Where's the big idea?

25th February 2005 at 00:00
The debate on citizenship will never get young people on board until society can provide the causes to inspire them, says Stuart Waiton

I was involved in a radio debate recently, discussing the issue of citizenship. An editor of one of Scotland's daily tabloids explained what he felt were the values that made him proud to be British. A sense of humour, he proclaimed, our laissez-faire attitude and our ability to laugh at the weather - these were the values that made him British and proud of it.

The discussion had been prompted by news of a possible citizenship ceremony that the Government may introduce for all 18-year-olds, and it was argued that this could potentially bind young people more firmly to British values.

But, as with most discussions about citizenship, no sooner had the subject been raised than a barrage of criticism and counter-criticism was thrown at the Government. After all, what are these values anyway and, if they are clearly part of what it means to be British, why do we need a ceremony to certify them?

One of the few "values" that the Government feels comfortable in promoting is that of tolerance. This is, of course, not a value at all, but a pronouncement to respect others' values or no one value in particular. If anything, the notion of tolerance used by the Government is the opposite of the idea that we should have a belief in any one thing.

The loss of clarity about what it is that "makes us proud to be British" was reflected clearly in the radio debate with the tabloid editor. As an editor of a national newspaper, you would have thought that there might be some institution or organisation in Britain of which he is proud. The monarchy perhaps? Parliament? Or even the free press for which he works? But no.

For this journalist who was indeed proud to be British, there were no big ideas, values or institutions he could name. However, there were a number of "little things" which he felt helped make up what it meant to be a citizen and these were what young people could be taught. Not dropping litter was one; being nice to someone in the street was another.

Ultimately, the "values" of good citizenship that were being promoted here were those of politeness, the bad citizen being in this view the antisocial youth who drank, swore and littered the streets.

This view reflects the Government's own preoccupation with antisocial behaviour and the loss of a sense of community. However, the most telling thing about this debate and the outlook of the Government is that it is the very lack of a profound sense of pride or belief in British institutions that has led to the elevation of the issue of young people's antisocial behaviour in the first place.

Given any sense of purpose in Government and society, or a strong belief system which could direct us as individuals and as a community in our daily lives, it is unlikely that issues such as dropping litter would appear to be so important as they do today.

Indeed, if those who govern us and run our institutions - including the press - felt any degree of confidence in what it means to be British, or in the future direction of society, they would themselves no doubt disregard the impoliteness of young people as being of little or no significance.

Without a "big idea", the Government, indeed all of the major political parties, like the laissez-faire editor, appears to be both unable to inspire young people to be "active citizens" and, at the same time, nervous about what the future generation is thinking and doing.

As the election approaches and the issues of crime and antisocial youth are once again thrown into the limelight, the citizenship debate gives all those working with young people the opportunity to turn this debate around.

After all, if those people running the country can't decide what values to promote and lack the ability to create a sense of citizenship and of society, perhaps we should be pointing the finger at them and shouting "antisocial" and see how they respond.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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