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