Citizen’s Britain


By Paddy Ashdown – Pages 14 – 22

(Here are) two pictures of how Britain could develop, each dependent on the decisions we take. They are not intended as an exercise in futurology; their purpose is to highlight some fo the major policy dilemmas we will face in the remaining years of this century.


1999 In Citadel Britain

“The danger of the past is that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.” – Erich Fromm

The Citadel

The classical facades and glittering glass skyscrapers of our capital, and our major cities, provide the offices of our financial empires -banks, insurance companies, pension funds, the headquarters of international enterprises. They also house our government departments, which guard the state. These form the tightly linked power centre of society, monopolising communications, information and control, giving high priority to security, both internal and external. The highest levels of finance, government and the security apparatus have used their access to advanced technology as the means of increasing their power at the expense of wider society, fusing their systems in recognition of their common concerns. This citadel of power is characterised by suspicion and secrecy, thinly veiled in public relations disinformation and evasive ministerial statements. Ministers and decision makers themselves are cut off from the grubby public. Official cars and a cordon sanitaire of functionaries stand between them and the slashed seats on the underground, the graffiti and faeces in the underpass and the pavement strewn with hamburger boxes. For them, through the tinted (and discreetly reinforced glass) of the 1999 equivalent of the Daimler Sovereign, the world looks different. Nationalistic in its stance towards the world, Citadel Britain nevertheless adopts opportunistic policies within the global economy, seeking only the highest short term gains from international investment and trade.

Screwdriver Industry

Although the economy still produces rich profits for some, Britain’s industrial base has continued to shrink. Those industries which thrive on high technology, creative innovation and adaptive skill have declined. Because education and training have been neglected, Britain has not been able to keep pace with competition from America, Western Europe, Japan or the newly industrialised countries (NIC). More and more products with high capital input, high skills and high added value are being imported. British industry is characterised by assembly plants, where workers with few skills and little training do a screwdriver job for overseas companies or local firms. In our low productivity economy, workers’ standards of living and skills lag behind those of other countries, as does the quality of their products. Britain competes for investment with the newly industrialising countries of the Third World. It tries to attract new plants from overseas companies looking for weak planning controls, weak trade unions and workers willing to undertake long hours for low pay. British industry is distinguishable from the rest of Europe by poor training, low skills, low investment, poor working conditions, continuing high overtime and an archaic management style.

Rent a Mop Services

As the gap between rich and poor has widened, the rich can afford to pay for more personal services. Overall unemployment has fallen, but there are pockets where labour shortages persist. Low pay is very common, especially in the service industries. More households have nannies,nurses, maids, cooks, cleaners and gardeners. The leisure industries, in particular, employ casual labour on a large scale. Few of the people in these categories get paid enough to meet their basic needs, but they are able to claim means-tested benefits to bring them above the poverty line.

Just as public services have been privatised, so the largest sector of employment has become private services. The scope for productivity increases in this sector is so low that firms can compete and be profitable only by employing short term part time casual labour. Most of those in this casual sector do not have pension rights, sick pay, holiday pay or redundancy protection. Typically, these workers are married women or young people living with their parents, since wages are insufficient and too unreliable for the ‘main earner’ in a household.

Private Life

Citadel Britain boasts of family life as its centrepiece, and claims as its foundation the self-reliant, self-responsible household each in its own ‘castle’. But behind the security-locked front doors all is not so rosy. Ordinary families experience a good deal of stress during their working lives and increasing anxiety and fear as old age advances. Unable to afford insurance against the hazards of disability, and lacking the support of public services, the growing elderly population increasingly depends on the next generation for help and support. The burden falls unfairly on women expected to give unpaid assistance, or take their parents in, while still trying to sustain the part-time earnings on which household income depends.

The strain on mental and physical health is considerable, and the social costs are high. Women feel themselves increasingly subordinate, excluded and exploited; their paid and unpaid labour is required, yet they are not getting their share of power or income in Citadel Britain.

Meanwhile, whilst the majority of opera, concerts, art galleries and theatre can only survive with the patronage of business for the benefit of the few, the vast majority in Citadel Britain are wholly in the grip of the ‘Jumbo culture’. There is little reading and almost no access to conventional culture for the ordinary person. All of these are replaced by the surrogate of soap operas, in which there is an almost ritualised national preoccupation.

