Egypt: Bloody End To Democracy

By Ian Howarthbloody pyramid

The events that have been unfolding in Egypt over the last 24 hours have only added to the evidence that the 3rd July coup was in fact nothing more than a counter-revolutionary move by the Conservative old guard.  The removal from power of Hozni Murbarak in 2011 also saw the removal of the army from power in Egypt.  The election of Mohamed Morsi last year marked the first time since 1952 that a General had not been the Head of State.

On July 3rd the army took back what it believes is its own and not the birth-right of every Egyptian. The seizure of power led by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi was the first step in re-establishing the armies’ brutal grip on the nation.  However, it has encountered far more opposition than it expected and in order to achieve its objectives has had to resort to extreme violence against the Muslim Brotherhood civilian protesters.

While it is true to say that Egypt is a country divided, it is the very fact that it is divided that makes this violent oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood so apaulling.  President Morsi was the democratically elected president of Egypt.  This is a point that we must not forget.  The constitutionally elected President of Egypt was removed from power in a military coup. The early hopes expressed by many that this coup was aimed at restoring a measure of secular balance to the states institutions have evaporated in the light of the use of deadly force against unarmed protesters. The violent suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood is the default position for the Egyptian military, who have spent the past five decades harassing, torturing and imprisoning its members.

The Army is seeking one thing and one thing only, the return of the powers and privileges that it enjoyed under the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak regimes.  It will use any means necessary at securing these privileges and will crush any opposition.  General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi the leader of the coup is a virtual Murbarak clone, having completed the General Command and Staff Course at Aldershot in the UK, and the War Course at the US Army War College he is a product of the conflicted relationships that lie between western capitals and their declared desire to see a democratic Egypt.

The shockingly slow response of the US State Department and many other Western Powers in condemning the coup back in July demonstrates this hypocrisy. US interests are far better served by a compliant military dictatorship than a turbulent new democracy with an Islamist President.  The United States is the only foreign player that matters, and probably the only force left that could turn the tide back in favour of Democratic government in Egypt.  The US military grant to the Egyptian Army is worth $1.3 billion a year.  How can the leader of the free world continue to fund a military that murders its own people, will the cold interests of the US in the middle east trump the chance for a democratic future for Egypt.  The events of the past two months seem to suggest that the Obama Administration has no interest at all in saving Egyptian democracy, as such the violence will continue and Egyptian society will be subdued and silenced once again.


Egypt Meet Your New Boss, Same as the Old Dictator

By Ian Howarth

Yesterday I asked whether what we were witnessing in Egypt was a democratic coup or a return of the old guard.  The removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president in a military coup was clearly an anti-democratic action, but it could have possibly led to a more plural political settlement within an equally democratic structure.EGYPT-POLITICS-UNREST-ARMY

The events of today seem to suggest that this hoped for good outcome from a bad action is drifting further and further away.  The activities and statements of the new government in Cairo seem much more to be aimed at the reestablishment of the old order in Egypt.  The imposition of press controls, the arrest of hundreds of senior Muslim Brotherhood members and the talk of the need for a democratic process that

Egypt has been ruled by the military through sham democratic processes for most of its modern history.   Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak were all military dictators who hung up their uniforms and called themselves President so as to cloth themselves in constitutional legitimacy.  Mohamed Morsi for all his failings as a politician was freely and fairly elected the President of Egypt.  His presidency reflected the true will of the people.  However much he may have lost popular support, tanks should never be used to bring about change in a democratic system.  If the military government in Egypt seeks to manage an election so that only candidates to its own liking are allowed to contest the presidency then Egypt will no longer be a democracy.  It would be no different in its basic operation to the process of vetting presidential candidates in the Iranian electoral process by the Assembly of Experts headed by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.reflects the ‘true will of the people’, all seem to point to the creation of a military controlled sham democracy. Adly Mansour who was until this morning the President of the Supreme Court was sworn in today as the interim president.  His rise to power has been rapid, having only been appointed to the Supreme Court in May.  This attempt at constitutionality seems to be little more than an attempt at legitimising a military coup. I would imagine that the vast majority of the real decisions in Egypt tonight continue to be made in the Defence Ministry and not the Presidential Palace.

