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Why I Keep Banging on About Citizenship

Author: Simon Duffy

I write a lot. Some things I write quickly and some things I write very slowly and over a long period of time. It is these longer and slower pieces that are usually the ones that I am most proud of. But they also tend to be the ones that few people read.

I have just published a new paper in our Need for Roots series, Citizenship and the Welfare State. This is one of those pieces that I suspect few people will read. It is a closely packed philosophical argument, and although you don’t need to be a philosopher to read it, I know that I have written it with fellow philosophers as my audience. I am trying to persuade them to take the idea of citizenship seriously.

The funny thing is that, while philosophers like to think, they are often the hardest people to persuade. Ideas are funny stretchy things, often disconnected from the realities they try to describe. There’s lots of space in philosophy to look at things in different ways and to defend yourself from other people’s point of view. Still - I think it's a great discipline. It will never change the world, but it can help us change how we look at the world.

So I thought I would write a few words about my philosophical paper for people who don't like to read philosophical papers. In brief, I want to explain why, over 25 years, I keep banging on about citizenship. It's not everybody’s favourite word or idea, indeed I think we’ve almost forgotten what it means, but I don’t think we can build a decent society without it.

The idea of citizenship has been around a long time - at least 2,500 years. It is firmly rooted in the Greek idea that people should form communities to rule themselves and take care of each other. What is sometimes called democracy. Being a citizen means being part of a community of equals where we all have a responsibility to look after that community. Valuing citizenship does not mean 'protecting ourselves' from refugees - it means welcoming the refugee, welcoming the stranger, and treating the stranger as one of us, so that our community becomes richer and stronger.

Citizenship is the only decent way we can do two essential things without tripping ourselves up:

  1. Value each and every individual for their differences, their diversity, and
  2. Treat each and every individual as an equal, worthy of respect.

A commitment to citizenship is an equal commitment to these two principles. It is the refusal to treat some people as less worthy; it is the refusal to iron out human differences or to mould people into some preferred shape or pattern.

I like citizenship because it is the only political concept that really helps explain my personal reaction to seeing people with learning difficulties imprisoned in institutions:

  • Why the hell do we treat people so badly?
  • Why don’t we want such marvellous and interesting people to be part of society?

The second thing I argue is that the welfare state is a good thing and that we should take care of it. This will probably seem obvious to most of my readers. However we live in a time when it seems like our political leaders want to destroy the welfare state. So I try and explain what I think is happening. 

I offer a number of possible reasons, which I think all are partially true, although none are the complete answer:

  • The forces of commerce (some call this 'capitalism') have worked out that they can profit from the destruction of the welfare state.
  • Politicians have found that they can please some of the people all of the time (the better off and the middle-classes) if they steal from the poorest to benefit their favourite voters.
  • The welfare state is complex and we give politicians enormous power but too little time to improve it, so in the end they usually make it worse.
  • A few people may not even believe in the welfare state, instead they may believe in some wacky world where we don’t need each other and can live in little bubbles (like in The Matrix). Some call this lunatic belief 'neoliberalism'.

I used to think that I would spend part of my life developing my own ideas about citizenship into some beautiful philosophical theory. I still might. But I always seem to choose the path of action over the path of thought, and I get caught up trying to do things and I never have as much time to write and study as I might like. But I’m not complaining - it's my choice.

So in the essay I don’t try and develop my own unique political theory; instead I try to explain to people who already believe in some of the existing political theories that they should include the idea of citizenship in their own favourite theory. When they do this they will find that they can start to see the welfare state for what it really should be - a system for protecting and supporting our citizenship.

I examine the three main political theories and try to show why each is at its best when it understands the value of citizenship:

  1. Conservatives are right to value family, community and civil society. But they need to see that these things can only be sustained and developed by citizens who seek to protect and support these social structures. The welfare state is the essential system for supporting our citizenship and enabling us to build the societies we need in order to flourish.
  2. Liberals are right to value freedom, rights and a system of law. But they need to see that the justice of our system will be determined by whether it enhances and supports our citizenship. We only have a reason to respect law and the rights of others if there is welfare state that will respect and protect our rights.
  3. Socialists are right to value equality and the need for cooperation. But equality of respect shouldn't mean uniformity and compliance with the state. It is by working together as fellow citizens, and by welcoming in new people or outsiders as fellow citizens, that we create true equality.

This is just a quick skim through my argument. Instead of offering my own theory I’m trying to help each of these competing theories be the best that they can be. But this is not just a theoretical exercise. We need to start taking the idea of citizenship seriously in practice too.

In recent years our attitude to the welfare state has been complacent. We expect it to be there to take care of us. We don’t really worry too much about how it works and how to defend or improve it. Instead we just pick our favourite politician or political party to take care of it. This has not often worked well.

We need to start to think about how we can all act more like citizens and defend the welfare state as one of the most important institutions in our society. So, I argue, citizenship is not just an important as an idea, it is important as way of acting. 

This also means we need to think more carefully about the kind of welfare state we want:

  • Does the welfare state encourage citizen involvement and protect local communities, families and associations?
  • Does the welfare state give us clear and defensible rights?
  • Does the welfare state encourage cooperation and collective action?

I suspect the best kind of welfare state will do all these three things. I also think that the key practical policy - that will become central to all these debates - is the idea of basic (or citizen’s) income. The Centre is a big fan of this policy. Not only would basic income be a good way of reforming the tax and benefit systems it would also give us the security to become more involved in democratic politics ourselves. May be, with a basic income, we’d stop leaving everything to a tiny group of politicians and we'd start to finally rule ourselves.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Why I Keep Banging on About Citizenship © Simon Duffy 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.