A good citizen is no longer good enough

February 18, 2010

D-Day for British politics – If you’re too apathetic to vote on Thursday, don’t worry. You can always join David Blunkett’s new scheme to learn active citizenship. Karen Bartlett reports
What would you get from a room containing a refugee, an ex-miner and a civil servant? Not the start of a popular British film, even though the room is in Sheffield and the ex-miner does say: “I’m a working-class lad who goes to the ballet. I would never have done that if I’d still been down the pit.” Like the stars of Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, the people in this room have retrained themselves to get a grip on their lost communities and make the best of bad circumstances, but without the singing, the dancing or the stripping.

In horrible government jargon, they are “active” citizens and, as of last month, the pioneers of a Home Office pilot project to teach others to be the same. “Active Learning for Active Citizenship” is taking place inside a converted industrial building, in a room featuring bare brickwork and the odd flip chart covered in business-speak about brainstorming. The participants huddled around the table are diverse, but eager to drive home the point that being a “good” citizen who pays taxes and obeys the law is nothing compared to the benefits of being an “active citizen”.

That the meeting is taking place at all is due to the passion of the Home Secretary. As a man who dreamily refers to citizenship in terms of Athenian city states, David Blunkett’s purpose is to extend to all adults the citizenship teaching he introduced first in schools and more recently for immigrants. Three “hubs” have been set up in South Yorkshire, the West Midlands and Manchester to build on the work of established organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association and Northern College for Residential Adult Education, which have been offering the same kinds of training for many years. Funding is modest, and short term, with estimates for the South Yorkshire hub running to £60,000 a year for two years.

In the 1990s, small organisations sprouted by the handful across the former coalfields and steel areas of South Yorkshire, all offering the basic kind of community involvement now much in vogue. In one of the most deprived regions in Europe, most wanted to claim whatever funding they could, and subvert it as far as possible to real needs rather than the dreamier concoctions of Brussels and Whitehall. Now former miners, housewives and metalworkers regularly file into courses, up to and including an MA, hoping to qualify for work in the booming area of “regeneration” – that odd new industry which, like the building the group meets in, comes from the collapse of traditional industries.

Catering to groups with needs as diverse as asylum-seekers and the white working class, most regeneration leaders would have found a home in the Labour Party or local government were it not for indus-trial decline and the advent of new Labour. As one put it: “It’s the last bastion of socialism.”

Everyone invited on to the project knows what an active citizen is supposed to do. One woman talks of walking into the doctor’s and witnessing a refugee who had once needed special help with his English spontaneously translating for someone else. “I could have danced down the street,” she says. Another who had been part of the miners’ strike talks of helping women like herself form voluntary organisations. One of her colleagues describes running sessions in the pub for husbands and sons to learn to use laptops.

The people leading the Civic Renewal Unit – until recently part of the much larger Active Communities Directorate in the Home Office – and particularly Val Woodward, the able and determined co-ordinator of the Active Learning project, are “passionate folk”, they say, and they welcome the encouragement from this government. However, they are also wary about political initiatives, and used to governments that give with one hand and take with the other. This is particularly true for those who work at the sharp end of the definitions of “refugee” or “asylum-seeker”, who have seen how the government gives help to some people while slamming the door in the faces of others. So what does it mean to be a British citizen in these circumstances?

“It’s a pleasure,” says Nidhi. A refugee who came here 23 years ago, she now works with other refugees, and puts recent spats about civil liberties and British identity into perspective. “I am as equal as anyone else. I am not afraid. I have a home, and I know that no one is going to wake me up in the middle of the night searching my house.” Unlike others who worry about the government’s infatuation with responsibilities at the expense of rights, Nidhi sees things pragmatically. “I made a deal. They saved my life and let me stay. I agreed to work.” To break the deal, she says, would be like “being invited into your house and emptying a dustbin in the middle of your living-room floor”. Nidhi admits, however, that her first experiences in London were very different from what she sees some other asylum-seekers and refugees facing in towns across South Yorkshire.

Here, where many fear the BNP will do well in the 10 June elections, groups run campaigns such as “Kicking racism out of your community” and “Refugees, myths and the media”, aimed at areas described during the afternoon as “educational deserts”.

Some of the pilot groups are wary of serving as a cloak for politicians seeking to hide their failure to re-engage people with democracy at any level. Even Sir Bernard Crick, the renowned citizenship guru overseeing the Active Learning project, admits that what is needed to bring people back to the ballot box can be achieved mostly by voluntary groups and not by local councils. But although those picked to take part, such as the Workers’ Educational Association, have a history of helping people achieve some “clout” for themselves, the official citizenship curriculum is long on litter-picking and short on talk of politics and power.

Ted Hartley of the WEA admits that despite the work the organisation has done in the past, the current proposal does not involve any campaign encouraging people to vote – fuelling the accusation that the government’s fantasy is of “Stepford” citizens, bland and obedient, rather than empowered.

Some of the participants have been suspicious, too, of the project’s combination of big dreams with small realities. Following the example of David and Goliath, it seems that the Home Office has pitted tiny resources, under the co-ordination of one part-time employee, against huge problems including voter apathy, racism and the rebuilding of shattered communities. An adviser to the Active Communities Directorate, itself a vast organisation addressing these issues, confirms that with only three pilot projects on the go, and six in the pipeline, a Britain where everyone is able to “learn about citizenship” seems a long way off.

As another adviser admits, however, the possibilities of success are more daunting than failure. If Britain were a nation of active citizens, demanding to take part in every decision, what would Westminster do?

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