Roscoe Lecture: Jack Straw


Lecture by Jack Straw

Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff, David, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you very much indeed for this reception and, before that, for this invitation to give this lecture on citizenship.

I’m delighted to be back in Liverpool. Some significant events of my life all seem to have taken place in this great city. I also think it’s of significance that these lectures should partly be held in this great St George’s Hall, a temple of celebration for the kind of civic society which the Victorians were able to generate, and I was reflecting as I was looking at the ceiling and hearing about the floor that I bet there are some cost overruns when this building came to be put up. We are sensitive about this subject at the moment because there’s a building opposite the House of Commons called Portcullis House which apparently is going to cost more than a couple of portakabins. Perhaps I’m not responsible, which is always an unwise thing for Home Secretaries to say, but I genuinely have nothing whatever to do with the decision except I dare say I was at tea when it was going through the House of Commons one dark night. Whenever I am challenged about the cost of this building, I say, “Were there cost overruns when the Tower of London was built, or when Westminster Abbey was built or the Liverpool Cathedral, or buildings like this?” I’m not in any sense justifying extravagance for the political classes, I do make a point that those who put buildings like this together understood the importance of architecture in underlining the concepts which were to be reflected inside these buildings and this is a great temple to the idea of citizenship.

Two weeks ago I was invited to present the Lambeth Young Citizens’ Awards in Brixton. These awards have been the idea of a local police officer who wanted to pay tribute to those in her area who have really made a difference to their community, and by the way, one of the things that was very moving as the citations for these awards were read out by this police officer was that these young people who were receiving these awards were in no sense goody-goody-two-shoes who’d never been in trouble with their parents, the police or their schools. Most of them had a record of one kind or another but, through a good deal of intervention and in some cases just through strength of character, they had become eligible for awards for real heroism, for endeavour and for contribution to the community. Nineteen young people were given these awards (and I’ll come on in moment to some remarks about the “walk-on-by society” which I made some time ago) but the one who received the premier award was a young woman aged seventeen who had witnessed a very savage attack in her area and had decided to do something about it. She decided, in spite of all the intimidation she received, that she was going to report this to the police, that she was going to provide witness statements and she was going to go forward and give evidence – a real act of citizenship if ever there was. She survived and the area prospered.

The point I make of this story at today’s lecture is this: that these were young citizens’ awards and as I was giving the awards out, I wondered what the concept of citizenship actually meant to those young people, how often they talked about the idea of citizenship. The answer, I suspect, was “Not very much”. Citizenship is not a term which we use very much in our daily lives. We may regard ourselves as Londoners or Liverpudlians and, since you mention it, David, as fans of Everton, Tranmere Rovers or Blackburn, students of life or of Liverpool John Moores University. By the way, there were some people who were less than generous about Everton’s win against Coventry the other day. Most of them are to be found about 25 miles up the road in Blackburn and I’m ashamed to say one of them was me. Someone’s got to go down and let us hope it is neither Everton nor Blackburn but I suspect it will be one or the other or both. But we very rarely identify ourselves as citizens. Indeed, citizenship has never been a term of very great emotional significance for the British even though it was British thinkers like Tom Paine who did much to shape the world, the way the world thinks about the rights of man and to develop this concept of both democracy and citizenship in the nineteenth century.

I think a big part of this absence of a self-consciousness about citizenship, maybe because British society has never been through the sort of revolutionary upheaval which spawns bills of rights and new constitutions. France has gone through one monarchy, two empires and five republics – Britain has stayed simply a parliamentary monarchy. Yes, this has had its challenging moments and many of them have actually taken place here in Liverpool. So, the basic system of government has evolved rather than been the subject of a convulsion. But we are unique in that regard in Europe and I cannot think of one country, not one (with the possible exception of those clever-clogs who were here, of Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino and maybe Luxembourg), but I can’t think of one serious country on the mainland of Europe which has not experienced the convulsion of civil war, dictatorship, occupation by foreign troops or changes to their boundaries in the last two hundred years. Indeed, I do think a lot about what we should do to improve education about citizenship in our society. One of the tools I think teachers ought to use is simply historical atlases to show the unchanging boundaries of this kingdom, certainly within the mainland of Great Britain over a period of getting on for a thousand years, and then to see the extraordinary changes which have taken place within the last two centuries in the mainland of Europe – to give people an understanding about why it is that we sometimes have a different perspective from them. Just remember, there were hundreds of states in Germany right up until 1870. Italy was not united until that year. Perhaps we should remember some of the contributing factors which led, literally, to the Balkanisation of the Balkans from which we are still suffering today.

