Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Decline of Civic Duty

Before the Second World War, most of the population went to church on Sundays. After the war, the numbers were still high in the 1950s and 1960s, and life events were very much part of popular culture.
Unheard of today, I recall an advertisement on ITV which began with the sound of bells, and "a family christening", clearly in an Anglican setting, with vicar, and family leaving a church. I can't for the life of me remember what the advert was about. That's not to say that christenings - the baptism of infants - do not happen today - of course they do. It is still one of the "life rituals" which tends to bring people back to church - the others, of course, being weddings and funerals!
But for it to take centre stage in an advert on prime time TV, shown often, indicates a society where the church itself was still very much part of popular culture. Adrian Hastings "A History of English Christianity: 1920-1990" bears this out to be correct, not merely my supposition.
Of course times have changed. Numbers have fallen. And even wearing a cross or crucifix (as en emblem and jewellery) has been under threat, much more so that emblems of other faiths. Christianity has in England (and Jersey, to some extent as well) become much more something of a minority pursuit by the dedicated few.
I'd like to couple this decline with another decline. Voting numbers have declined, extensively in Jersey, but also in England over the post-war period. The first past the post system tends to mask this tendency, but it has been happening over the past 40 years in all the established democracies, with a significant fall in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Latin America.
So what is happening? I think part of what is occurring is a decline in the idea of civic duty. Whether or not it was a good thing, people went to church because it was seen as part of their civic duty. They voted because it was part of their civic duty. The decline in both church and state can be seen as a falling away of the idea of civic duty.
Civic duty presupposes a common good, and while different people have differing ideas about what makes society good, there is a common ground that it must in part be achieved by communal will. That is true to the right and much as the left.
But against that is the idea best summed up in the words of Margaret Thatcher's famous phrase "there is no such thing as society". It is worth looking at her quote in context:
"I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand 'I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!' or 'I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!' 'I am homeless, the Government must house me!' and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.'
It will be noted that this is partly a reaction against the post-war society in which the common model for reconstruction, as exemplified most exactly in health, housing and education, was for massive state intervention.
But the swing of her pendulum goes too far. It is back to the pre-war society, where people were dependent upon charity, and those who supported by their own efforts those who were unfortunate. It could never deal properly with post-war problems of health, education and adequate housing.
Moreover, the rise of the "yuppy" culture in the 1980s, and the culture of city wealth and bonuses meant that "how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility" meant that increasing numbers of affluent people, with a fragmented nuclear family, were less inclined to take on that responsibility. With rising unemployment, people fell through the gaps.
The lessons of the Great Depression, where people expected no housing when they were homeless, seem to have been forgotten. But a focus by tabloid newspapers on a small number of benefit cheats, writ large, gave the impression, as did the sitcom "Bread", that everyone on benefits was milking the system. This led to change in culture in which poverty was seen as something avoidable, and if you were poor and on benefits, it was your own fault. You are the "lazy, shiftless, poor".
But as the Daily Herald, looking at America in 20114, points out, society does impact on families and the poor:
"If these lower-class children would just stay in school! They have the same educational opportunities as anyone else, right? Let's just ignore the fact that they started their lives in sub-par day-care or malnourished, or with parents or a single parent who can't send them to pre-school or find time to read to them because they are poor and work all day for minimum wage just to pay the rent and buy food."
When Jersey's new Education Director starts saying something similar about children being tired and hungry, and the situation is much worse than he expected, we should perhaps see that as a wake-up call.
Mrs Thatcher was right about one thing. Society is a tapestry, and when we start to unpick it, and take away those threads, we cannot expect large turnouts at elections.
The recent booklet by Caritas highlights how important it is to show that our society can help "all individuals, families and their communities flourish, progress and feel included." It lays down guidelines: "The extent to which any society can achieve this success will be determined by the policies it develops and implements in relation to, for example, education, health, social care, immigration, employment and housing".
If the community is to be bound together, we must address these issues just as much as that of voter turnout. They cannot be split apart. Our government must build a strong social contract with the communities and individuals in it, or our society will remain atomistic, and fragmented, and we can expect even lower levels of voter turnout.
And we must at the same time broadcast the message about voting and civic duty. If people do not think about the idea that they have a duty to vote, as well as a right, then the battle will be lost. This education should begin in schools. Knowing about politics is all very good, but incubating the idea of civic duty is a necessity. Voting should not be seen as optional, if you feel like it, but a responsibility of adult members of society.

1 comment:

James said...

And against this background, 4.2 million Scots have registered to vote in their referendum - 80% of Scotland's population. About a million are believed to have registered since the last election.

We might ask why.

We might answer that the political culture in Scotland has blossomed. That the people sense that this time, there really is a choice - between doing something risky and new, and doing the same as last time, and expecting the same results. That this time every single vote will count, every move towards yes or no is meaningful, and that most of the persuading (regardless of what the media claim) is being done by polite persuasion.

We might answer that politics is being done at grass roots level, not on the say-so of focus groups and special advisers. That the people believe they are sovereign, rather than big business and the banksters.

Perhaps if we could believe that those who lead us were offering us real choice, and a real say in ensuring the well being of all rather than some ... perhaps it could happen here, too ...