Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Citizens or Serfs

This month's edition of Prospect magazine has an article by its editor, David Goodhart, setting out his views on the nature of "citizenship" in modern (British) society. I thought it worthy of comment as it shows how far Blairism has diverged from the internationalist and liberal ideas that Labour began with.

To start with, the article shows incredible causistry in trying to argue that discrimination against non-European peoples is in some way not a form of racism. That there is a unfortunate practical need for some form of immigration control I do not dispute - that it is in some way a worthy expression of "Liberal Realism" I utterly disagree with.

Goodhart then constructs a model of citizenship suitable for a Blairite society.
It states as amongst the requirements of citizenship:
"acceptance of the rule of law and the authority of the state and its institutions; agreement to play by the economic and welfare rules and to accept national norms on such things as the place of religion, free speech and women's equality"

This negates democracy, as it requires that certain aspects of the nation's current arrangement are to be "accepted" as beyond disagreement. This is rather reminiscent of pre-Victorian Britain, where everyone was required to adhere to the state religion as practiced by the monarch - Jews, for instance, being banned from public office unless they converted to Christianity.

The author goes on to discuss the "duties" of citizenship. This is a communitarian idea that has become popular in Blairite circles over the last few years. The problem with this idea is that it directly conflicts with the concept of a democracy bound by laws. In such a political system, the duties of everyone, whether citizen or visitor, are limited to one - they must obey the law or face the consequences. Current British law imposes very few legal obligations that differentiate by citizenship: mostly it is one's presence or habitual residence in the country that determine an obligation to comply with national law.

As if to remedy this, Goodhart proposes that citizenship be bolstered by obligations and ceremonial. This ranges from a civil birth ceremony to the promotion of ID cards as a badge (I prefer the word "brand") of belonging. He even brings up the old concept of conscription - arguing for a "national volunteering scheme for school-leavers". (Since there are numerous such schemes already, I assume that "volunteering" is a euphemism).

These measures are not a mark of democratic citizenship as we have come to know it. It is rather more reminiscent of the system that preceeded liberal democracy - serfdom. Under this system the people of the nation were subject to the arbitrary requirements of the state for labour and military service and were expected to comply with the forms of religious and other thought required by the state. In a similar fashion to Goodhart's "contract" the state then attempted to protect the serfs from Mongol hordes and the like. The Blair project appears to want to revive this - with perpetual "centre-right" governments and local councils replacing kings and barons in the feudal structure.

No comments: