Ian Kearns and John Alexander

Citizens’ Britain is the Core Narrative Liberals Need

You often hear it said that the Liberal Democrats have lots of policy but no overarching narrative. That charge sticks because for too long it has been true. The party has allowed a dangerous vacuum to develop where a succinct articulation of its core philosophy should be. The preamble to the party constitution is a thing of beauty, but we need something even more direct.

Our proposal is that the Liberal Democrats should define a liberal society as one in which every single person has enough power, wealth, knowledge and freedom in their own hands to be able to shape their own destiny, working in community with others. The key characteristic of a liberal society is therefore the widespread distribution of economic, social and political power; its fundamental enemy the excessive and unaccountable concentration of such power in either the state, the private sector, or both.

This is why, writing elsewhere and drawing on the title of Paddy Ashdown’s 1989 book, we have begun calling for a Citizens’ Britain. Whereas some seem to see this concept as a call only for more citizen engagement in policy-making, we see it as an idea with far wider purchase and around which a new, post-Brexit, post-Covid Liberal political project should cohere.

A Citizens’ Britain would be a family of nations where political power is decentralised, where radical transparency is a defining characteristic of the state, and where the public voice is heard not only at election time but all the time. Deliberative citizen engagement, participatory budgeting, open policymaking; these would be the norm, not isolated exceptions. All this would be the case at all levels of politics: national, regional, and local.

A Citizens Britain would see a growth in workers on boards, an expansion of cooperatives and mutual organisations, and greater community ownership of local assets. It would see a guaranteed minimum income for all, football fans owning majority stakes in the clubs that depend on them for their meaning and purpose as institutions, and a renaissance of labour unionism, with new rights and support for workers who organise.

A Citizens’ Britain would see massive investment in education to equalise access to opportunity, end the scandal of so much wasted talent, and unleash the full potential of all the people, not just some. It would also equip people with the skills and tools of civic power so they can take back control and become problem-solving contributors to the communities in which they live. In a Citizens’ Britain, how ‘to citizen’ would be on the curriculum, just as it already is at Citizen University in the US.

In a Citizens’ Britain, the core principle of the distribution of power would be applied both to our patterns of trade and to our economic and social infrastructure. We live in an age of shocks, as the financial crisis and pandemic have shown, and the fact is that localised and decentralised societies are more resilient than globalised and centralised ones. Instead of over-reliance on globalised trade and centralised energy systems with dangerous single points of failure, it is essential that we build  local, community-owned, circular economies, powered by community-owned and -controlled renewable energy.

That does not, however, mean that a Citizens’ Britain would be isolationist. Looking outward, a Citizens’ Britain would invest in a new strategy of civic internationalism, replacing the empty rhetoric of “Global Britain” with a meaningful commitment to establishing Britain as a Global Citizen. We would massively expand student and citizen exchange programmes; provide more support to our world class NGOs and universities doing important work overseas; support our major cities and regions to have a bigger international presence; and grow the use of technology platforms that can connect the citizens of this country directly to the citizens of others to get things done. The Grow Movement, founded by Chris Coghlan, a Lib Dem parliamentary candidate at the last election, is just one example of what this could mean in practice.

A Citizens’ Britain would have its own distinctive technology. Open-source software has the potential to provide citizens with the transparency needed to hold the automated systems shaping their lives to account. Innovative platforms and technologies are emerging to combat disinformation. Constant vigilance is required in defence of net neutrality.  Encryption technology that can shield political activists from authoritarian regimes is vital. And citizen data unions, alongside labour unions, are being experimented with in the hope of allowing people to extract a price for the personal data they currently transfer to the tech giants for free. Andrew Yang’s Data Dividend Project is one example.

There are many other areas to which the Citizens’ Britain concept could be applied but we hope this gives a flavour.

We believe this is an idea whose time has come. From Brexit to the European Super League the theme coursing through the veins of the British polity is misallocation of power. Putting more power in more people’s hands has the potential to restore trust in democracy, give people agency in shaping their own lives, bridge the divides in our society, and build the broad support required for the fundamental reforms we need on the climate emergency and so much else.

It also is an idea that is distinctively Liberal, with the potential to mark the Liberal Democrats out from the other parties.  Paddy Ashdown liked to say:  “The heart of liberty is empowerment”. He was right. We should build on that by arguing that whereas the Tories are at best the party of big vested business interests and Labour the party of the state, the Liberal Democrats are the party of the citizen.

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