Roscoe Lecture: Lord Bragg

Dec 23, 2010 | Uncategorized

Lecture by Lord Bragg
I am pleased to be in Liverpool to attempt to address the daunting themes “Citizenship and the New Millennium”.
I am always pleased to be in Liverpool I have filmed here – not only the stars but Billy, ‘Uke’ Scott and Ernie Mack at the club where Ken Dodd rehearsed his act.
I have been in the great galleries and heard the many voices and sounds of music from classical to revolutionary rock which have come out of this city, seen it’s football team, made a programme very recently on it’s inimitable dialect or language, read it’s great novelist Beryl Bainbridge and even mysteriously managed to find myself offered an honorary doctorate by your university. So it’s familiar and held in high esteem, considerable affection.
The subject is immense which has advantages and disadvantages. It means that I can rove into the wild blue yonder and still feel that I am somewhere near the subject – after all citizenship and Millennium are vast vats, of possible meanings. It compels generalisation, it provokes grand even wild assertions and I intend to yield to those temptations.
What I want to do is talk first about the landscape of the world we live in now and then to see if I can fit citizenship into any pattern that emerges. As I say this I feel rather like Aladdin letting the genie out of the lamp – the genie being our New Millennium – and citizenship can perhaps be compared with getting that overpowering genie back into that lamp.
It is important I think to attempt however sketchy and patchy a map of where we are because citizenship our place in the world and our responsibilities to the world can only be understood in context. The citizens of Ancient classical Athens understood their role – especially in relation to women, slaves and lower orders none of whom, of course, were ‘citizens’. That elite idea of citizens was sustained – where there were cities and for long periods there were very few cities of note – for a very long time and only comparatively recently – say since the French and American Revolution did the idea of citizen as we know it emerge from the crowd. The time, the population size, the economy, the material and the intellectual and human progress were right at last and since then our citizen has developed, ensuring that even the lower classes, women, former slaves, former colonised were included and now it is beginning to reach out its hand to young people. The rise of the citizen – never unchallenged – is one of the great and optimistic stories of the modern age.
So in this expanding, revolutionary, unpredictable awesomely intelligent, New World, or new millennium – where does the citizen stand? If power really is moving away from government to globally effective companies whose net worth is often bigger than the nations – not only developing nations, but developed nations – and if the very essence of citizenship is its relationship to power then there’s a problem. For what power does the citizen have inside or outside a company?
Consumers have power; shareholders have power; executives have power, the greatest power and that ever growing Millennium monster the market has power – but you, or you or I, what power do we have? Can we vote them in or vote them out?
Can we pass laws making these companies suitable to our culture of working practices, sick leave, maternity leave, pensions, minimum wage? Well we can: but if they don’t like it they can relocate as so many American and British companies do. Bangalore in Southern India is one of the fastest growing countries of our new world technologically: the people are intelligent, their brain power excellent but above all the wages are 15% less than what they are in Texas. So Texas upsstumps to Bangalore.
All global companies can relocate as well and they are the new power barons. There will surely be a showdown, probably a series of showdowns – in which the state, the politicians on behalf of the traditional right of democratic citizens is forced to act. The Warlords of Ancient China come to mind in any analysis as do the overweening barons of medieval England. You can’t have effective citizenship if the power which pays the piper and calls the tune is not at all invested in citizenship.
Global business is a different game where votes and issues and constitutions apply only so far as they help the company’s efficiency and no further.
This is not to say that business is bad. It is not. It has bought enormous benefit to mankind, especially in the last few centuries. But it is not and cannot really be expected to be interactive with what does not give it, it’s drive and focus and raison d’être – i.e. with full and democratic citizenship. Politics looks after that – but politicians need power to be effective.
Consumer groups, capitalist vigilantes, global guerrillas – they are there – already in existence, in some form, the avante garde, strong for citizenship which is alive to the struggle. The third millennium’s citizen will need to be a very clued up economic animal.
He/ She will also need to be able to carry several passports at once. We will all be part of multiple communities as never before. We have been prepared for this. We have belonged over the ages to church and state, to local and national communities. We have often had great difficulty maintaining these several allegiances – when our church was opposed to our state, when our local community was at odds with our national community – then and now there were divisions and contradictions which often bled deep. How much deeper now? We are all part of our cities – of Liverpool, and of England and of the United Kingdom: to a considerable extent already of Europe: of the North Atlantic Treaty organisation: of the United Nations and of any number of private interest groups and as I indicated, several organisations where allegiances can fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee. You can be in the north – east of England and yet your first loyalty can be to Japan which pays your wages and can guarantee a future. Citizens of Bangalore have their Texan dependence and their loyalty to India and at any time the two might be in opposition and so the simple citizen is no longer with us. Democracy in which the citizen flourished has worked well in some nation states. But how does a citizen keep a grip on democracy, keep it in good order, keep it fit for the struggle to stay alive when so many short cuts and price cuts threaten to by pass it?
That seems to me to be the nub. Here I am no prophet at all. What I urge is that we first hold what we have. We can’t defend what we do not practice. We cannot expand what we do not exercise. Democracy can mean many things to different people and so will continue to do. What can we do?
Simple things. Vote when you are of age. Read the stuff they push through your letterbox – or some of it anyway. Those who always carry the cause, persuade others of a policy for the future? Look again at the history of what has been done to raise up so many over the years, so that now we enjoy the Rights, Freedom, Opportunities – And realise what a recent and fragile enterprise this is. Don’t be afraid to take part in politics – party politics: it is not a fashionable pursuit at the moment but it has rarely been more vital that committed and bright eyed people keep up the exhausting task of keeping the idea of citizenship alive. Being a good citizen in today’s world is both obeying the law and in a democracy challenging the law if you think it is wrong. It is not easy in a country such as ours where so much has been done, in which comparatively, there is so much to rest on. Not easy to see the urgency and whether the effort is worth it. But unless at least some, often the strongest in each generation are prepared to take on a political role then the idea, the great idea of equal citizenship in a democracy will crumble and decay, like a neglected church. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. The price of citizenship in a century hurtling into new extremes more like a comet than a planet, is no less high. Unless we use it, actually use our citizenship – we will surely lose it.
It has probably never been as difficult to fathom the future – more praise then to those who attempt it
Finally we must surely train more for citizenship. There is so much of a burden thrown on teachers it is unfair to expect them to do much more but surely citizenship must be seen as a key to the running and maintenance of our democracy. How to guard and develop it unless by learning. Learning that dictatorships, however they came about, will finally grind down as many people as they can. Learning that a full and rich life for all begins in the health of the state or region and that is dependent on the determination of those who support it. We have to be very careful. Democracy may be no more than a slip on history unless we tend to it. As we saw in the last century, it has plenty of enemies.
Single issue groups – local, nationally, and internationally – are most vividly experiencing citizenship now often to great effect and that is to be applauded. But they need to army of the rest of us behind them. One thing is sure about this new century and new millennium. That is that the knowledge holders will be in control over Empires the Romans could never have dreamed of. But, like all previous elites, the knowledge holders will want their way and it is very easy to envisage a world of massive privilege and the rest numerically superior but chastened, abused and drugged to subjugation, the deprived, the non-players, the non-citizens. We have, after all, been there before. `
The crux of it is this: the more control the more of us have, the less we can be exploited. I am not a Marxist and indeed if any single message informs my own thinking it is that most radical of 20 centuries of preaching the Sermon on the Mount – but we must be on the alert now that the knowledge rich and only they and only their corporations and communities inherit the earth. The only force which can bring them down to earth is that of educated, decent and determined citizens of which this country has had its proud and inspiring share.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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