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


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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.

Start Quote

Whatever the reason, the difference between generations is indisputable”

End Quote Alison Park National Centre for Social Research

"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.

Start Quote

In the 18th Century, the key thing was the need to uphold the public good”

End Quote Dr Joanna Innes Oxford University historian

"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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  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    There seems to be a lot of frustration in the disconnect between politicians and public.

    Given politicians exist as a bygone remnant of an age pre-internet when it was impossible for everyone to have a say on every issue that affected them (hence we needed representation), how about we bin them and replace them with well-audited e-referenda?

    Any takers?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Yes there is such a thing as civic duty. It is the obligations that go hand in hand with the 'rights' we expect to enjoy. 'To each according to need; from each according to ability'. We are all members of society and must undertake our civic duties towards each other. We shouldn't need politicians or laws to tell us that...

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    When the ballot paper has a "none of the above" option and a suggestion form attached, only then will it be considered a civic duty to vote. The idea that we should be forced into voting for the sake of it is unforgivable given the amount of greed and corruption inherent in our parliament. Those who don't vote are, in fact, voting - they're sending the message that they won't support anybody.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    The sense of civic duty is best spread by example. If people feel good about the society they are in, they will be more inclined to do their share.
    A fine example of what not to do is selling the names and addresses of people on the electoral roll to marketing organizations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    When cleared from their camp the Occupy Wall Street protesters chanted "This is what democracy looks like".

    Every political system is imperfect and relies on participants to act with civic duty, most importantly the politicians themselves. They use sophistry to pretend that they and the capitalist system work in our interests, when the opposite is (now obviously) true. Power needs to be devolved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I am not sure why we have to register anyway. We have to tell them that we exist? I am not sure what civic duty is but I do feel some responsibility for the people around me and will do what I can to help. Is that enough to be going on with? I have always voted but I am not sure I can do that anymore. None of them have earned any intimation of approval.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    "so-called civic duties - like the duty to report a crime, or intervene to stop one happening"

    Laughable - for the police to waste time by treating that person as a criminal? Or just not doing anything about it. we've just learned its not worth bothering. Like voting.

    Notjing works how it should. Our society no longer supports Civic Duty, its "me, me me" from government, down (or public, up)

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    "ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

    This is something we lost when successive Labour & Conservative Government's told us we had rights to choose & demand but no obligations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I was brought up to give respect where it is due. There is always a level of respect due to someone because of their position or function. That is owed by everybody. Then there is respect due the man. The first is a civic duty the second a personal choice.
    I think that a level of civic duty, of community feeling, social solidarity or whatever you may call it exists but it is certainly in decline.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    ""Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country"!!"

    Quite right. Unfortunately, most people in this county are still busy asking what the country is doing for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I have never voted and I don't think I ever will. - GBA (26.)

    And as long as you continue, the politicians don't have to take a blind bit of notice of anything you think, do, or say. It's attitudes like this that are responsible for the mess our political system is in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Is ths article suggesting that we can no longer say that our duties are fully described by the law of torts?

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    When Nick Clegg decides to start sticking to his principles, I might start listening to his views.

    Until then I consider it my civic duty not to listen to such a hypocrite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I do feel such a thing as civil duty. Women fought too hard to get the right to vote for me to renounce it. BUT as everybody in their comments say: it is not worth it because politicians are not in it with us. We are on two different planets it seems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    'Civic Duty' is taking pride and a responsibility in your community. It is nothing to do with your political persuasion nor whether you vote or not.

    Ranging from becoming involved with your local community to picking up a piece of litter which has blown into the street outside your house.

    As Kennedy once said "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country"!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I spent six years as commitee member & chair improving the lot of Social Housing dwellers - is that civic duty - I do know it is something passionately beleive in

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Compulsory suffrage tends to minimise right wing bias, albeit anecdotally.

    Very generally, right-wingers tend to be more organised in getting to the polls when voting is optional.

    I'm aware there will be those on both sides of the spectrum objecting to this premise on an individual basis - I speak in generalities only.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I have never voted and I don't think I ever will. Why would I put my cross to any of the incompetent, morally bankrupt, megalomaniacs who want to go into a system to get themselves a buzz from the power and glory. The idea that I could be compelled to makes me is my fundamental right not to have people telling me what to do as long as I am not harming anyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Loyalty is a TWO WAY ROAD.

    Even though I ticked the PRIVACY box I have found that address and ex directory phone number of myself and my wife has been supplied to a directory company.

    A good reason NOT to register.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    People would gladly carry out their civic duty if they saw their political representatives carry out their duties with the same sense of duty. Unfortunately this is not the case. It`s self-interest that drives our political parties, both at national and local level, and until that changes people will not have the will to subscribe to such a biased system, offence or not.


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