Is this really the way to good citizenship?

12th January 2001 at 00:00
It may beat a police curfew, but Learning and Teaching Scotland's document is no advertisement for democracy, says Judith Gillespie.

The Learning and Teaching Scotland consultation document on citizenship has been written by a group of very nice people. It presents a vision of community action, of caring for others, of basing decisions on sound knowledge and understanding, all supported by acquisition of the ubiquitous five core skills.

As a prescription for good behaviour, it beats a police curfew any day of the week. The only trouble is that it is not about citizenship. It does not recognise that the nature of the state itself determines the nature of citizenship and that this varies according to where you are - in the UK, Scotland, America, Iraq or elsewhere.

Citizenship is not a quality that exists in the abstract but defines an individual's relationship to the state. In that proper sense, citizenship is about much more than being a good social animal who has a care for his fellow man and competent ICT skills - whatever these might have to do with citizenship. It is not to do with membership of different communities, whether ethnic, social or geographic.

It may be possible to practise the skills required for citizenship in such communities, but that is not citizenship. Nor should the skills for a good citizen be confused with the skills needed for work, although there may be some overlap.

Our role as citizens is defined both by the type of state in which we live and by our actions. If, for example, we are negligent in exercising our democratic right to vote, then we allow the state to have much greater power. On the other hand, the state may encourage our negligence by making it seem that our votes are not relevant. To paraphrase Senator Joe Lieberman in the American Presidential fiasco, "if we don't count every vote, how can we persuade our young people that every vote counts?"

People switch off from voting because they do not see that it matters. They do not think it matters at the European level because the decisions are remote and so many people are involved that one vote more or less makes little difference. At the other end of the spectrum, people don't vote for local government because they cannot see that it matters which party empties the bins.

Moreover, the state conspires in this by carrying on much of its transactions secretly, only making them public as and when it chooses. The recent proposal to take the policymakin role away from the Inspectorate was presented as Jack McConnell's decision. However, it had actually been decided before John Elvidge, head of the Scottish Executive Education Department, appeared before the parliamentary education committee on September 27. He made it clear then that Higher Still was "the corporate responsibility of the department" and that Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, fell within the scope of that corporate responsibility. But, if that was the first public evidence of this decision, when was it really taken?

Secrecy is important because so much that the state does is not about the management of the country or legislation but rather about the power of those individuals who run the state. In the United States, reports have highlighted the close links between George W. Bush and big business. In this country, the power of patronage is summed up by the image of "Tony's cronies".

States are really about power. Although, as citizens, we focus on legislation, in fact the real power lies in the myriad of decisions which fall outside legislation. Higher Still did not need legislation. Citizens have very little ability to change decisions - think of the long and vigorous campaigns against national testing and the poll tax. The worst injustices are those exercised by the state because they are the hardest to reverse - for example, blaming the pilots for the Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash or the endless executions in Texas.

And is the good citizen the one who complies with the state's wishes - an excuse which was not accepted at the Nuremberg trials - or the one who is willing to reveal the secret workings of the state? Clive Ponting, who broke the Official Secrets Act over events in the Falklands war, was prosecuted by the state but exonerated by a jury of fellow citizens.

The state should never write a programme of education on citizenship, even indirectly through a quango like Learning and Teaching Scotland, for its motive is to teach compliance, whereas true citizenship is about watchfulness. Think how different this paper would be if it had been written by Tommy Sheridan.

If, at the end of the day, we want youngsters to understand that every vote does indeed count, we also have to demonstrate the amount of power that is exercised by the state on their behalf. Anyone who does not vote is complicit in what the state does. It is well said that for evil to flourish it only requires good men to remain silent.

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