The term ‘citizenship’ is impossible to sum up in an easy sound bite. At least, one that sounds interesting…
It’s one of those things you can take for granted until you don’t have it – then it seems to be worth life and death: ask a refugee.
Citizenship is good news because it guarantees people their protection and freedoms: by right. Citizenship is a gift from your fellow country men and women: usually those of previous generations who established our freedoms, sometimes with their lives. But the cost to every new generation is that each citizen should enact their responsibilities to their nation and community. Only that way can we together ensure our protection and freedom.
But that social, legal angle doesn’t really summarise how real people bring their energy into making enjoyable and fulfilling communities. “Active Citizenship” is all about contributing to society: frontloading it with security rather than patching things up should problems occur. That costs because you’ve got to invest your human agency to add trust and goodwill to protection and freedom. Always a risk.
But a risk worth taking if you’re living in a country where people have agreed to reckon with each other, not just try get the better of each other. To create order, not by chance but negotiation and management of choice together. This is similarly costly because no generation starts the process from scratch. Our collective life needs constant discussion because people are diverse and our histories and values have deep roots. Becoming organised and proposing solutions back to the community is the basic activity of politics within democratic citizenship. This adds reason and choice to our trust, goodwill, protections and freedoms.
So for the individual, citizenship puts a final price on freedom. It calls each citizen to reckon with their own priorities and values. It expects their allegiance such that they accept some limitations, and share in the risks and sacrifices of their people. The state expects citizens to create freedom and opportunity by sometimes placing the greater good above their own. And this obligation – negotiated by the people – shares the cost of being a citizen. When times are good the cost might be small; when times get tough it might be high.
There is a saying: “the cost of freedom is vigilance”. History shows us the many ways that our freedom can be taken from us, or how we can become complicit in taking away the freedoms of others. Only vigilance stops that. Citizenship is the unsung hero that stops this happening: it is organised freedom through organised vigilance. It leaves the majority of life to be enjoyed through creativity, trust and goodwill, paving the way for us to appreciate that – once we’ve got ourselves in order – the best things in life are free.