For us, that has passed us by and there’s been no overnight change from being a subject to being a citizen. We seem happy enough being both. Perhaps it is the relative tranquillity of these shores which is why we all seem to take the idea of citizenship so much for granted. We don’t ignore what goes with citizenship altogether but our greatest emotional attachment to this cause tends, however, to be focused on what’s been described by Marshall as social rights; things like education, healthcare and pensions; practical benefits which have accumulated over time rather than legal or constitutional freedoms over which revolutions are fought.

One of the points I want to make today is that we are moving now into a period where we are almost bound to become much more conscious and self-conscious of our explicit rights and responsibilities as citizens and about the relationship between each of us as individuals and the state. A nation which was characterised in the last century as having no written constitution at all is at least going to end this decade with a half-written constitution. This is made up of the international treaties and conventions which we have or are about to incorporate into our own law; the treaties of the European Union which now take precedence and have done since 1973 over our own law, and the wholly separate European Convention of Human Rights which is going to be incorporated. Then for Scotland and Wales, there are the statutes establishing their parliament and assembly and executives, which amount to their written constitutions for their very high degree of self-government which they’ll enjoy after May 6th.

A proper and developed sense of citizenship does need a clear statement of rights and responsibilities and it is that that we, as a government, with (I’m pleased to say, as things turned out), backing from all the other major parties in parliament at the third reading, have sought to provide; that clear statement of rights and responsibilities, by providing for the incorporation within the United Kingdom Law, of the European Convention of Human Rights. For the first time ever (not just since 1689 – that Bill of Rights fulfilled a rather different purpose for those of you who are legal or constitutional historians) in a British statute, we have a core statement of basic protections which can be upheld through our courts. I believe that this Act will change the relationship between the state and the citizen and it should also start to redress the dilution of rights which has taken place under previous governments of both parties, let me say, which tended to be, in my judgement, far too centralising.

To digress only for a second, it’s worth bearing this in mind about the European Convention of Human Rights. There is some anxiety. There is bound to be some anxiety about whether the implementation of the Act (and it has not yet been brought into force and certainly won’t be before next year) will be disruptive of our process of courts and our process of criminal justice. One of the reasons why we are taking our time before it’s fully brought into law is to provide for proper training of judges and magistrates and everybody else involved in the criminal and justice system so that it isn’t gratuitously disruptive. The thing to remember about the European Convention of Human Rights is that, although it is called a European Convention and therefore some might say it’s from ‘that lot across the Channel’, in fact what the Convention actually states is what British jurists saw as a considered statement of the rights and responsibilities of citizens in this country and they put those ideas together – the basic rights which we took for granted in this country, the rights of Common Law – and sought to loan them out for the benefit of people in Europe. Indeed, it was British jurists like David Maxwell Fife who then later became Lord Chancellor in the 1950s who is one of the principal draughtsmen of the European Convention. It is paradoxical that although it was British jurists who laid down the law, literally, in the Convention, and Britain who played a leading role in the Council of Europe (the body which drew up and formally agreed the Convention), we are the last country in Europe to be incorporating it into our law.

Alongside the incorporation of the Convention and, indeed, the EU treaties, the people of Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland respectively, Parliament and Assembly and executive bodies, whose constitution, powers and relationship to Westminster are not defined by convention as those of the Westminster Parliament are, nor by some recollection of pre-1689 prerogative rights, but are defined by a single text by their establishing statutes.

This, then, is the first reason why we have to become more assertive, more explicit about the idea of citizenship in the United Kingdom. That in our modern, evolving and increasingly written democracy, this developing the idea of citizenship will help us better define the relationship between the individual and the state.

But there are two other reasons, I suggest, for becoming more assertive and explicit about the idea of citizenship. The first of these could be dismissed as a semantic point but words have very great power and at present those of us, particularly politicians (I’m sure David will recognise this point) have to address the public and their needs. I’m often, literally, lost for words about the proper term of address which we use to our audience. For politicians in the United States, the answer is an easy, straightforward and inclusive one; it’s the “American People” or “American Citizens”. General de Gaulle used to use a different but equally inclusive form, if you remember those great broadcasts he used to make to the French people, which was “Francais, Francaises” to begin his addresses to the nation but we, in Britain, get stuck if we’re not careful and we resort to the awkward, very condescending and exclusionary term of “Ordinary People”. We don’t know what to call other people, and that term normally implies that the speaker (but not his or her audience) is anything but ordinary. It sets up automatically a barrier between the person speaking and those who are listening. I think it’s time to strike out “Ordinary People” from the political lexicon and to start talking about “Citizens” instead.