While ‘managed democracy’ as it is sometimes called by the cronies that benefit from this corrupt system may offer a more stable Egypt; this will be stability bought at the cost of freedom through an oppressive, security state.  It was this oppressive system that was overthrown in January 2011.  I sincerely hope that we are not seeing its rebirth today.

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Egypt: Democratic Coup or the Return of the Old Guard?

By Ian Howarth

Today’s military coup d’état in Egypt is not an unexpected development.  Throughout history revolutions have been followed by counter revolutions, and then even counter, counter revolutions.  The removal of Egypt’s first democratically elected president by a military coup is something to mourn.  It does not set the stage for a stable political future, especially if whoever ends up sat in the Presidential Palace has constantly to maintain the army on side to ensure their continued governance. egypt

However, there may be room for hope in today’s events.  Mohamed Morsi had abused his position, and acted on several occasions in an authoritarian manner.  He was not a model of democratic virtue and failed to realise that if you wish to make change in a democracy you need to take the people with you.  His continuing distortion of the political system to the advantage of the Muslim Brotherhood quickly alienated vast sections of the Egyptian electorate from across society.  This is why the crowds gathered on the streets of Cairo over the past four days are by some estimates even greater than those that drove Hosni Mubarak from power just over two years ago.

If the military hold true to their word that there actions were in support of the will of the people and follow through on free, fair and open elections within the next 12 months then we could see the emergence of a liberal and legitimate government.  Morsi won last year’s presidential election with 51.7% of the vote versus 48.3% for the independent liberal candidate Ahmed Shafik.  While in a developed democracy this would be a healthy majority, in a state in revolutionary transition it is not the mandate for unilateral action that Morsi took it for.  Almost half the voting public of Egypt sought a liberal independent President.  The perceived authoritarian and Islamist actions and attitudes taken by President Morsi in the short time of his presidency assured that this block of voters were not won over to his cause.  While at the same time a significant number of people who may have reluctantly voted for him also lost faith.

The greatest danger in today’s actions for Egypt is the return of the military to power.  The unconstitutional actions taken by the military threaten all future civilian leaders of the country.  It is possible that the ancient regime overthrown in 2011 could be in the process of re-establishing itself.  We should not forget that Hosni Mubarak rose to power through the military and that the state he ruled was effectively a military dictatorship.  The removal of Mubarak and then the election of a civilian president with no ties to the military saw a severe reduction in its authority and power.  It is just possible that the actions by the generals today were much more about reasserting their perceived traditional power within Egyptian politics and much less about supporting a popular uprising against an unpopular president.

We can all only hope that despite the undemocratic and illegitimate actions of today that democracy may yet be given another chance to flourish in Egypt.  One thing that is certain is that Egypt remains a highly volatile and unstable state in the process of revolutionary change.  It is likely that there will be many more twists and turns to this story before Egypt’s democratic future can be assured

Peace and Stability in the Middle East and North Africa and the Internal Challenges Facing the Region

By Ian Howarth

The region that makes up the Middle East and North African is one of the most politically and strategically sensitive in the world.  The reasons for this geopolitical sensitivity are broad and many.  Firstly the regions vast oil reserves and the vital trade route through the Suez Canal gives it a distinct importance in foreign policy calculations.  The recent and continuing effects of the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘Arab Spring’ have brought massive political changes to Libya, Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt, countries that had until recently had reliable dictators,  are no longer so open to Washington’s charms.  The brutal civil war in Syria and the tensions this has revealed between Russia and the western powers as well as the continuing confrontation between the Security Council and Iran over the development of nuclear weapons possibly lay the seeds for future conflicts.  Finally, there are the explosive issues that surround the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the impact that this has on the wider Arab world.Arab dictators

The three key issues that I have identified and believe face all the nations of the region are managing access to water, terrorism and democratisation or liberalisation.  Access to sufficient water is a basic need for any nation and in one of the driest regions on earth, the control of, and ability to access this resource is vital to national security.  Democratisation is potentially destabilising due to the dangers of popular uprisings and violent counter democratic reactions from the military or the fragmentation of states into religious, ethnic, or tribal loyalties that could lead to bloody civil wars. All of these terrible outcomes have been seen in some form and continue to be in some cases since 2003.

