Citizenship at the local and national levels


Matthew Taylor is the Chief Executive of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), a think tank and public events platform in London. He has previously worked as Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, and as Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

In general, how does the RSA hope to impact citizenship issues?

The RSA focuses on enhancing human capability in response to what we call the “social-aspiration gap”. That is, the gap between people’s aspirations for the lives they want to lead and the societies in which they want to live, and the trajectories on which current forms of behaviours, norms and attitudes are driving us.

The RSA can consider citizenship in two ways: firstly, we may say our entire project is about fostering a 21st century citizenship. That is, the entire organisation is devoted to creating stronger communities and closing the gap between aspirations and reality. Secondly, if we think of citizenship in a narrower and more democratic sense, then the RSA’s work is about trying to foster engagement to cause a shift in the description of citizens themselves. That is, we ask how to foster forms of leadership and forms of engagement that lead to a way of thinking about politics and social change in which the citizen becomes the subject and not the object of social change.

… there’s evidence for the hypothesis that it’s easier to have hyphenated identities at the local level. It’s more possible to be a Brummie-Sikh, or a Glaswegian-Muslim, or a Liverpudlian-Irishman, for example, than it is to be an English-Sikh, or a Scottish-Muslim.

Urban citizenship, broadly speaking, is a way of defining citizenship based on the ways in which people organise their lives on a local, rather than national level. Do you see this as a useful way of conceiving of citizenship in the 21st century?

I think an interesting aspect of this question which has not yet been resolved is that it is easier to inculcate a sense of agency at the local – town, city, possibly even metropolitan region – rather than national levels. Agents are closer to the action, as it were. They are able to see the results of their own contributions to their communities much more readily and tangibly than the results of their contributions at the national level, through tax, for example.

In addition, there’s also evidence for the hypothesis that it’s easier to have hyphenated identities at the local level. It’s more possible to be a Brummie-Sikh[1], or a Glaswegian-Muslim, or a Liverpudlian-Irishman, for example, than it is to be an English-Sikh, or a Scottish-Muslim. At the local level, it’s a less problematic idea to reconcile these identities. It’s much more complicated to reconcile religion and ethnicity with nationalism, and it seems that diversity and multiple identities work much more efficiently at city or local level better than they do at the national level.

Do you consider national citizenship to be useful or compelling as an idea?

National citizenship as an idea is affected by so many factors it’s impossible to be deterministic about it. Some of these factors are: the content of the national assertion, that is, what the country is saying about itself; the country’s own history; and the current context of how the country is behaving and how its population is made up. As such, it’s very difficult to make a generalised conclusion about whether or not it is useful or compelling as an idea.

I do question the assertion that fostering a national identity is both good to do and easy to do, regardless of circumstance or motivation. The notion that everyone ought to be for it is questionable. It may of course be something powerful to do at certain points in the context of particular challenges. But take Gordon Brown’s failed attempt to foster a sense of “Britishness” during his time as prime minister. It was never clear to the majority of the UK’s population why he was trying to make the notion work without a proper context for its encouragement. The attempt seemed unusual to many and even cynical to some, as people saw it as a Scottish prime minister trying to bolster his own leadership to English voters.

However, it is important to remember that national citizenship varies from country to country, and it varies from the contexts in which the idea is discussed. It’s impossible to divorce national citizenship’s content from the nation in question. Stuart Hall made the distinction between nationalism for and nationalism against – that is, defining other people in or out of the mainstream political process. Why is it, for example, that greater diversity and immigration in the UK is seen to threaten national citizenship, whereas in the USA, it is diversity that precisely underpins what national citizenship actually is? These differences make national citizenship a highly vexed question, and one that is very difficult, if not impossible to answer.

…different forms of engagement have different trajectories – when you mobilise people in protest, the kind of psychological bond that forms between people is very different from the kind of bond that arises when people solve problems together.

One of the themes that has emerged in this issue of Open Citizenship is the notion that small groups of citizens can effect change by taking local action, whether through urban gardening, revitalizing abandoned spaces or protesting bad policy. Is this something you’ve seen in London? Are such activities a successful way of understanding urban citizenship?

I think that there are several riders to understanding urban citizenship as merely group or collective action. The idea is that if you get people to get together and do stuff together, you strengthen community, and that’s true, but there are three things we need to remember.

Firstly, different forms of engagement have different trajectories – when you mobilise people in protest, the kind of psychological bond that forms between people is very different from the kind of bond that arises when people solve problems together. There is a tendency to think that if you can mobilise people, then that is a mobilising force which you can apply to any kind of collective action, which I don’t think it is. There are ways in which you mobilise people against change or in protest that are very different from mobilising people to solve problems.

