Forging a better politics
The steel city of Sheffield is famous today for far more than its industrial heritage. Located just outside the UK's Peak District National Park, it has evolved into a thriving metropolis, one blessed with the buzz and energy of a much larger city, while at the same time exuding a strong sense of togetherness and community spirit.
First-time visitors will be struck not only by its walkability - hills permitting - but also the friendliness of the locals, as well as the diverse range of businesses and organisations, both public and private, which have made it their home. Among these is the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, run out of the University of Sheffield's Department of Politics and overseen by its founding director, Professor Matthew Flinders.
The Crick Centre - named after the department's founder and first professor - has only been operational for a couple of years, but it has quickly established itself as a font of insight and activity around the issue of citizenship, serving as a bridge between academia and broader society. Flinders admits to a certain amount of surprise at its success so far. "The only problem we have had is that it has created far more demand and interest than we expected, before we have had the internal capacity to deal with it," he admits.
Striking a chord
The University of Sheffield is an apt place to locate a centre about citizenship. While it has long scored highly in the global rankings, it has always striven to be a truly civic institution, reflecting its creation from the penny donations given a century ago by Sheffield factory workers. Its Department of Politics is rooted in similar values, many of which stem from Bernard Crick himself.
"He was a very well-known academic and political scientist," explains Flinders, "who also foresaw a citizen disengagement from politics and was very worried about it. This led on to his focus on the potential significance of citizenship education in schools. So he was very much ahead of his time in many ways. For him, the whole notion of being a university academic was not just to write scholarly articles or to have great ideas but really to have a meaningful and positive impact on life beyond the lecture theatre and seminar room."
The decision, then, to mark the 50th anniversary of the department in 2015 by establishing the Crick Centre was a way to invest in the future while carrying on the traditions that are unique to Sheffield. And Flinders says the timing was right in a number of other ways.
"A lot of academic research has huge social potential that is simply never realised because the material is never made accessible for different audiences," he says. "What we've done at the Crick Centre is engage with multiple audiences in multiple ways. We don't just write up the results of various projects - we turn them into short videos and informatics. We have engaged poets and theatres, examined different forms of art, computer gaming and social change, all to help people think differently about politics."
Throw in other events such as Brexit, President Trump and the recent Scottish independence referendum, and it is easy to see why Flinders and his team were able to hit the ground running. "The appetite amongst policymakers and the general public for informed commentary on what is really going on has been massive," he adds. "And I don't see this slowing down any time soon."
So what is “citizenship” nowadays?
A quick scroll through the Crick Centre's website showcases its eclectic programme of activity but also its intellectual analysis of the evolving notion of "citizenship". Flinders says that the social understanding of citizenship, as well as the language used to describe it, has changed dramatically over the years. "If you look at recent research on youth attitudes to politics and society, you can see this very clearly," he points out. "Generations have been born and only ever really known neoliberal policies, so their view of the world is much more individualised than it was in earlier generations."
He goes on to suggest that this trend has had some negative connotations. "Democracy is no longer understood as a collective concept," he argues. "It is now seen more as an interaction between a customer and service provider. I think the public is keen for a deeper relationship with politicians and politics, but it just isn't there right now."
Helping bridge this divide comes down, he believes, to a shift in attitudes between policymakers and citizens alike. "If you're a politician, you're obliged to maintain a certain level of popular support but, at the same time, politics is not a spectator sport," he says. "If we have ‘a problem' with democracy, could it be too easy to target the blame at politicians? Heretical though it might be to even suggest this argument, could it be that in some ways we get the politicians we deserve? This means that there is a need to broker a meaningful conversation which underpins the responsibilities of politicians to the public, but also of the public's to be more engaged and informed about politics and governance."
With the UK still experiencing the aftershocks of the Brexit vote, as well as the upcoming general election, it is safe to predict that politics will rarely stray far from the front pages in the coming months. Certainly, Flinders says that there are many trends which point towards the public becoming more engaged - citing the rapid emergence of debates about mental health and social inequality to illustrate his point. However, he adds that even if citizens become more active, there is still more to do.
"One of the issues about democracy is that you can't please everyone all the time," he says. "And I think there is an appetite for politicians to be a little braver by standing up and admitting they can't do something - 'I can't pay for Peter without taking from Paul'. This is because as long as the public feel they have been engaged with and offered a serious explanation of the thinking behind the decision, even if they don't like it they see it as more legitimate and are willing to work with it."
A better understanding of democratic politics and the challenges of governing is also vital - which is why the work of the Crick Centre is so important. "Citizens these days often think that failures in government are commonplace, but actually they are arguably quite rare - if anything, the real surprise given the complexity and challenges of modern life is that political failures are not more common," concludes Flinders.
"Unfortunately, in the UK very few people know the name of their local MP and even fewer know the name of their local councillor. The standard of political education is so low that we are creating generations of citizens who don't have the basic skills to allow them to engage and fulfil their responsibilities as citizens. The problem is that the available research and data reveals that levels of democratic inequality are growing.”
Providing voters with a broad understanding of how democracy works in theory and in practice, and why some things go wrong and others go well, is no quick fix, but it is already clear that the Crick Centre has made some big strides - and its impact over the next decade is likely to be even greater.
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