While I recognise the dangers of stereotyping the connections between Islam and terrorism, it is undeniable that the radicalisation of Islam by extremist groups who see violence as a legitimate form of political expression is a serious threat to peace in this region.  Terrorist incidents are on the rise with significant occurrences in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Iraq, with many foiled attempts in Jordan.  The importance of access to fresh water in this region is hard to exaggerate.  In the Sudan there have been frequent droughts that have led to the deaths of many thousands of people, and in Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and Syria the damming of major rivers is becoming an increasingly heated issue.   The problem of water supplies in the middle east and the potential that it holds for conflict can be seen by simply considering Garret Hardin’s model on the effects of over-exploitation of a shared environmental resource, the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’. (Baylis & Smith, 2001: 395)

This hypothetical model demonstrates how independently rational actions taken by a multitude of individuals, in this case states, can lead to a collectively irrational result which is catastrophic for all involved.  In the case of water within the Middle East in particular this hypothesis could be said to be already occurring, the deserts of the region are amongst the driest places on earth and therefore the water that is present in this environment is finite. However, the nations of the region are failing to cooperate and are seeking national solutions to a regional problem ultimately at the expense of all.

President Anwar Sadat said after signing the 1979 peace treaty with Israel ‘that his country would never go war again, except to protect its water resources.  King Hussein of Jordan identified water as the only reason that might lead him to war with the Jewish State’ (BBC News Website 2003).  All across the Middle East and North Africa the issue’s surrounding water are growing in importance, between ‘1955 and 1990 the list of ‘water scarce’ countries in this region grew from three to eight with a further seven expected to be added within the next 20 years’.

The growth in demand for water in the region is in part due to one of the highest birth rates in the world, population growth that is entirely dependent on water either from the three great river systems, the Nile, Euphrates and the Tigris, or from vast underground aquifers that are rapidly becoming depleted.  Nine nations alone rely on the water of the Nile, and the arguments over access to the water of the Euphrates between Syria and Turkey are growing more heated as the Turkish government embarks on an extensive programme of damming up stream, to support urban and agricultural growth in its dry south eastern region.

This issue of water and the right of nations up stream to damn rivers at the detriment of those states that lie down stream is causing increasing disputes.  This is a situation that will only get worse over the coming decades as populations continue to grow.  The support structures of these societies, food production, sanitation, and access to drinking water, will face collapse if the issue is left to the internal decisions of the separate states, each seeking the maximisation of the resource.  This could potentially lead to the rivers down-stream drying up with all the terrible consequences this would result in for the stability of the nations affected.  The solution probably lies in some form of water based OPEC, monitoring supply and demand and responding on a regional level, but whether the states of the region respond to this problem in sufficient time is doubtful.

The distribution of water in the region is currently a second or even third order concern amongst most external observers.   However, without water there’s no life, and as the availability of water to those living downstream becomes increasingly scarce the prospect of armed conflict over access to water resources will increase.  The ‘former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali warned bluntly that the next general war in the area will be over water.’ (BBC News Website 2003)  Many other commentators have also stated that the wars of the 21st century won’t be fought over oil, but water.  This is a problem that faces the whole world but will be at its most critical in the driest places on earth, in the Middle East and North Africa.

The nations of the Middle East and North Africa share one distinct yet dubious quality in common, not one of them is a liberal democracy, and before the cry goes up for Israel, not all citizens of Israel are as equal as each other.  By that I mean that Arab Israelis face restrictions that their Jewish or even Christian compatriots don’t, and the people of Palestine lack any true voice whatsoever in the policies of their occupier or the Palestinian Authority.  The failure of democratic government to take root in this region is the result of a myriad of causes, foreign intervention, the politics of oil, colonial mismanagement, and the traditions of tribal society to name a few.  Since the withdrawal of the colonial powers there have been many false dawns in the region, Nasser’s Egypt, the Shah’s Iran, and Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.

