some groups may have to be pulled back if their freedoms are interfering with the freedom of other members of the community, to the detriment of the national community as a whole.
    We believe in liberty, equality and community and it’s time for us to bring community to the forefront of our policies.

  • Sue, thanks you. As an anarchist I wholly agree. I was just toning it down a little for his lordship 🙂

  • Katharine Pindar 12th Jul '20 - 2:54pm

    The social contract that derived from the Beveridge proposals of 1942, Jack Coats, had nothing to do with obedience to institutional demands, but on the contrary demanded that the government did its duty to the people, by remedying the social evils of the time. Similarly the new national Social Contract that Michael BG and I are proposing would deal with the social ills of our time. We believe that our party under its forthcoming new leader should adopt this policy, as an overarching theme for our continuing strategy to win seats and share national power.

  • Clive Sneddon 16th Jul '20 - 12:53am

    No one so far seems to have mentioned Astra Taylor’s Democracy May Not Exist But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. One of the difficulties in defining democracy is that it requires the ruling demos to be identified. That is a parallel point to the citizens/non-citizens distinction that several people are uncomfortable with. As a quarter-Scot Londoner, I can say I am British. That does not mean I don’t welcome everyone who wants to come here and contribute to Britain. So I see no necessary problem from that distinction per se. It is only a problem when a hostile environment is created to treat foreigners badly, and those politicians who do that need to be stopped. I expect everyone living here to treat others with respect, as they themselves would expect to be treated. What I would add is that we need the same mutual respect to exist in companies, in the public sector and the media. Stakeholders in a company are those who share a common interest in its success, its shareholders, staff, customers, suppliers and HMRC. Each stakeholder needs to treat other stakeholders with respect, so for example a group of senior managers who organised things so as to receive more favourable payment than other members of staff at the expense of shareholders and HMRC at least, is not treating all other stakeholders with respect. In the public sector, staff are there to serve the public as laid down in state or as decided by a local authority; since they are paid by taxpayers, serving the public needs to be done effectively but also efficiently and economically; the stakeholders here are beneficiaries, staff, taxpayers and HMRC, and again it is wrong for beneficiaries to be denied the services that voters have supported simply to benefit taxpayers. With respect to news, the media is in a special position. If privately owned it has the same stakeholders as other companies, if publicly owned, the same stakeholders as other parts of the public sector. But with regard to news it has an additional responsibility to voters, who rely on information from the media to decide how they will vote. If the media do not supply information about everything voters find problematic and requiring change, letting voters know what solutions a range of parties is offering to those problems, the media is letting its most important stakeholder down and impeding the proper functioning of democracy, assuming it exists as Astra Taylor believes.

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