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The Ideal of Citizenship

Author: Simon Duffy

This short speech on citizenship was given online to the Local Area Coordination Network Conference in December 2020. It includes the short poem ‘Our Citizenship’, which is dedicated to the People Focused Group Doncaster.

The ideal of Citizenship has always inspired me, because to me it seems to call us to be the best version of ourselves, and because it offers us the best possible version of what it means to be an equal - because being a citizen means equal and different. Now, isn’t that rather groovy?

Citizenship is a word that reminds us that we can only exist as a full human being if we take an active part in creating the community within which we live. We are social beings and the best kind of society is one that supports our equal citizenship.

It is an ancient ideal - even older than the Latin word for Citizenship - civitas - a word which describes both the citizen and a whole community of citizens. The ancient Greeks valued this ideal - and inspired by the ideal of Citizenship they created forms of democracy that - in many respects - we’ve still not been able to replicate today. In fact the Greeks would not call the UK a democracy, the technical name for our kind of society is an Oligarchy. In an oligarchy rulers were often chosen by election from a small choice, offered by the powerful. 

Does that sound familiar to anyone?

The ideal of Citizenship can also be found in the Bible. Leviticus demands:

“If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would help an alien or a temporary resident, so that he can continue to live among you.” 

Leviticus 25:35-38

Or in other words we are under a fundamental obligation to ensure everyone can live as a full member of the community - equal in membership and equal in dignity.

This ancient understanding was that everyone should be treated as an equal.

Today of course some governments are happy to create Hostile Environments for refugees, for disabled people and for anyone in poverty.

And these powerful ideals and important words are all corruptible. Words and ideals do not defend themselves. It requires work to maintain the integrity of our ideals.

Today some politicians and leaders want to divide us and so they treat Citizenship like a special badge or passport - to be restricted only to a special few and handed out by the powerful.

But if we think Citizenship just means passport-citizenship then we don’t really understand what Citizenship means. Our equality, our rights and our responsibility to play a full part of the community continues to exist - whatever any politician or any government says. 

Citizenship comes first, government comes second; for it is meant to serve us.

Some others want to use Citizenship to rank us. 

First-class citizenship, for the best of us; second-class citizenship for rest of us. 

As Stef Benstead describes in her recent book Second Class Citizens, many disabled people today know that society has started to systematically attack and control them. If you’re not careful the danger is that the wrong people get to decide what Citizenship means: who gets the best deal and who sit at the bottom of the pile.

Citizens are equal. There’s no ranks, no classes, we’re all the same, and we’re all unique - and each of us must make our own unique contribution to our shared community.

The ideal of citizenship appeals to me as a philosopher, because it shows us how we can be truly equal. But citizenship is also a really practical ideal and it offers a really practical set of things to work on together.

Several years ago I started helping people with learning difficulties regain their place in the community after many years living in institutions. And over the years - and with the help of friends like Wendy Perez - I have tried to describe some of the basic building blocks from which everyday citizenship is constructed. We’ve found that there are seven keys to citizenship:

  1. Meaning - having a sense of purpose, awareness that you have something to offer
  2. Freedom - freedom to pursue your plans, to give life to your dreams
  3. Money - enough to give you independence and the foundations for a life of your own
  4. Help - giving it and getting it - working with others to make the changes you want to see
  5. Home - a place of your own, within the community, a place of welcome and retreat
  6. Life - contributing, working, enjoying all that the community has to offer
  7. Love - relationships of warmth and kindness from friends, family and partners

When springing people from hospitals this framework proved very useful - not just in reminding us of important problems to solve - like how to get the right home - but also in helping people see the interconnections between the keys: for the right home will also be the home that enables people to live with meaning, freedom, money, help, life and love. The keys offer a coherent and interconnected image of the elements that make up everyday citizenship and how those elements interact with each other.

We might just call it a good life, or the good life, but in the end - as philosophers like Aristotle have noticed - if you try to describe a good life then you’ll end up describing something a lot like citizenship. It’s as if - at our best - we were made to be citizens.

I think that we get the best understanding of citizenship from those who face the reality of exclusion. I think the keys to citizenship offers an emancipatory conception of citizenship - and I think we often find that it is those who the powerful think should be excluded from citizenship (like the refugee) or those they deem less important (like people with learning difficulties) who are those are actually living as true citizens

It is is they who know: what is truly meaningful - the value of freedom - the need for economic security - the power of mutual assistance, of helping each other out - the need for a home of your own - the joy of the community life - and the absolute importance of love.

This week I was with one group that inspires me with its understanding of citizenship - PFG Doncaster - a group of peer supporters who have been helping each other since 2010 and who have been successfully challenging, teaching and realising their relationship with local public services. I wrote them this poem to read at their poetry night last night.

 Our Citizenship (2020)

If they tell you, 

You don’t belong

To their club, their class, their country;

Then remember that we all long

For more than hollow spaces
And empty boxes.

Don’t feel small because some small man

Tries to make himself feel bigger

By clinging to some flag

By claiming our fathers’ victories

And denying our fathers’ sins.

We liberate ourselves, 

When we see that we belong:

Right here, right now,

Amongst those who’ve found us.

Our citizenship begins

The moment that we claim it;

Don’t let it be defined

By those seeking to deny it.

Let no club, no class, no country

Divide or categorise you.

We are citizens of every place

Where and when
We start to build it.

Our little lives burn brightest

When love and fellowship unite us.

Local Area Coordination (LAC) certainly seems to me to be closely aligned with this work of enabling everyone to live a life of citizenship. The model seems to bring life to citizenship in at least two critical ways:

First - help is given as an act of love - uncomfortable as that may sound in our bureaucratic age - it is an act of love because it is open, it seeks to build a meaningful relationship of trust, and it works to help people find their own path. And that is a work of love.

Second - help is given from within the community and it seeks to strengthen the community. People are not to be exported into service-land; they are not products or commodities. We are citizens - or, if not - we are at least citizens-in-waiting.

Another important word for me is inclusion. Inclusion describes a goal for any community inspired by love. Inclusion is the word chosen by such great leaders as John O’Brien, Beth Mount, Jack Pearpoint, Judith Snow and Marsha Forrest. It was these activists who inspired me at the beginning of my adult life. A citizen is perhaps also the name for any human being who understands the value of inclusion and who chooses to act so as to make inclusion real.

Today I hope we can pass on these ideas and ideals to a new generation. If you want to join us then please join the global movement we’re created to make inclusion real for everyone - Citizen Network - working to create a world where everyone matters.

As Eddie Bartnik says - it’s great to see innovations develop with integrity - and a more global community can help us to separate the true meaning of things from toxic or immature government policy. I’d like to thank Eddie, Ralph and the Local Area Coordination (LAC) Network for working to develop these ideas in the spirit of equal citizenship and integrity.

Amongst many questions I have about the future this one seems pressing.

LAC and many good initiatives work best at the level of neighbourhoods. Yet in most communities there are no structures - and certainly no democratic structures - to really help us act as citizens, to think, decide and act together. It is for this reason that we’ve recently launched the Movement for Neighbourhood Democracy. So isn’t it time for us to demand and to create a meaningful shift towards truly local democratic power?


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

The Ideal of Citizenship © Simon Duffy 2021.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

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Simon Duffy

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