Entrenching social citizenship: the progressive case for social and economic rights.

Author:O'Brien, Claire Methven
Position:Features - Critical essay

Since taking office the Brown government has placed renewed emphasis on the challenges facing Britain in a fast-changing global world. Asserting its determination to be proactive in response, it has framed new policies across diverse sectors with reference to the need to equip Britain and its people for the twenty-first century.

The rationale for Brown's new constitutional reform agenda continues this theme. According to the Governance of Britain Green Paper published last July:

Without a shared national purpose, and a strong bond between people and government, we cannot meet the challenges of today's world, whether in guaranteeing security, delivering world class education and health services, building strong communities, or responding to the challenges of globalisation. (Ministry of Justice, 2007, 5)

So, while Labour's 1997 package of constitutional reforms--devolution, the first round of Lords reform, freedom of information legislation and the 1998 Human Rights Act--laid important foundations, we must now 'go further', on a 'journey towards a new constitutional settlement'.

In broad terms, the Green Paper identifies two dimensions to constitutional renewal: greater accountability over the exercise of Executive power; and a renewed relationship between government and individual, grounded in an enhancement of the 'rights and responsibilities of the citizen'. Accordingly the Green Paper suggests measures to bolster Parliament (such as new powers concerning decisions to go to war) and to increase policy making transparency (publishing the National Security Strategy, and a pre-Queen's Speech consultative process). With respect to the second dimension, the Green Paper's proposals proceed along two lines. First, underlining the importance of the relationship between citizen and state at local level (and extending the trajectory set by the local government White Paper (DCLG, 2006)), it outlines new measures to enhance local accountability, such as a duty on public bodies to consult locally on 'major decisions', and a power to ballot locally on spending. Second, it promises to review the very parameters of the citizen-state relationship with a nationwide consultation on both a 'British statement of values' and British Bill of Rights.

So as not to pre-empt these 'national conversations', the Green Paper leaves wide open all questions about the content of a 'statement of values' and Bill of Rights, and their legal character--bar one. Already ruled out, by strong implication, is any 'incorporation' of social and economic rights into the relationship between individual and state. In other words, British citizenship is to remain strictly civil-political in nature. In justifying this presumptive position the Green Paper suggests that broadening Britain's constitutional vision to include social and economic entitlements would entail a substantial transfer of power to the judiciary. Because Bills of Rights are enforced by courts, it indicates, one that included social and economic rights would give wide new distributive powers to judges, unacceptably usurping the role of democratically elected bodies (Ministry of Justice, 2007, 61).

This article accepts the government's starting point: the consequences of contemporary social and economic change for Britain make this a moment for constitutional renewal. But by contrast with the position taken in the Green Paper, I argue that a new settlement must explicitly embrace the social and economic, as well as civil and political, dimensions of individual and collective life in Britain, for four main reasons. First, a vision of equality reaching beyond formal political participation into the social and economic domains in fact runs true to British constitutional values historically. Second, because such a vision is critical to the prospects of mobilising people in Britain around the government's constitutional reform agenda and, now and for the future, around Labour itself as a progressive force in British politics. Third, constitutionalising social and economic aims would assist in achieving the self-same policy goals on which, by the government's assertion, Britain's ability to meet the challenges posed by deepening global integration now hangs. Fourth, and contrary to an often expressed view, because there exist avenues for advancing constitutional social and economic goals other than enforcement by courts which, far from marginalising Britain's democratic institutions, could radically enrich and transform them.

Rewriting history

Constitutions don't just regulate the exercise of power. Explicitly or implicitly, they also define its ends. In the British case, the Prime Minister has argued, eight hundred years of constitutional and political history have been dedicated, more than anything else, to advancing one value. Liberty, argues Brown, is the 'single most powerful thread' running though our history. It has been a 'passion for liberty' that has determined our decisive political debates and inspired our 'defining political moments'--from Magna Carta, 'the civil wars and revolutions of the seventeenth century, through to the liberalism of Victorian Britain and the widening and deepening of democracy and fundamental rights throughout the last century' (Brown, 2007b).

But this cannot be the whole picture. Certainly, liberty has been a rallying call down the ages. But so have the distinct, if related, ideas of justice, equality, democracy, human dignity, economic freedom and the right to earn a decent standard of living--ideas whose content has in turn undergone constant change, wrought by ongoing political contestation and social struggle, against a background of human experience repeatedly transformed by technological innovation and cross-cultural encounter. In their meanings, all these political values are also interdependent. Understandings of liberty, at any particular moment in British history, have owed as much to the contingent scope and content of the others as it has to its own trajectory, and vice versa. Consequently, we do better to see Britain's constitution as kaleidoscopic--an array of political and ethical values ever present as its colours, yet the perceived shape of each depending always on the rest--than we do to view it in monochrome.

It is true that the Prime Minister qualified his main proposition. British liberty, he suggested, in contrast to its American version, encompassed concern for social virtues and 'civic responsibilities'. Ever since the Enlightenment, the British ideal had been coupled to an appreciation that freedom was only achievable 'when society was prepared to overcome the barriers that prevented people from realising their true potential'. Thence sprung 'the modern view of freedom--freedom to aspire--the opportunity and the chance to live a rounded life in which for everyone there is a place for choice and talent to flourish', instead of any simple right to be left alone. Brown drew attention, too, to the role, down the centuries, of successive social movements in advancing the 'frontier of liberty', alongside its development by polemicists and theorists (Brown, 2007b).

Nonetheless, this account remains deficient. Roberto Unger has argued that the cause of the political left rests in essence on two ideas: democracy, which Unger interprets as the claim that relations between persons should not be hostage to social division and hierarchy; and self-realisation, becoming 'a real person discovering infinities within and engaged in the work of self construction', for all (Unger, 2006). Both these foundational ideas assume the finite nature of our existing social and cultural worlds, in contrast to a human possibility, as individuals and collectively, that is endless. From this discrepancy comes the idea of human emancipation which, ultimately, makes possible hope--hope that we can together construct alternative institutions, worlds and ways of being that are fairer, more humane, happier and more beautiful than those in which we now exist; hope, in other words, that empowers belief in the possibility of collective social transformation--sine qua non of progressive mobilisation.

If this is right, then a liberty-centred reading of British political history--even one tempered by references to civic duties and the social barriers to self-realisation--remains lopsided. Unger's first pole of progressive politics has dropped out of the picture: democracy, which of itself, and not merely ancillary to the exercise of individual autonomy and self-actualisation, demands the identification and elimination of oppressive power, exploitation and control from society's 'horizontal' relations. So interpreted, democracy reveals the true source of concern for and function of equality for progressives. Equality has been the heuristic by which hierarchy, in its various forms and locations, has through time been uncovered. Far from a simplistic concern with material levelling, equality has served to illuminate those differences of status and entitlement, based on and spuriously justified by reference to artificial categories, that have sustained social hierarchies and perpetuated their consequences. Indeed, only by seeing the concepts of democracy and equality and their interrelation in this way can we begin to explain the expansion, not just of the franchise (as distinctions based on hereditary line, title to land, profession, gender and race, were gradually erased) but also the...

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