Lloyd George's new clothes

Citizenship Today
August 9, 1996

The popularity of citizenship as an organising political concept has been cyclical. Anthony Rees identifies three waves when it has been in vogue in Britain: the 30 years prior to 1914, exemplified by the thought of T. H. Green and his acolytes; the period 1945-60, when T. H. Marshall was writing; and the present period, which started at about the time of the inauguration of the Southampton lectures at Southampton University in 1983, two years after the death of T. H. Marshall, whose work they celebrate.

This book consists of the first 12 Southampton lectures. The editors had a tough task, because an extended series of public lectures cannot be planned to produce a collective publication, with guidelines set down to reduce repetition, ensure complementarity and yet prevent too much divergence. Although most of the contributors pay homage to a greater or lesser degree to Marshall's reputation as a distinguished sociologist, this is more often asserted than demonstrated - not least, as W. G. Runciman notes, because Marshall's scholarly output was quantitively very modest.

Almost all of them would subscribe to the elegance of style and economy of analysis in Citizenship and Social Class, Marshall's foremost work, which stemmed from his 1949 Alfred Marshall lectures at Cambridge. It is after this acknowledgement that the doubts begin, and they strengthen over the course of the lectures, as Thatcherism in Britain and its analogues elsewhere challenged the basic tenets of the postwar state and mixed economy. In doing so, the New Right called into question the ideas of T. H. Marshall, whom A. H. Halsey depicts as "the outstanding sociological interpreter of British Butskellism". Perhaps, then, a re-examination of Marshall's analysis might provide an alternative "big idea", even an antidote to the dominant ideology of the New Right. As the consequences of this ideology reveal themselves, commentators of both right and left have turned to the notion of citizenship as a possible means of restructuring public policy to reverse or mitigate the fissiparous forces that threaten advanced liberal societies.

But Marshall's seminal work, as a starting point for renewing our understanding of citizenship and extending and applying it to contemporary conditions, appears to contain at least as many difficulties as insights. It turns out that his threefold exposition of the evolution of citizenship - with the 18th century bestowing legal rights, the 19th century political rights and the 20th century social rights - is contestable in terms of historical accuracy, is limited in its applicability (being confined to England), ignores the position of women and children, and is severely time-bound, reflecting as it does the conventional wisdom of what James Meade calls the "golden age" of 1945-70, that is the heyday of the Keynes/Beveridge settlement. Citizenship and Social Class was, it now turns out, more a snapshot than the first of a series of epic movies. It was not too dissimilar to Walter Bagehot's The British Constitution that a century earlier captured and portrayed a certain maturity of a system which despite its apparent solidity would soon give way to a much different paradigm.

The contributors are all leading authorities in their chosen branches of social science, mainly sociologists. The first five chapters directly address Marshall's concerns empathetically but not uncritically. Two of them, by J. H. Goldthorpe and Michael Mann, coming from quite opposite viewpoints, are much harder on Marshall than the others. Meade, Ronald Dore and Patricia Hewitt wrestle with some of the technicalities of extending social rights and devise a series of fiscal and other schemes to this end. Janet Finch and William Julius Wilson draw extensively on their own survey research: the former investigates "lay understandings" within the Mancunian extended family of responsibilities and rights among kin; while the latter examines the "poorest of the poor" among black communities in Chicago, and how their situation continues to deteriorate to the point where they are becoming a "ghetto underclass", disenfranchised from the mainstream of American society. These two local studies are complemented by an authoritative essay by Howard Newby on the consequences for citizenship of the twin, related forces of globalisation and international environmental regulation, neither of which were foreseen by T. H. Marshall.

Ralf Dahrendorf offers a characteristically reflective survey of the problems that have beset further extensions to citizenship since Marshall's day, noting how much more difficult it is to entrench social rights than legal and political ones. He also places future developments in an international context and points to the need for more profound analyses of the possibilities of establishing "a world civil society", not least because "the study of international relations has yet to become a serious subject, and there are only rudiments of genuine international law."

