UK Politics

Is there such a thing as civic duty? And do we feel it?

  • 24 November 2011
  • From the section UK Politics
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Should it be an offence not to register to vote? The government doesn't think so, arguing that a sense of civic duty alone is enough to make people sign up. But what is civic duty? And do many of us actually feel it?

There are fears that plans to overhaul the system of registering to vote will lead to large numbers of people falling off the electoral roll completely.

At present, we register as households - and it is an offence for the head of a household not to supply information about voters at an address when asked.

However, in future we'll register as individuals, but no new offence is going to be created to hold each of us to account.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg says he doesn't believe one is necessary, insisting "everyone recognises" that registering to vote is "a civic duty" - and the threat of sanction is not necessary given that sense of obligation.

But is that really the case? Only 65% of those registered to vote took part in the last general election, so if actually voting isn't a universally felt civic duty, can registering in the first place really be said to be one?

And what about other so-called civic duties - like the duty to report a crime, or intervene to stop one happening, or to take part in jury service?

Could it be that civic duty is actually a waning concept?

One man, Guy Dehn, certainly thinks so, and has launched his own charity, Witness Confident, to campaign against what he calls the "walk on by society".

Another pessimist, Alison Park, who is research director at the National Centre for Social Research, is also certain that it's on the slide.

'Weaknesses of government'

She says there's been a long term decline in the proportion of people who think it's their civic duty to take part in elections.

"If you divide the population into age groups, sense of civic duty is much stronger in older generations.

"Historically, people's sense has tended to get stronger as they've got older, but I just can't see that happening with today's younger generations.

"There's something about the lessons that young people are being taught, not just in school but more generally, about politics and the worth of politics. They are entering the electorate not being that interested or engaged, and without a sense of responsibility to vote."

Alison agrees that the experience of wartime - either personal, or close, from a parent - may be one factor behind it. The idea that those who have seen their political freedoms threatened view them as more valuable than those who haven't.

"You could also argue that politics now is more complicated. The world is so intertwined now, what a government can actually do is quite constrained, so you could argue that perhaps young people are more aware of the weaknesses of government.

"Whatever the reason, the difference between generations is indisputable and unless something very unexpected happens, young people are never going to discover the sense of civic duty that their grandparents have."

The concept of civic duty has been used by those in favour of creating a written constitution for the UK - the argument being that if you know what's expected of you by society, you're more likely to do it.

In the United States, where, of course, there is just such a constitution, civic duties are defined in law - they're the responsibilities of citizens to their country, such as obeying the law and paying taxes.

Duties are legally enforceable, and although they vary from state to state - in Minneapolis, they include keeping the pavement outside one's house free from snow - the idea is basically that the benefits of the citizen-government relationship must be a two-way street.

Outside observers

Nick Cowan, from the think tank Civitas, says for him, jury duty is key - not least because it requires a much greater time commitment from the citizen than simply ticking a box on a polling form.

"It's terribly important because it's one of the backstops against a justice system that might otherwise go out of control.

"It's not that jurors are delivering any expertise. In fact, it's because they're disinterested - they have no personal affiliation with the judge, the lawyers, the defendant or the police - that they're so important.

"Jurors are outside observers present to see justice being done and to call a halt to it if it doesn't work. If everyone started welching out of jury duty, you'd end up with juries that were dangerously unrepresentative - filled entirely with punitively-minded people, for example.

"If you contrast that with voting, the right to vote is incredibly important, but actually voting, or registering to vote, in any specific election is not actually a civic duty - largely because it usually doesn't make any difference.

"It's more the fact that it could make a difference in the right context - if politicians suddenly start making dangerous decisions."

Of course, we haven't always had trial by jury or the right to vote, so where has the idea of civic duty come from?

Oxford University historian Dr Joanna Innes says the phrase actually appeared relatively late, in the 19th Century, but the concept certainly existed long before that.

In the 18th Century, she says, the key thing was the need to uphold the public good as opposed to pursuing one's private interest.

"Private interest was thought of as material gain, pleasure, indolence, while public good was things like resisting corruption, not selling your vote, not asking for bribes. Being willing to fight if your country needs you.

"There's a reworking of this in the late 18th and early 19th Century because those ideas are all very well in a primitive society, but actually in the modern world, we value wealth, pleasure and so on.

"Civic duty certainly didn't disappear in this period but it changed and shrunk, and it became legitimate to spend your life in pursuit of personal gain."

But she adds: "There's a resurgence of civic duty in the later 19th Century with the extension of the franchise because if you're going to involve people in the political system by getting them to vote you need to instil in them a sense of civic duty."

Given that history it is perhaps not so surprising that, with another big shake-up of the UK's electoral system being debated, the idea of civic duty is back in the political spotlight.

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