22 Apr 2021

Building a Blueprint for a New Civic Journey: Levelling-Up and Achieving an Upswing (Part III)

In the first part of this blog Matthew Flinders praised Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett’s ‘The Upswing’ for its historical range and depth but questioned its future-focused relevance. In the second part he developed this critique in a more positive direction by highlighting the notion of ‘the civic journey’. The aim of this third and final blog in this short series is to develop this journey-based approach in the hope of both provoking a debate and demonstrating its transformative potential.

Criticising the work of other scholars is always a dangerous path to take. That path is made more perilous if the format of the critique is inevitably short (i.e. like a blog) and the focus of your critique a particularly ‘big beast’ (i.e. like an unquestionably brilliant global über-scholar like Robert Putnam). With this in mind it’s a jolly good thing that the aim of my first blog was to seek to build upon The Upswing (written with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) through a focus not on ‘how we came together a century ago’ but on the more pressing issue of ‘how we can do it again.’

When I say ‘we’ I am, of course, stretching the territorial boundaries of the text’s uplifting narrative and seeking to stretch its relevance across all those countries, cities and towns around the world that have become democratically disaffected and trapped within what can only be described as a corrosive ‘politics of pessimism’. The Upswing therefore provided a stepping-off point from which I developed the notion of ‘the civic journey’ in the last blog. By doing so, however, I risked falling into exactly the same trap that I had suggested the authors might have fallen into. That is, a lack of detail and the omission of a blueprint that can be used to drive and design the emergence of a new ‘upswing’. Not wanting to be ‘hoisted on my own petard’ as I seek to set a course across such inevitably choppy intellectual and political waters, the aim of this third and final blog is to add a little detail to the civic journey concept.

As a direct descendant of the first person to circumnavigate and map Australia – indeed to name that beautiful land mass, Australis – Captain Matthew Flinders, I am well aware of the dangers of mapping the topography of new islands of theorising, let alone new concepts. With this caveat in mind I seek to offer little more than a fertile direction of travel and a very rough blueprint for thinking about how we might turn the ‘I’-‘We’-‘I’ arc of the twentieth century back towards a focus on the collective and not the individual. And in the UK the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of statutory citizenship education in schools and the tenth anniversary of the launch of the National Citizen Service (NCS) make this a particularly appropriate moment to be thinking about this topic. Add to this the likely impact of both Brexit and Covid on young people and the need to reimagine the civic journey becomes arguably unquestionable.

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The notion of the civic journey is simple: it seeks to capture the multiplicity of ways in which individuals understand themselves as both individuals and as active members of a broader community. There is no one single civic journey, nor should there ever be. But what there should be is an integrated patchwork of opportunities, projects investments that each in their own ways seek to nurture civic engagement and understanding across and within communities. To some extent we have the broad bones of a civic journey already with, for example, citizenship education in schools, the NCS for 16-18 year olds and the recent launch of a civic universities network.

But even these stages in the journey have far more potential to give. What’s missing is a focus on transitions between stages, on building civic momentum, on promoting disruptive interventions, on thinking about exit and (re)entry points, on looking more broadly across the generational divides and – most importantly – what’s missing is an approach that is designed for young by young people. There’s also a lack of creative innovation in the sense of blending social action with personal benefits (the ‘we’ and the ‘me’ are not necessarily in opposition).

Take, for example, RockCorp and the strides it has made in making volunteering fashionable, possibly even cool. The idea is simple – ‘Give, get given’ – with music being used to inspire people to take action by volunteering and getting involved in their community. Anyone who gives four hours to a RockCorp organised volunteer event gets a free ticket to a music concert. Many volunteers start with their ‘eyes on the prize’ of a free ticket but quickly realise that volunteering can itself be fun and a hugely rewarding pastime. Take this into the British context as part of a vibrant patchwork of opportunities and the options and ideas quickly emerge. There has never been, for example, a tradition of making a civic contribution a core component of completing an undergraduate degree in the United Kingdom as there is in many other parts of the world. If the economy slows, as many experts expect it to, in a post-Brexit, post-Covid context then the idea of a properly funded service year initiative could become an incredibly attractive option to many young people. The NCS, to step back along the civic journey, has been a fantastic innovation but what it’s always lacked is the clear development of a ‘cadre effect’ through which its alumni remain connected and are incentivised to build upon the experience that the NCS provided.

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And why stop there? The civic journey does not stop once someone becomes an adult. We evolve and change as our lives create opportunities and challenges that are likely to ensure that our capacity for civic engagement also ebbs-and-flows. One of the biggest opportunities provided by thinking about the connective and catalysing potential of the civic journey revolves around the older and retired generations, rather than children and young people. As the ‘Knitting Nannas’ in Australia (and now much further afield) have shown, civic engagement is itself a remedy for combating isolation as well as a way of mending democracy. Thinking about the civic journey and connecting-up across the broad phases and stages provides a way of harnessing energy and building momentum which could, once unleashed, produce a powerful ‘upswing’.

And yet possibly the strongest reason for thinking about the civic journey is more pragmatic, mundane and basic. Whether we like it or not, everyone has to carve-out their own journey through the twists and turns of life. We also know that these twists and turns are increasingly severe as work become more precarious, the hinterland of insecure employment more fragile and the economy more ‘YOYO’ in nature (i.e. ‘You’re on your own’). Don’t try telling the forgotten people and ‘left behind’ of Doncaster, Durham, Barnsley and Birmingham that flexible employment patterns set them free from the yoke of the steelworks, mines or mills of the past. As anyone who has watched I, Daniel Blake will know, there’s a world of difference between individualism as a value preference and individualism because there is no alternative.

Maybe now is the time to think about new alternatives, and to forge a completely new civic journey.

Matthew Flinders is a Civic Fellow of the Institute for Community Studies; Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre and Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Vice-President of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and Chair of the Universities Policy Engagement Network.