My third reason for saying that we need to be more explicit about the idea of citizenship leads on from these two. Once the broad concept of citizenship is established in citizens’ minds it becomes much easier to develop the idea of citizenship in an active sense, of how people can give something back to the community by voluntary activity, but in doing so, of course, they end up receiving much more than they have given. When I talk about the need to develop a more active definition of citizenship, I am not just talking therefore about concepts derived from nationality law. The rights and responsibilities which individuals within this country enjoy are, for the most part, not confined to British citizens within the strict meaning of the word, nor should they be. The principle that the protection of the law should be extended to everyone, irrespective of their race, their culture or nationality, is not some modern innovation. After all, and it’s a good place to say this, slavery was declared unlawful within this country not because of any intrinsic rights which came from citizenship but because of a sense of the rights which all people enjoyed simply through being here, rights which were developed from a sense of a basic or natural law. As a judge put it at the time, “The air of England is too pure for a slave to have to breathe in”.

I’m very conscious of the importance of all this through my role as Home Secretary. The Office, as David has suggested, has a unique role in the development of the concept of citizenship. As Home Secretary, I am responsible for some of the oldest, perhaps most fundamental, identifiers of citizenship. These include access to justice and the right to the protection of the law, decisions as to who can or cannot enter the country and who can or cannot claim British nationality, responsibility for the electoral process (although, let me say, as Home Secretary, I’m not responsible for the outcome of the electoral process, I make that very clear), including who can vote and how we vote. Sometimes it feels as though one is dancing over a pin to distinguish two or three of the functions one has to combine but anyway I am responsible for the process, as Home Secretary, not the outcome. In a direct sense, therefore, thousands of Home Office staff and ultimately myself as the elected Government Minister, have the power to decide on a day-to-day basis who can and cannot be a citizen. It’s a responsibility which we must never take lightly. In a mature democracy such as ours, those who make decisions on fundamental rights of citizenship have to expect intense public scrutiny. This, by the way, is a further reason why we are committed to introducing freedom of information legislation to give every citizen the right of access to information held by public bodies. For those of you who are following this, we are publishing a draft bill about this in May.

Citizenship, as I’ve indicated, is not just about legal rights and legal enforcement. It should also have a positive, pro-active side. As I suggested, from what I’ve just said about this Hall, I think citizenship is something worth celebrating and worth celebrating in a conscious way. But compared with other countries, we’ve not been very good about this. If you think about it, in Canada, Australia, the United States and many other countries, those nations honour new citizens on their respective national days and other appropriate days with public ceremonies and citations. In Britain, however, what do we do with people who become new citizens, who acquire citizenship, who have said to all of us, as British citizens, they wish to share in the fruits of the citizenship which we enjoy, who’ve sought this and we’ve lost it? What do we do? We do absolutely nothing except we send them a brown paper envelope through the post with a certificate, normally about two years late, such is the queue and the delay in processing applications.

Jonathan Friedland summed this up rather neatly in his book, Bringing Home The Revolution. He said this; “While the Americans organise a tear-jerking ceremony for new citizens, the British authorities offer nothing. New Britons do not come together in a branch of the Home Office,” (they should be pleased about that!) “but neither do they sing their national anthem and hear a warm speech of welcome. They do not weep in the embrace of relatives and their new country.” Although that may go too far for what’s an old country (after all, Canada, Australia and the United States are all new countries), I think that Mr Friedland has a point. I think we should be doing more to celebrate citizenship, to value those who take on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship by naturalisation and acquisition as well as by birth. What I’d like to see is us developing ways in which we can, literally, celebrate citizenship, ways in which the awards of citizenship certificates could be issued maybe here in St George’s Hall for those in Merseyside – maybe organised by the Lord Lieutenant, assisted by the High Sheriff (or the other way round if I’ve got the order of precedence wrong). Ways like that. I will certainly be interested when we come to questions to hear what you have to say about how we celebrate what I believe is a key rite of passage.