Newby adds to this theme in his later lecture discussing "citizenship in a green world". "Environmental citizenship", he argues, will have to be added to Marshall's original stock of citizenship rights, but it has the problem that it will have to be established, protected and developed by interstate agencies which at present lack legitimacy and an acceptable level of accountability. In Marshall's time, he wistfully remarks, the formulation of public policy was often research-led: the problems of climatic change, food scarcity and environmental degradation, by contrast, are not matters simply for scientists and technologists; interdisciplinary social science has a significant role to play in their management and resolution.

Less concerned with present discontents, Michael Mann sets Marshall's work against a wide-sweeping historical perspective that includes the experiences of tsarist and Soviet Russia, Germany (before, during and after the Third Reich), France, Austria, Hungary, Scandinavia, Japan (from the Meiji restoration to the present day) and the United States. He argues that the British evolution of citizenship was one of but six routes that in one way or another succeeded in preventing head-on collisions between the ruling class and the lesser or least enfranchised elements within a particular society, noting that Fascist and authoritarian socialist regimes, while denying substantive legal and political rights, "moved furthest towards social rights". Mann convincingly points to the effects of war, conquest and other such geopolitical factors in shaping the nature and provision of social rights.

For robustness of analysis and argument, together with historical breadth and attention to current complexities, Runciman's contribution stands out. He accepts Marshall's general thesis regarding the evolution of citizenship but, contra Marshall, he asserts that the policy agenda of the Lloyd George government of 1918-22 was more influential in shaping Britain's social institutions than the postwar Attlee government. The more modest aims of Lloyd George seem to have stood the test of time rather better than Attlee's welfare state, which, against the buoyant expectations of Marshall, Richard Titmuss and other academic protagonists, is in retreat as successive governments have eroded, abandoned or reversed its basic principles. Politicians are now opting, as the proposals of Hewitt testify, for the less costly, more bespoke or targeted policies of the Lloyd George variety, eg scholarships for working-class children (assisted places), "dock briefs" (reduction of legal aid), limited employment benefit (tightening the rules of entitlement), and so on. After 1950, Sweden's all-encompassing social democracy became the favoured citizenship model to follow, but Runciman notes that it too has proved unsustainable and for Britain would have been even less viable.

In addressing recent and current problems he looks penetratingly at "the conflict between equality of opportunity and equality of condition", examining in the process a number of institutions, including schooling. He boldly poses the question - unthinkable 30 years ago: "Don't children who are destined for working-class jobs deserve a different kind of education from those who are destined for middle-class careers?" He accepts that differential provision may not achieve parity of esteem but points out that Marshall himself wrote: "Status differences can receive the stamp of legitimacy in terms of democratic citizenship provided that they do not cut too deep." "It depends", Runciman concludes, "on what equality of opportunity is opportunity for", because social rights frequently give rise to new social inequalities.

Anthony Giddens also examines the implications for citizenship of globalisation, the rise of fundamentalism and the "increasingly high levels of social reflexivity". In concurring with "the collapse of the Marshallian vision", he also observes that Marshall "spoke little of 'democracy' as such" while "mechanisms of democracy tend in his writings to be taken for granted rather than explored". Giddens latches on to this lacuna, pointing to the necessity of "the democratising of democracy" which a reflexive citizenry will demand. He sees the need to effect changes away from bureaucratic hierarchies. This in turn calls for greater and more imaginative schemes of devolution, for nurturing a dialogic or deliberative democracy and for strict controls to reduce sleaze and patronage. In refocusing our attention onto the legal and political aspects of citizenship, he is in step with the recent rise in Britain of such pressure groups as Charter 88, the Scottish Constitutional Convention and others that have succeeded in placing constitutional reform at the forefront of the political agenda.

In the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust's 1995 "state of the nation" survey, the majority in favour of constitutional reform was even larger among social classes C and D than among the AB category. This is heartening evidence for those who see the need for a reinvigorated development of citizenship, and should firm up the resolve of Tony Blair. It should also be further examined by social scientists, and would make a suitable topic for a Marshall lecture in the near future.

Sir Trevor Smith is vice chancellor, University of Ulster, and chairman, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

Citizenship Today: The Contemporary Relevance of T.H. Marshall

Editor - Martin Bulmer and Anthony M. Rees
ISBN - 1 85728 471 2 and 472 0
Publisher - UCL Press
Price - £38.00 and £13.95
Pages - 306

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