A state of mind

Classes and tests alone do not a good citizen make

Gordon Brown has made "citizenship" a central plank of his political philosophy. Anyone who wants British nationality must pass a citizenship test and, since 2002, the National Curriculum has required that schoolchildren learn about the role of government, debate political issues and contribute to the lives of their communities.

Admirable as this is, it is unlikely to instil a meaningful and permanent sense of citizenship. For, unlike physics or history, citizenship is not a body of knowledge. It involves both civic participation and an interior disposition: it is a combination of activity and feeling. Republicanism rarely features in British political debate beyond the occasional desultory suggestion that we dismantle the monarchy. But the republican tradition, from Aristotle to Rousseau, constantly asks: How to be a good citizen?

The virtues most highly prized by Aristotle (or, as Brown might call them, values), such as courage, justice and temperance, are those that are conducive to sustaining a successful state. Man is a "political animal" and Aristotle co-ordinates personal ethical conduct towards the public good. Establishing these virtues is not simply a question of education. One does not become virtuous simply by knowing that stealing is wrong. Virtue is maintained by constantly doing virtuous acts. These are not done reluctantly, but are accompanied by appropriate feelings of harmony and satisfaction. Indeed, should you suffer a dark night of the soul, Aristotle would claim that you are not truly virtuous.

In order to exercise the virtues involved in citizenship, people need to play a direct role in governing their society. This is the condition of true liberty: committed citizens maintain society's freedom and the free society moulds good citizens. But, as Rousseau scathingly remarked, the people of England are free only when they elect their members of parliament. Once they have been elected, the people return to being slaves.

Social conditions in Brown's Britain are vastly different from those in the 18th century, but our capacity for citizenship has not improved. The centralisation of the state, with its constant target-setting, and the treatment of the population as consumers, remove from us a sense of our own political significance. Some people might feel an incipient totalitarianism in the idea that the state should influence our inner life, but this may only be because we are so distant from government that it is impossible to imagine ourselves as part of it.

Perhaps Britain is too populous to be a functioning participatory democracy. Yet some kind of approximation can and should be attempted. Tests and classes may have a small impact, but they will never produce durable citizens. And perhaps they are not intended to. This government wants the benefits of a cohesive citizenry - dedication, integration, security - without sacrificing any of the power necessary to obtain it.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked