Citizenship has to be based on values

1st September 2006 at 01:00
The leadership campaign in Edinburgh was a reminder of why democracy matters, says Ewan Aitken

nd so it came to pass that, on the 22nd day on the eighth month in the city of old smoke, the elders met to choose a new leader. There was much gnashing of gums and grinding of teeth in the ritual known as hustings.

Words were spoken, some wise and some not. Challenges to ideas fell on ears that were deaf for some and spoke of new light to others. Promises were tested and opinions asked.

Soon, the time came for the choice to be made. With breath bated and boxes marked, the one chosen as speaker of the result told the expectant group the answer. It was to be the hairy man, marked by a ring in his ear and a necklace of wood and leather.

Well, that's one description of how it went, but to translate: on August 22, I was elected leader of Edinburgh City Council's Labour group and I took over as leader of the council on Tuesday. It is a huge honour to be given the task of leading the council in the capital of Scotland and I am grateful not only to my group but also to my family and to the many friends and colleagues who have supported me in my journey to this great opportunity.

Recently, I have been in schools looking at their citizenship curriculum. I find myself reflecting on my own sense of citizenship and what made me take on this challenge. Like any good presbyterian cleric, I have three reasons.

First, next May there will be a new electoral system of proportional representation which I support, and I want the chance to be at the heart of making it work.

Second, having led from the front in education both in Edinburgh and on the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, I believe it is right to take the opportunity to do the same for Scotland's capital city. Third, and most important, this challenge ensures the values that took me into politics in the first place can be the bedrock of the messages I and my party take into the next election - values of social justice, equality of opportunity and speaking up for the marginalised.

My political activity is a reflection of my faith. Desmond Tutu says he does not know which Bible people are reading when he says politics and the Bible don't mix. I agree.

The leadership campaign has reminded me why I do what I do and why it is very important never to forget that. Any reflections on citizenship education, any attempt to ensure young people think about what it is to be a citizen, must be values based. The values are as important as the activity of citizenship. There is little point in talking about the need to share, to look after the vulnerable, to participate in democracy, to take care of the environment and all the many other activities we call citizenship if we are not clear about the underlying values.

The values don't need to be the biblical ones I try to adhere to, but there must be values there, some first principles that guide the choices made as citizens.

When I was in Kenya recently, the rubbish bins in the airport had the slogan "its our moral duty to keep our airport tidy". That might seem a bit strange to our western eyes but, when did we last hear the first principles of clearing up after ourselves articulated? Citizenship education, in whatever form it takes, needs that clarity of values to be meaningful, to get past the intellectual to the passionate by which lives and lifestyles are changed.

And so it came to pass that the words of the new leader were shared with many through the scrolls written for that purpose on each night before each day. The words spoke of the leader's intentions. Among those who read these intentions, there were those who shouted with joy and others who gave many groans of despair.

The leader's time among them was deemed to be in the hands of the people.

They soon would have their choice to speak for themselves. The leader said:

"I will listen." The people asked: "But will you hear?" The leader said: "I will hear." The people asked: "But will you agree?" And the leader knew that the task would be hard and the road rough.

He set out into the city where there was no smoke, old or otherwise, to listen and to learn, and the people waited to hear what he had come to believe. And in all this time he remained a hairy man, marked by a ring in his ear and a necklace of wood and leather.

Ewan Aitken is leader of Edinburgh City Council.

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