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Remarks on civility

Here’s the text of my remarks to Young Foundation on civility…This is a vital debate because right now people are asking, how do we respond to the common threat we face in our economy by renewing our sense of common purpose in society. Only be strengtening our shared values. Civility is important because it is the hallmark of our relationships with each other – the space in which shared values live. But there are five ‘cutting edges’ for this cause; our constitution, in our cities, our class-rooms, our communal behaviour and our conversations

A More United Kingdom

Remarks to Young Foundation Seminar on Civility

Liam Byrne MP

Monday 30th March 2009

1. Key question many asking right now is this.

  1. Can we respond to the common threat we face in our economy in a way that renews a common purpose in our society.

  1. Where the pursuit of self-interest is checked by boundaries called a concern for others

  1. Where we become not a country of soulless wealth but a country with a wealth of soul

I want to argue that we can – and to succeed as a country in the years, we must.

2. But let me say a word about why this is so important today. For one key reason. The price and the prize of globalisation are now out of balance;

For centuries our country has prospered as an open economy and an open society

  1. The prize of the last ten years has been great;

  1. What Mervyn King called last last May the NICE decade was only possible because we were an open country

  1. And with new riches have come new horizons; someone like me has been able to go from a poor comprehensive school in Harlow, to Harvard and back again.

But many of us feel there’s been a price too. You see it in our economy – but you see it too in the stretch on the fabric of our society; MORI tell us more people now say they want ‘Britain the way it used to be’ than at any time since 1994.

For the last decade the balance between the price and the prize has looked good. But when growth stops, the price can looks bigger than the prize.

And that creates a big risk.

There is nothing guaranteed or pre-determined about wanting to be carefully open.

People can vote for protectionism not free –trade. For a little less foreign aid and a bit more xenophobia. For less tolerance for a bit more anti-Europe.

What the left and the progressive left have to do is convince people that the prize for being carefully open out-weighs the prize for being closed.

2. I believe that strenthening a sense of common purpose, shared values, what ever you want to call them – is part of the answer to this. Why?

  1. We’ve come to see very clearly the value of social capital pinned together by shared value, to happiness in society

  1. It’s so important that we’ve invented the idea of ‘social capital’ on at least six occasions during the twentieth century.

  1. But stronger shared values are one of the keys to keeping the market functional – as a servant and not a master.

  1. In the 90s, we came to see too the vital need of trust to the market.

  1. In a series of books, articles and arguments, we were reminded how absolutely central shared standards are to the ‘trust’ that powers successful economies.

  1. Francis Fukuyama laid out why in his famous book on trust;

  1. ‘economic activity…is knit together by a wide variety of norms, rules, moral obligations and other habits…one of the most important lessons we can learn from an examination of economic life is that a nation’s well-being, as well as its ability to compete, is conditioned by a single, pervasive cultural characteristic: the level of trust inherent in the society. ’

  1. This trust which lay at the heart of the welter of functional, frictionless transactions that make up a market economy, in turn rests on the ability of communities to share norms and rules and ‘the ability to subordinate individual interests’ which in turns rests on values built, not in the market – but in society.

  1. In this sense economic life, as Adam Smith well understood, cannot be divorced from culture.

  1. As Diego Gambetta puts it; ‘societies which rely heavily on the use of force are likely to be less efficient, more costly, and more unpleasant than those where trust is maintained by other means’

3. So if we want to strengthen the boundaries of behaviour in the market, we have to;

  1. Strengthen shared values in society.

  2. And use those foundations for a new order to replace once and for all the failed doctrine of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher

4. Your conversation about civility is important because civility is the hallmark of our relationships with each; and it is in our relationships with each other, that the opportunity comes to strengthen shared values in our society.

5. But every causes – and yours is a cause – needs a cutting edge. And I want to propose five cutting edges where this debate could advance; around our constitution; in our cities; in our class-rooms; in our communal work; and in our conversations.

  1. Let me take each in turn.

  1. When we feel that we share a national story, it is easier to see our links to each other. The Chief Rabbi made this point recently in his marvellous book, The Home We Build Together.

  1. Now Jack Straw has given us the opportunity in the green paper on rights and responsibilities, the opportunity to codify that story; it is an opportunity to get our story straight – to share it, and to live it.

  1. Second, are our class-rooms.

  1. Already, citizenship education – the education of our children not only in their rights – but what it is right to give is well established.

  1. This is a vital opportunity for our young people to develop their understanding not only of the world around them – but the world inside them.

  1. The new citizenship curriculum gives our young people the space to do exactly this.

  1. In Hodge Hill, with the Templeton Foundation we are now pioneering character education in the time set aside for PGCE in a way that boosts self-confidence and self-esteem by strengthening childrens’ understanding of their place and their space in society. But surely we are only at the beginning of this agenda

  1. Third, in our cities.

  1. You know, at the end of the 19th century we did something incredible. As millions of people left the country and came to our towns and cities, we created Britain’s great civic fabric that knitted those new communities together.

  1. In my own city, pioneers like Chamberlain, the Cadburys, Matthew Boulton, and the hundreds of civic entrepreneurs they inspired created a strong civic fabric to match wider and wider city frontiers.

  1. Or here in this city, the London County Council, after 1889 delivered what the first LCC Labour Councillor John Burns called; ‘the conscious ordering of the city…of its own comfort, happiness and destiny’[1]

  1. I believe the same opportunity lies ahead; in our plans to build 3 million homes – overwhelmingly in urban areas – and our plans to spend £35 billion on new schools and our plans to renew our hospitals and health centres, we have the chance to re-weave the civic fabric of our society – if we shape these plans together.

  1. And in our public spaces, by the way, in the way we licence alcohol, betting and sex, we have to take far greater care to get the balance right, with far clearer powers, a more civil civic order.

  1. Fourth, in our communal work. The law abiding majority in this country is stronger than ever. And the number volunteering is up on five years ago. 41% of us, say we’ve volunteered at least once in the last year.

  1. One in four say they volunteer once a month.

  1. Together that compares well to countries like America, well known for their volunteering tradition, but where only 26-28 percent of adults volunteer each year, and where half of all Americans are members of at least one voluntary group or association[2].

  1. But our goal is to see that civic core get bigger still; we want to see it grow by over 800,000 over the years to come. And are backing that ambition with £145 million of government support

  1. Finally, there are our conversations.

  1. I serve a very diverse community in Birmingham. In a diverse community like mine, with the chance to talk to people from all corners about all things, I am constantly struck by how the things we have in common with each other, are so much greater than the things that set us apart.

  1. The truth is, that there is no great moral diversity in this country. Yes, there are rift issues; but on the basics, we see eye to eye; yet we fail to see this in each other, because we don’t talk to each other enough.

  1. That’s why I see in a constituency like mine, the work of local leaders, whether they are community leaders, religious leaders, political leaders is in finding ways of bringing people together around the arts, history, culture, sports, faith to get people out of the streets they live in, into the streets of others.

  1. The playwright, Arthur Miller, once said that he wrote to help people feel less alone. That is a task that each of us could take on by finding new ways of showing each other our common interest.

  1. So, here are the some of the ways in which I think the cause you advance in this argument about civility can develop

  1. And in this way, by working to build things together; by drawing together to see our common interests, I believe that we can navigate the years ahead and still have Britain feel like home, and I believe we can create from a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish country, a more United Kingdom.



[1] Quoted, Susan Pennybacker, A Vision for London, p3


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