Why you might justly ask would you consider liberalisation and democratisation as a threat to the stability of the region?  Well the answer is really quite simple until recently most of the nations of the Middle East and North Africa are either one of two things, an absolute monarchy or an authoritarian dictatorship following the Arab Spring we also have transitional and unstable democracies.  Both the previous types are represented in the region at their worst and their most benign.  In order to bring about democracy in any one of these states would require some form of political, economic, or popular movement of fairly dramatic proportions.  We have begun to see this in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and can only hope for Syria.  However the vast majority of the nations in the region continue to exist under largely absolute monarchies or as in the case of Iran a theocracy.

Liberal and Democracy are terms often bounded about as being synonymous with each other, although true western democracy is dependent on liberalisation, liberalisation isn’t dependent on democracy.  The liberalisation of a state, its institutions, and economy can proceed without establishing democratic structures.  This is best witnessed in the success of Communist China in adopting western consumer trends, and economics’ while maintaining the control of the state by the party, a process that failed in the USSR, and is having mixed success in the Middle East and North Africa e.g. Dubai & Qatar.

The level of oppression and desperation present amongst the demographically young populations of the states of this region is difficult to overstate, and the desire within Arab and North African societies for democratic representation is equally as strong.   Within Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union the outcome of this process of first disillusionment, then betrayal and finally a sense of the bankruptcy of communist rule was revolution and the emergence of democratic governance.  However, in the Middle East and North Africa the governments began responding to the incompatibility of their rule and the desires of their citizens for more representative government long before ‘glasnost’ in the Communist bloc.  ‘Glasnost Arab style was manifest in the infitah (open door) policies of Egypt and Tunisia in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s’. (Milton-Edward, 2001: 150)

The adoption of these policies was a result of the increasing illegitimacy that nationalist and monarchical rule was being viewed by the people of the region.  They were seen as a solution to the demands for greater freedoms, without the necessity of real political change at the core.  Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have all adopted liberalising projects, following the failure of Arab nationalism during the 1970’s.  Introducing private industry and free market economics, and encouraging the development of the McDonald’s, GAP and MTV culture in their societies has provided an outlet for the ambitious, and young while at the same time maintaining the elites grip on power.  Actual democratisation has been resisted by making token concessions such as the establishment of people’s assemblies in Kuwait, Qatar & Oman. They are half appointed, with powers that are so restrictive as to make them irrelevant.  These concessions serve the purpose of providing the theatre of democracy yet none of the substance.

Despite this theatre the process of liberalisation in these countries has been very successful civil unrest has been rare, and most of the people who live in these societies are content, failing to see that liberal economics and the ability to buy a Big Mac is not what liberal democracy means.  The rulers of these countries benefit from broad public support and are seen as father like figures despite their continuing quiet actions of despotism continuing behind the scenes. The suppression of more radical opposition and overly vocal critics of their governance continues unabated.  Jordan has a free press it is said, free to praise the King, the government, and the military, in that order.

In Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Algeria however liberalisation has either been non-existent or unsuccessful, largely due to the half -hearted approach of the leaders.  Low economic growth or because of unstable factional rule were the ascendant liberal faction can be replaced overnight by a more conservative one resulting in crack downs and the reversal of liberal policies. This may in part explain why three out of these six nations were swept away so quickly in the storm of the ‘Arab Spring’.

