Citizenship politics, citizenship economics - RSA

Citizenship politics, citizenship economics


  • Social brain

It boils down to this: policy and politics must start from the question of citizenship. This has been the core assertion running through my annual lectures, through this blog and through the strategy for the RSA. I am more and more convinced that this idea is the best basis for an intelligent, powerful, and urgently necessary debate about the choices society faces. But given that the demands of my job rule out finding the time and focus to write a book or even an extended pamphlet, how can I get this idea to the centre of current debate?

To recap - citizenship politics starts from the question ‘who do we need to be to create the kind of future we say we want’? When we look at this question we see a gap – what I have inelegantly called ‘the social aspiration gap’ – between our collective aspirations and our current trajectory.

This gap has three dimensions; three ways in which tomorrow’s citizens need, in aggregate, to be different to today’s. We need to be more engaged. It is only through mature engagement that we either give permission to our leaders to make right and responsible decisions for the long term and for the interests of all citizens, or that we accept that social progress rests, at least in part, on the decisions we make about our own lives.

We need to be more self reliant. We cannot help those who most need help, nor can we find fair and workable solutions to shared global and national challenges (such as climate change and international development) unless as many of us as possible, for as much of our lives as possible, meet our own needs as individuals and groups.

And we need to be pro-social, that is to say we need to behave in ways which strengthen the fabric of society and in particular the ties of reciprocity which underlie what David Halpern has recently called ‘the hidden wealth of nations’.

Importantly, citizenship politics has both a utilitarian and a normative rationale. The utilitarian case – made on grounds of economy, environment or mental well being - is that we simply cannot go on living like this. Debt (whether personal, corporate or public) is a powerful symbol of the unsustainable nature of contemporary lifestyles.

The normative case, which harkens back to the enlightenment origins of the RSA, is that to fulfil our potential as human begins we should be full members of society; which means we are engaged, self reliant and altruistic people.


The question for citizenship politics is this: ‘what decisions and what type of decision-making can best enable people to be the citizens they need to be to create the future to which we aspire?’

In answering this question there is plenty of scope for differences between left and right, concerning, for example, the role of the state and the importance of social equality. But both left and right should start, not from second order questions such as how can we maximise family income or economic growth, or even how can we achieve more equality, but with the first order question of future citizenship.

I have been inspired to return to these issues by hearing the economist and commentator John Kay speak at the Progressive Governance Conference in London this morning.

In a brilliant intervention he urged people to understand exactly what we should mean by economic growth. This, he said, is the process by which technological innovation and investment in physical and human capital create new choices for individuals and societies. But – and this is where the power of the argument lies – the route to more choices (for which we might more grandly say ‘freedom’ or ‘fulfilment’) lies not in ‘materialism’ – the producing and buying of more stuff – but in ‘lifestyle’. Quite apart from the way the crazed pursuit of more stuff has left us all indebted and our economy enfeebled, in aggregate as a society, what extra choices has most of the materialism of the last two decades really brought us? 

Instead, says Kay, if we want to think about how growth creates choice take the example of food. The quality of the food most people eat in this country has improved dramatically in the last two decades. But not because we are eating more (obesity is generally a disease of the poor not the middle class) but because we spend more on better quality food. Improvements in the way we cook, in our knowledge, and our skills (stretching from Jamie Oliver to our own culinary efforts), have expanded the market and given us new choices and pleasures without relying on us consuming more resources. Kay argues that we could develop a similar model of lifestyle-enhancing economic growth in almost all areas of the economy.

This seems to me to form the basis for adding citizenship economics to citizenship politics. That is to say, an economics which starts from the idea that growth is there to enable and enhance fuller citizenship not simply to consume more stuff. The question ‘what kind of economy are we trying to grow’ is inextricably linked to the question ‘what kinds of people do we want and need to be’.

And, of course, all these questions require us to have a sophisticated understanding of how human beings work – which is why the RSA spends so much time discussing what neuroscience, behavioural sciences and the study of evolution tell us about what makes us tick as human beings.

We need a new paradigm to replace the failed and contradictory combination of unfettered markets, social individualism, overbearing statism, political triangulation and technological determinism that have been the key features of the last two decades.

That model is to be found in citizenship politics and citizenship economics. 


What can I do to convince people?

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