But being a citizen involves much more than having a piece of paper. The right to vote is an area where eligibility and nationality are linked though, even here, interestingly, because we are Britain, there is no neat correlation. For many years, we have rightly allowed citizens of the Commonwealth and of the Irish Republic who are resident here to vote in all of our elections. In more recent times, we have extended the franchise for European and local elections by allowing residents national from elsewhere in the European Union to take part in these elections. Despite this, and I can certainly say this here in Liverpool, we have poor turnout rates in elections, especially for local and European elections. Indeed, what’s paradoxical about Liverpool, where there’s a great sense of citizenship, by the way, a great sense of community involvement and community responsibility and some very vibrant not to say rough and tough politics, is that Liverpool should have the wooden spoon when it comes to participation in formal elections. In fact, it got the wooden spoon for European elections (there was a by-election, I remember, and I think we managed to get 12% of the populace out) and I think there was a local election where the poll dropped to just 6%. This is not impressive, I have to say. It’s not just a go at Liverpool, by the way. I’ve not come here to have a go at Liverpool, a place which I love. I remember in Islington where I was a councillor, it was 16%, and in Blackburn, inevitably in the central areas, it has not been good either.

Maybe one of the defining characteristics of being British is that having fought so hard over so many years for the core rights of citizenship, like the franchise, we should then be lackadaisical in taking advantage of them; well, we’ve got them so we don’t have to worry about them. But this is something I would like to change, and change, by the way, not by going down the Australian route of compulsory voting. I’m very pleased to see the Chief Constable here and I fancy his view, his advice to the Home Secretary, is that the police would have better things to do than arrest people who hadn’t voted. It would be a challenging task, especially here in Liverpool. In any case, I take the view that if people have a right to vote, they also have a right not to vote. They may be saying something not only about themselves when they don’t vote but also something about the political process and their sense of their relation. So I’m not suggesting compulsory voting at all. But I do suggest that we have to encourage much greater voting participation in a number of ways. We need to do that by introducing new ways of voting, in a way in which we hope will increase local democracy and accountability, and we’ve done that. We’ve got the new system of European Parliamentary elections, the regional list for the parliamentary elections on June 10th. We’ve got different systems in Scotland and Wales which will hopefully generate renewed interest in voting systems, when we end up with a Mayor for London’s Assembly next year, that will be a different system again and if Liverpool actually wants and desires a mayor and Assembly here, then there’d be a different system there and all of that may encourage people to take a greater part in the political process.

We also have to ensure that our electoral procedures are up to date and that they facilitate and don’t hinder the electoral process. That’s why I’ve established a working party on electoral procedures under the chairmanship of the Home Office Minister, good friend and Merseyside Member of Parliament, George Howarth. This working party is currently considering all the procedure aspects of holding elections including such issues as electronic voting, rolling registers, improvements in postal voting and absent voting and the best day on which to hold an election. There are people who say we should hold elections on Saturdays and Sundays. I think there’s a lot to be said for that, by the way, provided we don’t do what the Labour Party did this last Saturday and hold a major rally to which they invited me on the same day as the Grand National. So there are some advantages, if you think about it, in having it on a Thursday if you pick the right day, but there are also advantages in having it at the weekend. But with turnout levels overall of only 35% for European elections and less than 30% for local elections outside London, there is an enormous need for a greater encouragement of people to vote. To do that, we should not just be improving the process but we should be developing the idea of good citizenship.

The former Speaker of the House of Commons, Lord Wetherill, in the introduction to a report of the Commission which he established into citizenship in the late 1980s, said this, “Citizenship, like anything else, has to be learned. Young people do not become good citizens by accident any more than they become good nurses or good engineers and learning about citizenship ought to be a dynamic process within our community.” (end of quote? here) We are now actively promoting the teaching of citizenship within our schools and this should help children learn to grow up in a society which cares and offers proper quality of opportunity but also offers them an opportunity to take part in the democratic process. I’m very pleased we are doing that because in my judgement we’ve gone backwards rather than forwards compared with the kind of education in citizenship specifics that I received in the 1950s when I was at school. I am appalled every election when I go round and talk to young people and find out that it’s not that they’re not interested in the electoral process, because often they are (they’ve got interested through their parents or the school’s running mock elections), but they are ignorant of it. They are ignorant even of the basic way in which they go into a polling station and put a cross against their name, even though there are many young people at school who are over the age of eighteen who actually have a vote whilst they are still at school. We’ve got to change that.

But there are some promising initiatives. Two weeks ago, for example, I spoke at the launch of a Practising Citizenship European Parliament Mock Elections project, sponsored by the Federal Trust and the Hansard Society which will be teaching fourteen- to eighteen-year olds about European elections and European citizenship. Formal education at school and later in life clearly has a major role in creating the idea of a “good citizen”; but so too do the much broader, informal ways in which we transmit values.