The adoption of the liberalising economics of the west has meant that the associated problems with crime and corruption have also emerged.  However, in these societies there is no voice through which society can express its anger with these developments. This has led to nervous societies unsure of their boundaries, and security, it is this environment that breeds the levels of contempt, fear and utter hopelessness, often externalised by their own leaders to detract from their failures.  In turn it helps fuel the support for organisations like Al’ Qaeda, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

The policy of placing the blame elsewhere by leaders in the region is a major cause of diplomatic tension.  The Saudi Arabian royal family are both staunch allies of the United States, personal friends of the Bush family, and supporters and protectors of ‘Wahhabi Islam’.  This extreme Islamic interpretation’s teachings formed the bedrock of Osama bin Laden’s philosophy.   It is this connection between the failure of Arab nationalism, and a lack of democracy in the region that fuels the growth of Islamic extremism and terrorism.

Since September 11th the developed world has been concerned with international terrorism.  However, terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa is an ever present and far from new threat.  In recent years bombs have been going off in Saudi Arabia, set by Islamic extremist opponents of the House of Saud, opposed to its relationship with the west and the United States in particular.  Israel frequently experiences suicide bombings by Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, and Iraq since the 2003 invasion has seen unprecedented numbers of attacks by suicide bombers.  Morocco and Tunisia have also faced similar problems.

The issue of terrorism is not a clear cut distinction between states versus the terrorist, in most of these cases the terrorist groups themselves either has their roots in state security services, or is funded by other rival states.  Two good examples of this can be demonstrated through the Syrian regimes support of Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel, and the suspected involvement of Iranian forces in Iraq.

Foreign policy in the Middle East is dominated by the importance of military strength, with inter-state cooperation a rarity. The desires of various leaders to re-unite the whole Islamic world mean that issues of personality also play a significant role. ‘Democratic peace theory suggests that Middle East wars are, in part, a function of the regions democratic deficits which prevent publics from holding leaders accountable or constraining their foreign adventures’ (Hinnebusch 2003: 141).  There are no attempts by the nations of this region to include liberalisation or democratisation agendas in their foreign policies, with issues of state governance and security on this level being restricted to the power of their militaries.  The most concerted form of inter-state interference in the nature and structure of another states governance can be found in the use of security services, which play a key role in not only maintaining domestic security, but in inciting instability in competing jurisdictions.

The use of terrorism by security services to further political goals, and discreetly continue conflicts is best illustrated by Syria and Iran.  Syria has for decades funded and supported Hezbollah and Hamas in its continuing fight with Israel, a policy that reached its height in the Lebanon during the 1980’s with Syrian military units in rebel or Lebanese guise engaging Israeli forces.  Libya’s use of terrorism in its foreign policy is infamously known through the Pan Am airline bombing over Lockerbie in 1989.

The most influential foreign policy decisions regarding liberalisation and democratisation in the region are coming from outside.  The ambition of Turkey to join the European Union is having a significant effect on its political and economic structures with nothing short of true democracy being acceptable for European Union (EU) entry it is likely that Turkey will effect such change within the current decade.  Already Turkey is a far different nation than ten years ago, although events unfolding in the streets of Istanbul as I write seem to be setting the nation back, and the reactions of the government and police have been far from democratic.

Within North Africa the influence of the EU is also bringing about significant changes, Morocco harbours desires to be more closely integrated with the EU and is therefore making reforms of its own, although these have been far less dramatic than those of Turkey.  In the Middle East the EU is less of a force although financially vital to the Palestinian Authority it could push more vocally for change.

It is the United States that is having the biggest effect on the liberalising agenda in the Middle East.  It has been actively pursuing as part of its foreign policy the promotion of free market economics and democracy although the latter is probably more gloss than reality.  Its stated intentions in the region have become more complex since September 11th, and the invasion of Iraq.  It is the demands of the United States that have probably proven as much an influence on the liberalisation of Middle Eastern economies, as domestic pressure.  It is for this reason that countries like Jordan and Morocco have at least played at the theatre of democracy, recognising that only the language of democracy is truly legitimate in the post-cold war world.

Despite the shared language, religion and culture of these nations the borders that divide them are real and peace and stability in the region is as fragile as ever. With civil war in Syria there is an ever present danger of a regional war breaking out dragging Lebanon, Turkey, Iran and Israel into conflict.  It may well be the case that in order to gain a more lasting peace in this region a period of instability will first be required.