Public Perils

Every city has its deprived areas, where the poor and dispossessed live. Despite the apparent general prosperity, a significant minority have been left out. Black people in particular (survey after survey shows that they have lower paid jobs and poorer housing) are disproportionatly numerous among the poor who depend on state benefits and state services for their living. Although there are skill shortages in many areas, unemployment in these districts remains high because whole households are unable to afford to work.

High travelling and child care costs combine with low pay and means tested benefit withdrawal, to make it impossible for such people to improve their situation. Many of them feel that their only alternative is fiddling, hustling and crime.

As a result state officials maintain a brooding and coercive presence in these areas. Employment officials try to enforce low paid work under threat of benefit withdrawal; taskmasters supervise ‘workfare’ schemes for cleaning streets and public buildings; offenders are engaged in ‘punishment in the community’, doing similar tasks, monitored through electronic tags. All residents carry identity cards; relations with officials are tense and volatile; community relations are hostile; curfews for the young are in force; while the police are seen as protecting some, they are regarded as persecuting others. Coercion and control are part of the experience of daily life.

All over the country, the public environment has become shabby, down at heel and dangerous. Public transport is so unreliable, comfortless and risky that it is used only by the poor, while roads are congested and private motorists live with endless delay and frustration. The vulnerable avoid using all public amenities and increasingly stay behind locked doors at night. Some of the young and robust find expression for their frustration and surplus energy in loutish, drunken and violent outbursts. The environment is polluted, crime rates are high; the quality of public resources, public health and public behaviour continue to sink.


The government of Citadel Britain is built on its outdated political system. The concentration of power in Whitehall is very convenient and whichever political party is in power uses it to maintain its grip on authority. For many years Parliament has been used to acting as a servant of the executive, ensuring that the government of the day gets its way. The power of the state to control the release of information and to crack down on dissent is greatly aided by the absence of a Statute of Rights and an enfeebled official opposition which, willing to wait its turn for power, always plays its politics by the conventional rule book. Meanwhile, more and more citizens are disillusioned with the political choices available to them and turn out has fallen consistently at elections to the point where Parliament has decided to make voting compulsory. Nevertheless, the standing of Parliament continues to fall in the public esteem.

Regionally, too, Britain has become a nation of citadels. Many within the citadel walls, especially in the south and east, enjoy security and prosperity. Many more are outside, banging at the gates to get in.


1999 In Citzens’ Britain

“Some people see things that are and ask themselves ‘Why?’. I dream things that never have been and ask myself ‘Why not?’ ” -Aeschylus

Democratic Society

In Citizens’ Britain, it is the people’s homes in all their rich if untidy diversity, which have become the real centres of power. Information technology has not been used to concentrate power but to disperse it. Government has taken active steps to give all citizens access to new communications systems, giving people more control over their own lives and over the organisations which influence them. Decision makers, both in government and out of it have recognised that the best structure for managing and governing is one which does not concentrate power but disperses it, and enables a teamwork rather than ‘top-down’ approach. Workers have more knowledge and power in their workplace. Many own their own jobs and are self employed. Every person owns an economic stake in the nation’s economy, through a universal share ownership programme, the Citizens’ Trust. Similarly, all citizens have a share in the ownership of the privatised utility industries which serve their needs. Citizens participate more fully in government. Emphasis is on openness and rights of access, on sharing information, not guarding it; on discussion not secrecy. A reformed legal system gives each citizen on equal access to justice, with a Statute of Rights to protect freedoms. Internationally, Britain, an active participant in an increasingly integrated Europe, is seen as a promoter of constructive co-operation. We enjoy good relations with Eastern Europe, many of whose nations have taken affiliated status with the EEC. We are also leaders in international moves to solve global problems such as environmental destruction, disease and famine.

Adaptive Industry

British industry is adapting to new conditions through the benefits of political commitment to education and training. Taking its lead from Europe, Britain has invested in a crash programme to improve standards, especially in higher and adult education. Many people retrain or ‘up-skill’ twice or more in their working lives. Education has moved away from early specialisation to establishing a broad base on which specialist skills can be built. Distance learning, especially through the use of information technology, has become far more widespread, particularly in higher and adult education. There is a thriving high technology sector of industry. A skilled workforce earns high wages through producing good quality products.

