Gordon Brown on civic renewal

(from Dayton, OH) I’m a bit disappointed by the small role that themes of civic renewal and citizen participation have played so far in the US presidential campaign. But recent developments in Britain are remarkably promising. If Thatcherite conservatism could migrate from the UK to the USA, maybe we can borrow their new civic orientation.

Thus consider these excerpts from Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations. …


Brown starts by depicting a set of “big challanges” that are too complex and too mixed up with personal behavior and culture to be fixed by government alone. As he says later in the speech, “When we think about how to tackle the big challenges we face it is increasingly the culture in which we live our lives that matters, our beliefs and aspirations, the values and norms that shape our goals and the boundaries that we set and are prepared to set for the way we behave in our families and in our communities.”

Thus, he argues, it is necessary to tap the energies and ideas of many citizens in a decentralized way: “Britain needs a new type of politics which embraces everyone in the nation and not just a select few, a politics that is built on consensus and not division, a politics that is built on engaging with people and not excluding them, and perhaps most of all a politics that draws upon the widest range of talents and expertise, not narrow circles of power.”

Brown emphasizes that we live in a time of civic innovation and idealism, even if governments and bureaucracies sometimes feel tired and overwhelmed. “And although ours is an era in which many of the traditional structures of society and association and voluntary engagement have declined, I have also seen round the country as I have visited different communities new and vibrant forms of civic life, social and community action, multi-media technologies that have transformed and are transforming the scope and nature of civic participation.”

As in the United States (where community development corporations, land trusts, and other nonprofits are now significant economic actors), so in Britain, “the words voluntarism and voluntary action no longer fully capture [what is] happening daily in our communities. There are 50,000 social enterprises with a combined turnover of £27 billions. Half of the population, as we know, volunteers at least once a month. We have to reach out and connect with this new energy and enterprise and it is urgent that we do so because of the profound new challenges that I believe this country faces now and for the future cannot be solved, cannot be met by top-down solutions simply by saying, as people often did in the past, that the man in Whitehall knows best.”

Brown cites crime and climate change as two examples of issues that the government cannot solve alone. The latter problem, he says, “demands that we combine international action and investment with the direct personal and social responsibility and commitment of ordinary people in every community of our country.”

Although Brown calls for consensus, his position is itself an ideology (and so much the better for being one, in my opinion). He steers his way between neoliberalism and socialism: “So I do not agree with the old belief of half a century ago that we can issue commands from Whitehall and expect the world to change, nor can we leave these great social challenges simply to the market alone.”

Although Brown recognizes the strength and dynamism of the nonprofit sector, he worries about its weak connection to formal politics. “In the 1950s 1 in 11 people joined a political party, today it is 1 in 88. Once political parties aggregated views from millions of people, now they need to broaden their appeal to articulate the views of more than the few. … And this is not because politicians are necessarily as individuals less trustworthy or because they work less hard, nor does it mean the end of political parties. Party politics remains at the heart of a representative democracy, it reflects inevitable differences of values and principles and it is fundamental to citizens to have a clear choice of programmes and policies. But I believe that the evidence shows that the depths of people’s concerns cannot be met by the shallowness of an old-style politics.”

At this point, Brown begins to outline practical ideas for increasing citizen voice in policy. “We have already taken the step of publishing the legislative programme in draft, inviting comments and views, and for the last six months I have been discussing and working through how to do in a more consultative way that involves people in debating the issues that matter – drugs, crime, antisocial behaviour, housing development or even foreign policy issues like Iraq where there are public discussions.”

The first step will be to “hold Citizens Juries round the country. The members of these juries will be chosen independently. Participants will be given facts and figures that are independently verified, they can look at real issues and solutions, just as a jury examines a case. And where these citizens juries are held the intention is to bring people together to explore where common ground exists.”

Brown explains that “Citizens Juries are not a substitute for representative democracy, they are an enrichment of it. The challenge of reviving local democracy can only be met if we build new forms of citizen involvement to encourage them in our local services and in new ways of holding people who run our services to account. So we will expand opportunities for deliberation, we will extend democratic participation in our local communities.”

This entry was posted in democratic reform overseas. Bookmark the permalink.
  • Peter Levine

    From Mica Stark via email:

    Brown’s recent speeches about civic participation and renewal are inspiring and worthy of attention for all 2008 presidential candidates. A smaller effort to inject some of these themes, albeit not as explicit, is happening in New Hampshire. The NH Center for Nonprofits is organizing the Nonprofit Primary Project – an initiative aimed at getting the presidential candidates to talk WITH nonprofits about the role the nonprofit sector plays in addressing public issues. They recently held an event with Gov. Huckabee in Dover, NH and the local newspaper in Dover ran a nice summary of the conversation. Certainly not as explicit as Brown’s speech, but a positive sign of reaching out to a sector that in many ways is closest to the people, working with citizens on real issues and solving problems.

  • How important is that is that they picked citizen juries from among all the various alternatives for deliberation? In any event, it’s great that a national elected leader is promoting deliberation.