Baylis, John. Smith, Steve. (2001) ‘The Globalization of World Politics’ 2nd Edition Oxford University Press, Oxford p395

BBC News Website: ‘Middle East Water Wars’ & ‘Saudis Jailed for Al-Qaeda Plot’

Gilbert, Martin (1999) ‘A History of the Twentieth Century, Volume Three: 1952 – 1999’ Harper Collins, London

Hinnebusch, Raymond (2003) ‘The International Politics of the Middle East’ Manchester University Press, Manchester p141

Milton-Edwards, Beverley (2001) ‘Contemporary Politics in the Middle East’ Polity, Oxford p150-151

Weaver, Mary Anne. (2003), ‘Revolution from the Top Down’ National Geographic Magazine, March, p84 – 105

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development Website:

Citizenship Education and Political Literacy in the United Kingdom

britishBy Ian Howarth

I am by professional training a Citizenship teacher.  I was Head of Citizenship/PSHE and Politics at the Arnold Hill Academy in Nottingham England for five years.  Here I set out my views on the vital importance of Citizenship education in the National Curriculum for the future of British democracy from both an academic and professional prospective.

 “Education is one of the most important predictors – usually, in fact, the most important predictor – of many forms of social participation – from voting to associational membership, to chairing a local committee to hosting a dinner party to giving blood…Education is an especially powerful predictor of participation in public, formally organized activities.”  (Putnam 2000: 186).

How can citizenship education raise levels of political literacy, and re-engage people with community politics?  In order to answer this first question we must ask a number of others.  Firstly what is political literacy in citizenship education and why is it needed?  What is the best means of delivering it in schools, and what are the potential pitfalls in the citizenship curriculum focusing too much on group politics?  Finally how will increased political literacy help to restore communities as a focus for participation in public life?

Citizenship and Cricks third strand: Why?

The 1998 final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship (AGC) ‘Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools’ (the Crick Report) agreed with Robert Putnam’s argument that education is the most important factor in determining ‘social participation’ (Putnam 2000: 186) and recommended the introduction of Citizenship in to the National Curriculum as a statutory subject.  The subject was defined as containing ‘…three strands: social and moral responsibility, community involvement and political literacy.’  (Crick 1998: 8)

The stated aim of the report; was “…. no less than a change in the political culture of this country both nationally and locally: for people to think of themselves as active citizens, willing, able and equipped to have an influence in public life and with the capabilities to weigh evidence before speaking and acting…’  (Crick 1998: 7)  The report went onto highlight ‘…worrying levels of apathy, ignorance and cynicism about public life…  [arguing that]…unless tackled at every level, it could well diminish the hoped-for benefits both of constitutional reform and of the changing nature of the welfare state.’  (Crick 1998: 8) In this vane the report quoted ‘…the Lord Chancellor: [Lord Irvine of Lairg who stated that] ’we should not, must not, dare not, be complacent about the health and future of British democracy.  Unless we become a nation of engaged citizens, our democracy is not secure.’  (Crick 1998: 8)

This need for an approach to addressing low levels of political literacy, and increasing apathy with the political process in Britain rooted in education has been established against the background of a 20-year decline in voter turnout.  Despite some recovery in turnout between 2005/2010 at 65.1% it remains well below the historic average, with the 2009 European Parliamentary elections recording a turnout of 33.52%. Blame for the public’s withdrawal from participation in the democratic process in Britain is levelled widely at public and media cynicism, a distrust of politicians, the over emphasis on ‘spin’, and a general lack of political literacy.

A number of studies have been conducted into the level of political literacy amongst the general population, the ‘2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey: People, Families and Communities’ with 10,014 respondents, found that when asked what rights they thought they had as UK citizens; 35% of the sample responded with the right to freedom of expression, 13% to fair, equal and respectful treatment, 8% to free elections, and only 6% believed they had the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religious expression. (Attwood, Singh, Prime & Creasy et al 2003: 10)  This survey gave an insight into the public’s perception of its rights and responsibilities, and the role individuals play as citizens in maintaining them.  With only 8% of the population believing they have a right to free elections, Lord Irvine of Lairg’s statement of concern that British democracy may not be secure is given some weight.