The labour process is much more varied and flexible in Citizens’ Britain. In many enterprises, a relatively small core of permanent headquarters staff manage the work of employees who are dispersed, some working on a self-employed basis from their own homes and some in small decentralised units. This is not simply to save costs; it also gives workers greater autonomy and a better quality of life. Men and women are more able to share unpaid household work and child care, and both work part-time when there are major caring duties to share. People place a higher premium on adequate pay with adequate leisure than on high pay for long hours. Quality of life has become just as important as large wage packets. Indeed emphasis has shifted from overall levels of pay to a greater concern with net levels of disposable income. With more frequent retraining, the idea of sabbatical periods away from full time employment has become more accepted.

Income Security and Employment

As part time work increases, and a variety of employment contracts develops, the rights and protection of those workers becomes a matter of concern. Employers and trade unions value these ‘irregular’ as well as regular workers, and seek to advance their interests. The government adopts an income maintenance system which encourages part time work and flexibility – a Basic Income, which gives security to each individual. Although this seems controversial at first, (because it guarantees a tax-free income to each citizen irrespective of work or marital status) it is soon recognised as encouraging enterprise, self-employment and a rational use of technology and human energies. It also provides an income for periods of training and advanced education. The Basic Income gives unskilled workers far better opportunities and incentives in the labour market than a means-tested benefits system. Every citizen also receives an annual, if at first limited, dividend from the shares held in a Citizens’ Unit Trust and in the privatised utility industries. They understand that clean water and unpolluted air are essential to their own health and that of their children. Meanwhile, conditions of work, security of employment and pay bargaining are increasingly seen to be protected better through employee rights and profit sharing than through trades union rights and government legislation. Most workers in Britain have a share in the ownership of the firms in which they work.

A Healthy and Caring Society

In Citizens’ Britain people are concerned about quality of life, and not just about quantity of material possessions. They want to live a healthy and fulfilled life, to take an interest in what they consume and in self care. They use information technology to monitor their own health, and expect professionals and experts to act as advisors and consultants, rather than taking all decisions for them.

As people live longer, the proportion of elderly and disabled citizens rises. Neither the traditional ‘solution’ of institutional care nor the alternative of unpaid family care is acceptable. People with disabilities (of whatever age) are not willing to be ‘put away’ in hospitals, nor to be cut off from contact with their community. And married women, whose skills are in demand for paid employment, want choices which extend beyond low-paid menial work in institutions or accepting the assumption that they will be full time unpaid carers in the family home. So new approaches to care, which respect the autonomy and aspirations of people with disabilities, which support the carers, and which allow women the same opportunities for participation in society as men, are encouraged by state policy.

Community and Citizenship

In Citizens’ Britain, people increasingly recognise the importance of an active life as members of a community, and the value of shared resources. They prize their association with others in voluntary organisations, clubs and groups, and their membership of cultural and religious communities. They value good relations between races and faiths. Central and local government promote co-operation between citizens, providing communal facilities for a good quality of life. Environmental protection is a high priority, locally, nationally and in the international community.

Citizens have learnt to place a greater value on shared public amenities, allowing a better balance between private and public, owned and shared, quantity and quality. Public transport and public services are properly resourced, being recognised as a part of the common wealth and essential elements in a good society. It is recognised that the question ‘Who owns?’, which dominated the debate about public services and utility industries in the 1980s, is less relevant than the question ‘How is the citizen served?’. A single powerful watchdog body acts as guardian of the consumer interest where monopolies (state or private) or near monopolies operate in the public sector. Elsewhere consumer power, buttressed by rights to information, guarantees of quality and access to redress, dominates in the market place.

The need to protect and improve the environment is recognised as being central to all the decisions taken in Britain and millions of people spend part of their spare time helping to preserve our natural and cultural heritage.

Published by Fourth Estate Ltd – London 1989

China and Hong Kong 1 December 2017

Hong Kong and the new China

29 November

Peace in the Pacific, and the world, depends on two questions. How will the United States cope with decline? And how will China fulfil her potential as a super-power.

