Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Good citizenship

A stroll down to Millbank last night for a discussion with learned theologians, journalists and fellow parliamentarians about citizenship. An odd mixture creating an odd debate.

I like nothing better than to engage in theology and it distresses me to hear theologians uttering banal comment about the political realm or politicians posing as preachers without a profound thought in their heads.

The proposition put forward by the admirable thinktank Theos was that neighbourliness is what makes good citizens. The alternative it is argued is to base citizenship on the nation state and patriotism. I can only concur that such a view, which the Prime Minister too often seems to take, is dangerous.

A confusing pseudo-intellectual address from the self-styled shadow attorney-general Dominic Grieve, a true heir of Disreali both in his constituency, Beaconsfield, and in the muddle in his brain. Mr Grieve appeared to believe that people lose a sense of citizenship and neighbourliness if their streets are unsafe or if immigrants move into their road. So in appearing to accept the Theos proposition he was unable to develop it. Indeed he took the admirable view that politicians can do little to foster neighbourliness except to stay out of the way. Such minimalism did not apply however to keeping the streets safe or keeping immigrants out. So typical a Tory view.

Elegant, light-hearted and light contributions from radio lady Libby Purves in the chair and from the admirable writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Ms Purves' chairing did little to create a structured debate but that is entirely to be expected from someone whose primary occupation is show-business.

It seems little has changed in 150 years. Politicians and other powerful people use patriotism to boost themselves whilst denying the aspirations of the people.

For a theological debate it was curious that noone quoted the words of St Paul "civis Romanus sum" - I am a Roman citizen. The apostle was proud of his citizen status but felt no obligation to worship the emperor in return. Indeed he gave his head in support of his ideas - and although modernists like to depict him as a reactionary, he it was who crystallised the ideas of equality that stem from the gospels.

In my day too people were proud to be citizens, even those of us who cringed at the excesses of the empire, too often performed in the name of an innocent Queen. People were proud to vote and those who were denied it clamoured for this right. We may have been called subjects but regarded ourselves as citizens.

Now people are told they are citizens but believe they are subjects, oppressed by an over mighty state. What was also not mentioned last night was that to have the vote is to be a citizen. Thankfully also there was little talk of the Blairism of "rights and responsibility" but it is true - voting is both a right and a responsibility. When as few as 20 per cent of people vote, that indicates they no longer regard themselves as citizens.

The discussion was also very much about London. After all even Beaconsfield is little more than a suburb of the capital. I must be in London because that is where debate takes place - but you cannot build a library there. There are many neighbourhoods around the country where people act as citizens and elect parish councillors. In my walks across England I find these are also places of good neighbourliness, ready to discuss the weather or the latest news as I pass. There are also many industrial cities where the abolition of rotten boroughs and creation of municipalities has still failed to recreate the vibrancy of the parish. These people do not believe themselves to be citizens because their vote seems to change very little. And now the Empire is contained within our one country, we have failed - as we failed in my time - to create the assemblies which can speak for different cultures and religions.

My dear wife has advised me to keep these utterances short. Apparently a sermon of 20 minutes is now long and only the Chancellor of the Exchequer is allowed to speak for more than 30 minutes. I shall endeavour to learn these new disciplines, hard as they are for me. I so well remember the Queen stifling the merest tiny yawn when my exposition of affairs of state extended beyond the length of her cup of tea as she politely indicated the time of departure. So until tomorrow..

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