John Alexander, drawing on thinking for this forthcoming book, calls for help on the building of a citizen society.
Building a Citizen Society
I’m writing a book. I didn’t mean to, honestly I didn’t. But now that I am doing, I need the help of the Social Liberal Forum community, because what I’m trying to do is set out a vision of and a pathway to what I call a Citizen society: one rooted in the insight that all of us are smarter than any of us, and where tapping into the ideas, energy and resources of every single member of society is understood and embraced as the route to the best outcomes for all. And it wouldn’t be particularly true to that spirit if I were to do it all by myself...
The day I really knew I had to write — both for my own sanity and as a contribution it felt important to make — was Saturday 10th May 2020. That was the day, in case you don’t remember or don’t live in the UK, that Boris Johnson changed the UK Covid message from “Stay Home” to “Stay Alert”. As I wrote that day in a post that has so far been read over 600,000 times, this was an attempt to reimpose what I call the Consumer Story: a story that tells us that we are all individuals, that there is no such thing as society, that everything is down to personal responsibility, and that the right thing for each of us to do in any given situation is to look out for number one, because that’s what everyone else will be doing. Every step of the way since then, we’ve seen that logic continue, and seen its disastrous consequences: from “Eat Out To Help Out” to the current push for “personal responsibility”.
The thing is, on Saturday 10th May 2020, there was a real live alternative. Britain could in that moment have stepped into the Citizen Story. We really could.
In the previous weeks, mutual aid groups had sprung up all over the country and indeed the world, millions of people had stepped forward as volunteers locally and nationally, and surveys showed that despite our fear, we felt newly united, newly empowered and excited to get involved. The initiatives and tools and processes that government could have employed in that moment — a Citizens’ Reference Panel, open data platforms, challenge prizes, the distribution of power and resources to the local level, a Basic Income— were all there, tried and tested, ready to bring a new future into being. I could see it happening in Taiwan and other places. It was within reach.
Had that step into the Citizen Story been taken back in May last year, the effect would have been transformative. The lesson - not just of the Covid responses in Taiwan, Hong Kong and New Zealand but of all the charities and businesses I and my team at the New Citizenship Project have worked with since 2014 - is that once an organisation or society makes this shift, nothing is ever the same again.
But it didn’t happen. Not just because of Boris Johnson, either; opposition politicians couldn’t see the opportunity either. And that’s why I had to write this book. Because the Citizen alternative just wasn’t even visible. Because no one on the national stage was able to put forward a coherent alternative in the moment when the window of possibility opened. Because it’s going to take the sort of deeper work that writing demands to make sure the new story is ready and coherent and available when the next moment of disruption comes — as it inevitably will.
My great hope for the book I’m writing is that by naming the stories that shape and bind us — the stories of Subject, Consumer, and Citizen — I can help more people see them; that by helping more people see them, I can help more of us step out of the Subject and the Consumer and into the Citizen Story; and by doing that, I can do my bit to support the deep shift we can and must make to create the Citizens’ Britain that is at the heart of what the Social Liberal Forum is all about, even in what are undoubtedly dark times.
A year and a bit on, I have a full first draft and a publishing contract; I’m on the road. But if this is going to land, I’m going to need a lot more help even than that, both in making the book the best it can be, and in getting it out there. Setting all false humility aside, I genuinely believe the ideas I’m working with are essential and could change the world, but I also know it’s not going to just happen — and I know full well I can’t do it on my own.
That’s why I’ve set up a website and mailing list very early in the process, and I’m starting now to experiment with how best to tap into the ideas, energy and resources of those who are signing up to get involved. In the spirit of the Citizen Story I describe in the book, I’m pretty sure no one’s done it exactly this way before, and I know I won’t get it right straight away — but I also know that the earlier I start, the more chance I have of figuring it out.
So far, I’m finding it hugely exciting. I’ve crowdsourced suggestions for the title using a tool called AllOurIdeas, and got some great feedback on draft book covers. Simply by putting the project out there, I’ve been contacted directly by several fascinating people who are helping me fill in gaps in my understanding. I’m about to send out my draft chapters to people on the list to critique and hack to make them really stand up. And what I’m hearing back is that people on the list are enjoying the opportunity not just to read a book, but to shape one.
I didn’t mean to write a book, as I say. But now that I am doing, I’d love to invite the Social Liberal Forum community to get involved. If you’d like to join in, head to www.jonalexander.net and sign up. I’d love to have you on the journey.