In all the discussion about Britishness that Lord Goldsmith’s proposal for an allegiance oath yesterday have kicked off, the most interesting thing is that what appears to unite everybody is the thought that it is a totally stupid idea. Looking through the comment pieces in the papers we have “Labour’s oaths and flags do not a nation make” in The Telegraph, “Citizenship: a British farce” in The Times, “They preach citizenship, but are terrified of losing power” in The Guardian and “Let’s be modern and swear an oath to the monarchy” in The Independent.
If you’re wanting a laugh, the “Let’s be modern and swear an oath to the monarchy” is probably the funniest – but in amongst the laughs, it hits the point:
The reason anyone who tries to define “Britishness” gets in a muddle must be because there’s hardly anything that unites everyone who’s British.
Needless to say, aside from the agreement over it being a stupid idea, the papers don’t actually agree over what is actually wrong. The Telegraph article for example quickly goes off in one direction, pointing the finger at the erosion of British institutions and the transfer of power to Brussels, whereas Simon Jenkins in the Guardian looks in the other direction, commenting on the erosion of local democracy – themes that echo an article he wrote a couple of weeks ago that I picked up thanks to Raspberry Rabbit.
Jenkins article then, under the title “Instead of elected local leaders, we have the police” was looking at how he believes local democracy has been nationalised, and that this disenfranchises the local community. Social responsibility, and a definition of communal behaviour is coming from national government, and so we turn to national instruments to deal with community problems. Jenkins argument is that social responsibility and a definition of communal behaviour in the first instance needs to be defined by the local community.
Goldsmith himself highlighted the community as being one of the reasons for his pledge proposal:
“It does make sense to promote a sense of shared belonging, a sense that you are part of a community with a common venture, to integrate better newcomers to our society and be clearer about what the rights and responsibilities are.”
In many ways that is absolutely right, but the simple problem is that people are not part of a sixty million strong British community. There are a number of layers in between, at the lowest level our street, then maybe an estate or hamlet, then parish, local area, county. Taking some sort of citizenship oath in front of some local dignitary, probably at an area or county level doesn’t really address binding local communities together – and peoples concerns are much more local, usually a street or estate level. There might be some common threads in the problems, but often solutions will be different for each local community, so the community needs to come together to deal with those problems, as a recent Panorama highlighted.
The programme gave a good example of how local people improving their community at a local level themselves have made a difference to life in Braunstone, an estate in Leicester, taking the estate from being a place people wanted to escape from, to one where there is a waiting list for housing on the estate. The comparison in the programme echoes Jenkins point – whilst in other examples the community spirit is struggling leaving people feeling isolated, the people of Braunstone have decided how people in their community are to behave, and they are enforcing that themselves. Of course it wasn’t easy, and they have had help from outside – a significant financial investment in facilities, and local government and Police help in removing troublemakers – but at the core is the local community as a whole driving things forward:
“It never ceases to amaze me how a minority can control an area where a majority of people live… all because of the fear factor. If you stick together on an issue they can’t intimidate you.”
It also extends to the fact that being a good citizen isn’t being taught in school, it’s being taught by the community to each other by their actions:
“If everyone on an estate felt that it was part of their rule… just spontaneously to relate to kids… to check their behaviour [and] socialise them, you wouldn’t have half the problems. You might still have problems as kids will be kids to a certain extent but this is what the community is meant to be about – socialising the next generation of kids.”
Trying to teach citizenship only in schools and then having some sort of ceremony to show you’ve passed the course is going to have little effect on the local community and how people relate to it – it is an attempt at an off-the-shelf, top down solution that totally ignores the variety of thorny problems that people have today. Whilst those problems may benefit from top down help, they can only really be solved from the bottom up. Whether Jenkins suggestion that we should be looking to the models of local democracy used in other countries will work, or whether it’s up to local people such as those in Braunstone to take the lead I don’t know, but certainly whilst proposals such as making the countries young people to do some sort of American style allegiance oath may provide for many column inches in the papers, it totally miss the root of the problem.