Saturday, 2 June 2007

Together We Can

Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ continues to resonate down the age. It is so true that when citizens give up striving to hold the powerful to account, and allow themselves to be tricked or bribed into leaving those in command of their fate to act without due public constraint, they end up weak and vulnerable. Without a collective platform to challenge, and if necessary, halt those with power from charging forward, they become mere pawns in someone else’s game plan.

And tyranny adapts with time. If the first half of the twentieth century was still stirred by rallying calls to band together against Caesar-like dictators, the contemporary world is seeing a multiplicity of social, political and corporate leaders who seek to control others by fostering fundamentalist beliefs, handing the public realm to creeping private interest, and promoting addictive consumerism. There is no single imperial figure to confront, but a shifting alliance of the rich, the irresponsible, and the ‘let’s invoke God when it suits us’ brigade.

Against this chameleon axis of oppression, what can we do? In England, an initiative which began in 2005, is proving that solidarity can be cultivated through the focused collaboration of both the state and citizens. The Together We Can campaign, developed to encourage and support active citizens and public servants to cooperate in finding solutions to public problems, brought 12 Government Departments together with a shared commitment to improve citizens engagement with the development of their policies and services. The annual review of 2006 featured the Secretaries of State of all those departments reflecting on the diverse achievements, from citizenship education for all pupils, through greater local say in setting policing priorities, to wider adoption of deliberative engagement in developing environmental policies (see

Now an interactive resource on the web has been launched to enable all those, who believe that citizens can together exert far greater influence than acting alone, to utilise, contribute to, and promote ideas and practices which will strengthen that influence (

Together We Can cultivates a robust civic culture, to give citizens, from an early age, the skills, confidence and opportunities to work together in raising issues with and getting answers from with public institutions. Of course, this will not by itself prevent democratic life from being damaged by those who want to infect the public realm with their brand of ‘spiritual’ or commercial values, but it is an important inoculation against civic atrophy.

For example, approaches like participatory budgeting are spreading and people who had previously been sceptical about the prospect of civic solidarity have not just witnessed, but deeply moved by young people changing their minds and switching support to back projects which were to benefit primarily the elderly, and ethnic groups voting on spending priorities irrespective of racial factors. Women who had been marginalized, and people with learning disabilities had acquired new skills and confidence to make their voices heard.

Without fanfare, but with quiet determination, a new generation of civic-minded activists are coming through. Together they will stand up to any modern Caesars, in whatever guise they may appear, who threaten the precious solidarity of democratic citizenship.