Towards a new, radical citizens’ Britain


In 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Paddy Ashdown published a short and visionary book called Citizens’ Britain: A Radical Agenda for the 1990s.

Writing under Thatcher’s government, Ashdown predicted for 1999 almost exactly the Britain we live in today, articulating it as “Citadel Britain”:

“The classical facades and glittering glass skyscrapers of our capital provide the offices of our financial empires – banks, insurance companies, pension funds, the headquarters of international enterprises. They also house our government departments, which guard the state. These form the tightly linked power centre of society, monopolising communications, information and control… Employment officials try to enforce low paid work under threat of benefit withdrawal… all residents carry identity cards… while the police are seen as protecting some, they are regarded as persecuting others. Coercion and control are part of the experience of everyday life… Nationalistic in its stance towards the world, Citadel Britain nevertheless adopts opportunistic policies within the global economy, seeking only the highest short term gains from international investment and trade…”

He set out an alternative vision, by contrast, for “Citizens’ Britain”:

“It is the people’s homes in all their rich if untidy diversity which have become the real centres of power… Decision makers have recognised that the best structure for managing and governing is one which does not concentrate power but disperses it, and enables a teamwork rather than ‘top-down’ approach… Workers have more knowledge and power in their workplace. Many own their own jobs and are self employed. Every person owns a stake in the nation’s economy… Many people retrain or ‘up-skill’ twice or more in their working lives… Quality of life has become just as important as large wage packets… Internationally, Britain is seen as a promoter of constructive co-operation. We are leaders in international moves to solve global problems such as environmental destruction, disease and famine.”

We believe this vision of Paddy’s offers a powerful starting point for the renewal of liberal democracy, which the Liberal Democrats can and must lead in the present day, just as his dystopian Citadel Britain accurately depicts the world we live in.

Our own pamphlet – a collection of essays called CITIZENS’ BRITAIN: TOWARDS THE RENEWAL OF LIBERAL DEMOCRACY – remains an early sketch of Citizens’ Britain as a political project, not a final product. This is a mission with implications, challenges and opportunities way beyond any given policy area or particular political reform, important and integral though such reforms are.

We are talking about nothing less than the birth of a new Britain, in which power is re-distributed across politics, the economy and society and where empowerment replaces paternalism as the lodestar of progress

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. sef says

    I am yet to read both the original article and the authors’ pamphlet – but strictly from the two descriptions (‘Citadel’ and ‘Citizens’ Britain) my impression is that those are extreme and therefore wrong. Written obviously for allegorical illustration, they are like the non-existent black and white ends of a real-life grey scale.

    The reality (at least the one I live in) is a mix of both, if you take any of them and sprinkle it with elements of the other, this would probably produce a more accurate description of real Britain. Elements like ‘many workers own their jobs and are self-employed’, or they ‘retrain at least once in their lifetime’ – belong to ‘Citadel’ Britain, being very much facts of today’s life. If Mr Ashdown and the authors of this piece see those as something positive, they might credit the hated ‘Citadel’ for that. On the other hand, a true Citizens’ Britain would benefit from measures that motivate work (a ‘citadel’ practice), rather than motivating non-work through benefits…

    I could have saved you all the superfluous writing by posting just a short sentence:
    _Nothing is pure black or white._

  2. Ben Rich says

    I was working for the Lib Dems when Paddy’s book was published. His analysis and prescription was really powerful: as Jon and Ian point out the former has sadly withstood the test of time; but some of his prescriptions have been overtaken by events not least by the constitutional reforms of the Blair Government. The next stage of further devolution to communities and to a hyperlocal level is much harder.

    I think this somewhat eclectic selection of essays is a useful addition to that debate. I am not sure I buy Adam Lent’s Community Power Act not because the principle isn’t spot on but because it focusses on institutions. Personally, I am more excited by Vidhya and Will’s Community Heroes Fund which seems to be a creative mechanism to empower local social entrepreneurs.

    The role of local entrepreneurial leadership is however missing. Are metro mayors a step forward taking power away from the centre, or undermining local authorities? I suspect the former but I know many Lib Dems would disagree with me. And how do we allow learning from mistakes by community entrepreneurs? The Lib Dems call for more local decision making and then rail against what they call the postcode lottery; how do we allow room for failed experiments? And community empowerment is all very well in communities with lots of social capital – volunteers and voluntary organisations run by well educated middle classes – but can we apply the same structures to areas without the same human resources or infrastructure (the contrasts revealed between constituencies in our booklet ‘Together Again’ are interesting on this.)

    So congratulations to Ian and Jon on starting an important debate and giving a platform to lots of important voices, but there is still some way to go to a coherent policy proposal. And whether the Lib Dems are equipped to take forward this debate is another question altogether…

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