This is a transcript of the presentation I gave at the Equalities & Human Rights (EHRC), Greets Green Partnership event earlier today entitled, ‘Citizenship’. It was a precursor to a workshop that I facilitated on ‘responsibilities’ and so may seem slightly incomplete.

What does it mean to be a citizen?

The dictionary definition of ‘citizen’ is pretty straightforward:

Noun. 1, a native or naturalised member of a nation or state. 2, an inhabitant of a city or town.

Historically though, things have been slightly different.

The notion of being a citizen first arose in Ancient Greece. In those days, being a citizen was seen as a public matter, separated from the private life of the individual. The obligations of the citizen were deeply connected to everyday life where everyone had to be active in the community. As Aristotle famously expressed:

“To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”

This form of citizenship was based on the obligations of citizens towards the community, rather than rights given to the citizen. This was far from problematic because all had a strong affinity with the community, their destinies and futures being closely linked. Citizens also saw their obligations and responsibilities to the community as an opportunity to be virtuous, honourable and respectful.

In the Roman Empire, citizenship changed and expanded from small-scale communities to entire empires. Romans realised that granting citizenship to people from all over the empire legitimized their rule meaning that taxes were more easily collected and the need for expensive military power was reduced. Citizenship was no longer a status of political agency; it was reduced to certain safeguards and the expression of rule and law.

Citizenship today tends to be based on these same historical understandings, typically though in terms of a country.

Unsurprisingly then, British legislation sees citizenship as being not only directly linked to the idea of nation but also to the former empire too. At present there are six levels of citizenship, some of these were defined in the British Nationality Act 1981:

British citizenship;
British overseas citizenship;
British overseas territories citizenship;
British national (overseas);
British protected person;
British subject.

Of these, only British citizens have an automatic right to live and work in the UK and to apply for a British passport. Those with other forms must obtain permission to live and work here even though they may be entitled to register as British citizens in certain circumstances.

In the contemporary British context much has been made of late about the idea of being a citizen and what this means. For example, is it just about possessing a British passport or is it that the passport should be ‘earned’.

Maybe because of this, much has been made of the need for greater citizenship. From the introduction of ‘Citizenship’ lessons into the National Curriculum in 2002 for all state schools across the UK, through the introduction of ‘citizenship tests and ceremonies’ by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett in 2005, to a number of different speeches given by Gordon Brown, the focus has been on citizenship being understood as a two-way contract: one that has both rights and responsibilities attached to it. As Gordon Brown put it when talking about immigration:

Being a British citizen is about more than a test, more than a ceremony. It’s a kind of contract between the citizen and the country involving rights but also involving responsibilities that will protect and enhance the British way of life. It’s also right to consider asking men and women…to undertake community work in our country, or something akin to that, that introduces them to a wider range of institutions and people1

Underpinning this is the notion of “active citizenship”, one where citizens work towards the betterment of their community through economic participation, public service, volunteer work, and other such efforts to improve life for all citizens. Active citizenship is therefore put forward as a means of addressing the ‘problems’ or ‘challenges’ in society and its communities.

This has been central to a significant amount of New Labour inspired thinking, not just in terms of ‘new’ citizens but everyone. Most notably, this can be seen in reports such as ‘Our Shared Future’ by the Commission on Integration and Community Cohesion and as integral to the whole ‘community cohesion’ agenda. So when Hazel Blears has spoken about strengthening society, she said that:

communities that are cohesive, active and engaged [are] empowered and “citizenship-rich” in every sense of the term2

Similarly, in the influential ‘Our Shared future’ report, the findings speak of how a strong society is one where:

civility and courtesy are the norm, where people are at ease with change, and are committed to being good neighbours and active citizens. A society where opportunities for advancement are there for the taking and prosperity is more evenly distributed.3

Of course, these are not necessarily bad things. All of us want to live in strong, safe and secure societies, where opportunities for advancement are equal for all.

But can those such as greater economic participation, more public service, increased volunteering, swearing allegiance, and generally being a ‘good neighbour’ really create a society where opportunity is more evenly distributed? Can greater or more active citizenship really address those challenges posed by increased poverty, the widening gap between those who have and have not, growing social and economic inequality, and a lack of positive engagement?

Contemporarily, the debates about citizenship confuse historical and legislative notions. Today’s debates are far more complex and multi-layered, in many ways a smokescreen behind which the real issues and challenges of our increasingly diverse and complex society are somehow shrouded or even hidden.

This is not to suggest that citizenship and active citizenship should be readily dismissed: in fact, quite the contrary. But to further the debate we need to reject naïve and simplistic notions of citizenship.

To go beyond this, we must first to articulate the debate about rights versus responsibilities: in other words, the obligations that both the community and the citizen had in historical models. If the state gives rights to those under its remit, then it is right that the people should have certain responsibilities to uphold in return. In this way, the citizen is able and entitled to exercise both their rights and responsibilities in a balanced and equitable way.

But here is where the problem lies. Whilst our rights are written down as part of law, our responsibilities are not. Neither are they defined nor even thought about in a robust way and so disagreements amongst citizens as to what the responsibilities are duly ensue. So for example, whilst citizens have the right to free healthcare, they do not have the responsibility to vote. As such whether because of their age, disability, religion or sheer apathy, many do not fulfil what might be seen to be a responsibility to society.

Writing a clear definition of responsibilities for an active citizen is therefore what is desperately needed. Writing a clear definition of responsibilities for an active citizen is though far more problematic than writing a list of rights, something that we have in the Human Rights Act 1998.

If then as a society we want our understanding of what it is to be a citizen to go beyond the mere dictionary definition, the possession of a passport, or the being a ‘good neighbour’, the Human Rights Act must be our start point. Already the Act is a means through which all of us are able to understand the rights that we all have as well as being a framework within which inequality, poverty and discrimination can begin to be addressed.

In much the same way, the Act could also be used to help us articulate what is required of every one of us thus rendering the notion of citizenship something far more tangible, relevant and realistic at the same time as providing a recourse to law for when things go wrong. The Act therefore would be used to cement the social contract, provide the necessary balance between rights and responsibilities, as well as facilitating the legal relationship between the citizen and the state. It might also contribute towards making society and fairer and more equitable place as well as improving our collective understanding of what it means to be a ‘citizen’ in today’s Britain.

If though the citizenship agenda is merely a smokescreen behind which society’s ills and challenges are being hidden, then unfortunately, not only will those ills and challenges fail to be adequately addressed but we will also fail to become both individually and collectively, better citizens.


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