Secondly, people are pragmatic, so you even if you mobilise people to organise social activity, that does not mean you create a long-lasting change within that community. The degree to which successful collective action leaves a trace in the community is something we exaggerate. There’s a notion that if we run a successful community event we’ve put something in the piggy bank as a reserve for the next event – which, by virtue of being similar, we think will generate the same interest. It’s true to some extent that this builds capacity in terms of social networks, but what we should not believe is that because you organise a successful event, three months later if you organise a badly put-together event, people will be happy with the idea nevertheless.  People always have lots of other stuff they could do, so the thing you’re asking them to do should have value for them. They should have a sense of agency with regard to it. I think people are pragmatic and have lots of choices, and locality and local events are just one of their many choices.

Thirdly, all the evidence is that the people who actually organise this stuff are in the minority. Many people feel like they can contribute to an event, but not many will organise.

The RSA is currently working on a research project called “Community and Public Services”, whose “aim is to foster a more powerful citizenry that is better able to bring about positive change; to nurture more resilient communities that can more readily withstand and resolve their own problems; and to help develop more innovative public services that are better placed to work with people to create value in their own lives.” What have you found so far and how can it help us to better understand the possibilities and challenges of urban citizenship?

There is a growing and deeper realisation that public services have to understand and build on the assets of existing communities, and if public services are in the business of meeting needs in a kind of delivery sense to passive populations, then we’re in a mess. Need will always outstrip supply and public investment. To build capacity, we have to understand the assets that exist in communities. Social network analysis and similar disciplines help us build these assets, by helping us understand them.

The demand for understanding communities, to engage them and build their capacity both in terms of individuals and a collective, is growing all the time. The supply of solutions, however, which work and which can be demonstrated to work and can be shown to have some possibility for replication and sustainability is much more problematic. In the UK, the Labour party argues that if you provide state services, and mobilise these services, you will help to build the capacity of these communities. The British Conservative party, by contrast, argues that if you roll the state back, you create room for civil society to flourish, not dictated by government directives. Both have been proven to be wrong. Labour’s attempts to spend money did not make huge progress. Likewise, the Conservative “Big Society” [an initiative to roll back the state and encourage grassroots and civil society action] hasn’t achieved much. This huge demand and paucity of supply is currently not addressing the critical question, which for me is: how do you mainstream community building? How do you pull this thinking in from the margins to make it sustainable?

The philosopher John Gray recently described the future of UK cities, by saying “London will become a sort of Singapore, a wealthy island of urbanity surrounded by impoverished satrapies”. Do you agree with this concern and if so, how could this development be prevented?

Well, that’s absolutely typical of John Gray: overstated and pessimistic. It has a kernel of truth which is massively exaggerated. I don’t think that’s how it feels if you’re in Manchester or Edinburgh or Bristol or many other cities that are doing very well and aren’t London. That’s not to say that it’s not an interesting point, however. It points to an approach to growth and development which is multi-polar, and seeks to develop new models of growth and organisation outside of the capital. We of course need to do that, and the RSA is indeed working on a major commission on multi-polar growth. It’s important to discuss Gray’s point precisely because I don’t think it’s inevitable, and it’s already a London-centric prognosis.

London, as a major business centre, is proving fecund for a new kind of citizenship: corporate citizenship. This is citizenship conceived as a set of responsibilities directed by corporate or consumer actions – extending from citizenship days for staff to buying fair trade coffee. Do you think of this as a positive development for our notions of citizenship? What opportunities and problems does such a notion pose?

I think it is positive in the sense that it’s more positive than not doing those things, but as a fully developed idea of citizenship, it’s currently insufficient. The critical question about employers and citizenship is the status of employees: how do organisations foster citizenship? If a company is traditionally run, then there usually isn’t much employee engagement and the consumer is rarely engaged to design products and services or determine the value of the organisation. I think that is a superficial idea of citizenship. We would not say a country was democratic if it was a benign autocracy and occasionally gave goodies to the population. Therefore, we would have to make the same distinction with companies. Of course they’re not democratic, because they have to make a profit and grow. But if the question of fostering citizenship is important to an organisation, then it needs to start at home, by asking how to engage employees, customers and communities themselves. The RSA does quite a lot of work with corporations to encourage them to think more deeply than the traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) approach, which typifies the superficial idea of citizenship I just described.

[1] Brummie is a term for the inhabitants and dialect of Birmingham, UK.