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Active Citzenship, What it Could Achieve and How edited by Bernard Crick and Andrew Lockyer

Reviewer: Gemma Hussey*

Sir Bernard Crick died in late 2008. He was acknowledged in 2000 to be one of the five leading contributors to the study of politics in the second half of the twentieth century. This book is a result of his last great undertaking, which was to take charge at Glasgow University of a programme of public lectures on ‘Active Citzenship’. He gave the first and last lectures himself, choosing the speakers and chairing the proceedings in between.

It is a noble and constantly necessary task to seek ways of improving the manner in which we govern ourselves. Despite the many positive features in western democracies, it is easy to overlook how fragile our states are. Governments must always keep that fragility in front of their eyes, particularly at times of great stress and strain, like the current era when so many countries are grappling with the results of disastrous mistakes and questionable economic decisions made by governments.

It is also easy enough for governments to regard civic society as a nuisance. How short memories can be! Many elected representatives (including this writer) came to politics through community groups, social organisations or lobby groups – only to find, when faced with the realities and stark choices of government, that civic society is just as intransigent as it was when those elected members were on the other side of the fence.

In Ireland we have an ambivalent attitude towards referenda. George Reid discusses this form of providing citizens with tangible power in the interesting essay ‘Sharing Power with the People of Scotland’. In the United Kingdom referenda are much more distrusted than they are in Ireland. Reid believes that it is perfectly possible for an Electoral Commission to come forward with viable proposals governing referenda (including that all proposals be voted on in a single Referendum Day per year). Unfortunately, the Supreme Court judgment of November 1995 on the conduct of referenda campaigns in Ireland (the so-called McKenna judgment) has increased the misgivings of the political establishment here towards referenda.

As a lay reader so to speak - not an academic – this reviewer finds this collection of essays a little esoteric and dense, certainly not light reading. Crick himself in the course of the last essay and remarks: ’Academics take a long time to come to the point, especially old professors’. Indeed he and others take such a long time to come to the point that sometimes the reader may decide that the wait is not worth the effort. Even the excellent piece by Rona Fitzgerald, who started her academic life in University College Dublin and has made her academic career in Scotland, requires concentration of a high order if one is not to lose heart.

She addresses the question of what active citzenship would do for gender equality and thereby for democracy. In a carefully developed argument, she uses the term ‘re-gendering’ – and says that to re-gender the model of active citzenship requires a challenge to the classic republican model, now considered to have excluded many elements, which should be considered part of citzenship. It should encompass self-reliance rather than grandiose public action. Caring should be part of citzenship, parenthood should be considered a craft. Gender-sensitive analysis in public policy, institutional change and budgetary allocations should be the norm. All these issues are central to the kind of debate which is unfolding in the Republic of Ireland, a state which is so lacking in the number of women participating in public life.

Having been critical of the relative inaccessibility of a large part of this collection, nevertheless I can see its value in the great scheme of things – the great scheme of constantly improving the way society orders itself. Many of the big ideas in the collection are relevant to modern politics in these islands and will, I hope, filter down in concrete ways to the ordinary citizen.