I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture that back in February I gave a lecture about the future of Law and Order. In it, I discuss the importance of informal social control in reducing crime and disorder and pointed to what I called “the walk-on-by society.” My remarks caused something of a stir and, while some commentators supported me, some claimed wrongly that I was promoting the idea of a notion of “have-a-go heroes”. One newspaper columnist who obviously knows a lot about these things since he was a Fellow of Granville and Caius College, Cambridge, said that my suggestion that we might consider intervening if we saw a group of eleven-year olds bullying a younger child was “unrealistic to the point of lunacy.” Well, I disagree. Society cannot function properly without the nexus of informal relationships of which I’ve talked. What the debate did reveal very vividly was that, whilst many of us would like to be better citizens, some of the time we’re not very sure about what this may mean in practice. For it does not just apply to whether and how we should intervene to stop misbehaving youngsters, but to a wide range of other situations too; from first-aid emergencies to helping someone out after they’ve lost a close relative or partner. Afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing, we may end up doing nothing at all. It is something about, particularly the way we English behave, I think of it especially in relation to bereavement, but in relation to many other situations of loss. It’s not that people don’t want to help, it’s just that they feel paralysed into inaction. I don’t want to suggest that it’s all bad because it isn’t.

Most people require no such urging. There are six million people who already care for a relative – child or parent, wife or husband. Millions more do some kind of voluntary work: 350,000 people serve as school governors; 80,000 involved in residents’ associations; an estimated 10 million people involved in 155,000 Neighbourhood Watch schemes. In all, almost half the population say that they’ve taken part in some form of voluntary activity in the past year. But what’s frustrating when you meet people involved in voluntary activity is that they often express the wish that they had done it earlier than they had done. This afternoon I went to Earl Road and Tunstall Street in the Smithdown ward to talk to a group of people who were brought together by a Neighbourhood Watch scheme, who’ve put in some gates in the alleys and it’s a cheap and very effective form of crime control. What’s interesting, talking to the women concerned (they were all women with one exception), is that although they were linked cheek-by-jowl in a couple of streets, they had not met each other until they had been brought together under the aegis of Neighbourhood Watch and they were expressing regret and wished they had got there before. So, even with those people who are involved in voluntary activity, there’s huge potential to develop this more.

Voluntary community activity self-evidently brings people together. It helps to create and foster a sense of citizenship which is often missing from our communities today. It can bring in the excluded and enable them to participate in their community: local people working on an environmental art project to brighten up their neighbourhood; tenants working with local authorities to improve street lighting; parents building a new playground where their children can play safely. These initiatives benefit everyone. By participating in these activities, people develop mutual respect for one another as individuals and for society as a whole. Above all, they develop self-confidence and self-respect in themselves. I think it’s one of the most uplifting things that happens from voluntary activity. It’s not what it does for those who are receiving the benefit of the activity; it’s what it does for those who are giving it. I can think of so many occasions when I’ve been round one of the written-off and run-down estates or run-down inner city areas. You see people whose own lives have been crushed by their environment who, by encouragement into voluntary activity, not paid, have suddenly started to walk tall and seen some purpose in their way of life. So these initiatives benefit everybody.

As a government, we are committed to supporting and promoting this kind of active citizenship. We want to increase the participation of people who until now haven’t been as involved as others in volunteering and we want to channel their enthusiasm in productive and satisfying ways.

In January this year, the Prime Minister set out a millennium challenge to mark the new century with an explosion of giving. We are doing our best to give that helping hand. A working group under the chairmanship of Lord Warner is already taking this agenda forward. The group is drawn from a variety of backgrounds; voluntary organisations, business and broadcasters, and it’s developing a three- to five-year strategy for increasing public involvement in community life, the New Active Community Unit, established earlier this month. It’s going to work across government, joining up the different things we are doing in government. It’s going to be outward looking and will include people from outside government as well as from inside.

David, Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff, I hope that as we enter the next decade we, as a people, start to develop a stronger sense of citizenship, for the civil, political and social rights which our ancestors have struggled so hard. Lord Wetherill, the former Speaker, said in 1990, “Citizenship is a cultural achievement, a gift of history, which can also be lost or destroyed.” I think we have to nurture citizenship and, in doing so, and I make no bones about my communitarian leanings on this, we should not forget that it’s not just rights which goes with citizenship, but responsibilities and obligations as well. It’s duties we have to do our best for our children, to undertake jury service, to respect the peace and quiet of our neighbours, it’s a hundred and one things that make citizenship a virtue as well as an entitlement and reward.

Citizenship was something worth fighting for. Some of the people in Merseyside fought for it although they may never have realised what they were fighting for at the time. Citizenship is certainly something worth preserving and celebrating as well.

Thank you very much indeed.