We live in a period of shifting power structures. These are turbulent and conflict-ridden times. The United States remains the most powerful nation on earth, but the context in which she holds that power has changed fundamentally. We live now in a multi polar-world, with China’s powerful position as a mercantile super-power already established. The question is how will China behave?

Until recently, the signs had been hopeful. China had seemed keen to be a good world citizen. She has engaged constructively in multilateral institutions – look at the WTO; look at her support for UN sanctions on North Korea; look at her engagement with international forces to tackle Somali pirates around the Horn of Africa; look at her involvement with UN peace keeping to which she has committed more troops than the United States and Europe combined.

Domestically too, until a few years ago, the China seemed to be moving steadily away from the old dictatorial structures of Communisml. The economic liberalisation of China’s markets have been awe-inspiring. Many of us had taken comfort in what we saw as the inevitable fact that economic reform must, over time, lead to political liberalisation too.

If these were our hopes they have now come up against a jolting reality.

Judging from the iconography of the recent People’s Congress it is difficult not to conclude that what we were looking at was less the emergence of a new China, as the return of the old. A Red Emperor, a cult of personality, the leader’s “thought” constitutionally enshrined, centralised power, suppression of dissent. These were all – perhaps – necessary for Mao Zedong, who had to build a unified state from ashes and a nation which was respected abroad after a century of humiliation. But the respect in which China is held is not in question today, nor is her unity and strength. To return to the ways of Mao sits uncomfortably with China’s ambition to be a modern state.

I do not believe that the Chinese people yearn for freedom and human rights any less than anyone else.  A state whose economy pioneers the future, but whose politics has reverted to the past, is a state founded on an irresolvable contradiction. I know of no instance in history where the sustainable greatness of a nation has been built on a market that is free and a public voice which is suppressed. It is just not in human nature to be content for long with glorious freedom in one aspect of your life and permanent voicelessness in the other. It is profoundly worrying to note the recent spate of examples of harsh repression – the abduction and disappearance of dissidents, the jailing of bloggers and activists, the use of so-called “black jails” outside the judicial system where torture is rampant, the repression of religious minorities, the crackdown on lawyers, the arrest of foreign NGO workers for expressing unwelcome views.

Maybe I had read the signals wrong. Foreigners, even those who have studied China for a long time, can easily do that. The proof of the pudding will come in the eating, and the first slices of that pudding will be eaten. It is in Hong Kong, perhaps more than anywhere else, where we will come to know the true nature of “Xi Jinping Thought”.

Over the past five years, the freedoms guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong in its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the autonomy promised under “one country, two systems” and the way of life, which the United Kingdom has an obligation to monitor under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, have been increasingly eroded.

The heart of that Basic Law is the rule of law itself, and while the Hong Kong judiciary is still largely intact and independent, it is under real pressure from Beijing. The abduction of Hong Kong booksellers into the mainland simply for having published books critical of China’s leaders, undermines confidence both in the rule of law and in free speech. The right to protest within defined limits is part of that law. The right to due process by a judicial system independent of political interference is part of it too. The right to be free from the hazard of double jeopardy if you break the law is widely regarded as a fundamental principle of justice worldwide.

Of course those who break the law should be judged, though whether it was wise for the full might of a super-power to come down on three young enthusiastic student demonstrators, one of whom a directly elected legislator, is a different matter. But even the judged have rights that must be protected.

A year before the handover of Hong Kong, Prime Minister John Major promised Hong Kong that “if there were any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration, we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.” In words which would have reminded every Hong Konger of President John F Kennedy’s pledge that he would stand by Berlin, the British Prime Minister promised that Hong Kong “will never have to walk alone”. This is not a promise that can be lightly broken. As the last Governor Chris Patten has said, if Britain fails to live up to its responsibilities, legal and moral, it risks selling its honour.

The new mood places new responsibilities on the Hong Kong government, too. If things continue to regress further, then Hong Kong’s government has an even greater duty to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy and values.

What happens next in Hong Kong will be judged by a watching world, for it will tell us whether the rise of Xi Jinping leads to a new more modern China, or back to an old more repressive one.