Even more recently an ICM survey of 110 pupils aged 14 – 16 on national identity and political awareness found that ‘Only one in four could identify Labour as the party of government….  4 per cent thought the Conservatives were in power, while 2 per cent thought the Liberal Democrats were the government of the day.  Two-thirds admitted they had no idea.  Nearly half said they did not think it was important to know what any of today’s political parties stand for.’  (Garner 2005)  Personal teaching experience backs up these findings.  Having taught A’ level Politics myself for a number of years I can personally testify to the high levels of ignorance of the British electoral and political system amongst even those students sufficiently motivated to seek to complete and A’ level in the subject.

Therefore, the increasing lack of understanding and knowledge of how government works is clear to see, and must be a prime cause in the decline of participation in traditional politics.  The analysis of the root causes of political apathy driven by surveys like those cited above has led to a focus on using education to re-engage the population with the political process to create future generations of more active citizens.  This idea of the engaged, or ‘good citizen; is one of the aims behind the concept of citizenship education.  David Blunkett argues that the role of the state should be one of empowering people to become good citizens through education (Blunkett 2001), while Sir Bernard Crick talked about developing a citizenship culture ‘…where people are concerned with and actively involved in public affairs’ (Cited; Attwood, Singh, Prime & Creasy et al 2003: 9).  Both views focus on education as the key, and upon citizenship education as the means of delivery.

But what is meant when talking about political literacy in the terms of citizenship education?  The Crick Report defines it as more than simple political knowledge, as including an understanding of public life which ‘…encompasses realistic knowledge of and preparation for conflict resolution and decision-making related to the main economic and social problems of the day, including each individuals expectations of and preparations for the world of employment and discussion of the allocation of public resources and the rationale of taxation.  Such preparations are needed whether these problems occur in locally, nationally or internationally concerned organisations or at any level of society from formal political institutions to informal groups, both at a local or national level.’  (Crick 1998: 15)  This definition recognises the importance of political knowledge, but also highlights that political literacy is a wider concept, which encompasses a view of the numerous influences on societal development, such as the economy, and community involvement.  Tony Breslin sees it as ‘…a full range of literacies that, in common parlance at least, go significantly beyond the political: to the social, economic and legal and then beyond.’  (Breslin 2004:13)

Political Literacy through a Cross Curricular Approach:

Political literacy as seen above requires a much broader interpretation within the national curriculum than that which could be offered by a stand-alone citizenship curriculum, it gives political literacy scope across the curriculum, penetrating into other areas like English, and Geography.  It questions how you can convey the importance of voting or the value of parliament without providing an awareness of the historical narrative that underpins these processes, or gain a true understanding of multiculturalism without examining human geography, and patterns of migration.

The current Citizenship curriculum recognises its cross-disciplinary nature in modules like Key Stage 3 ‘Unit 12: Citizenship and History: Why did women and some men have to struggle for the vote in Britain?  What is the point of voting today?’  (QCA 2004: Key Stage 3)  However despite this formal recognition are schools in practice coordinating their Citizenship and History schemes of work so as to provide each other mutual support.  The answer in the majority of cases is almost certainly no.  Unit 12 if it is being taught is probably being delivered at a different time and maybe even stage of a pupils education than ‘Unit 6: Government, Elections and Voting’ (QCA 2004: Key Stage 3).  The result of this practice in this case would be to reduce the understanding and appreciation of pupils for the electoral process, a result that is true across many areas of the Citizenship curriculum.  If citizenship is to deliver politically literate individuals schools must adopt it as a cross-curricular subject that requires the support of all subject areas.

The politically literate citizen is someone with a broader appreciation, and understanding than that simply offered by the current citizenship curriculum alone.  The national curriculum, like many aspects of government must learn to develop a joined up approach, which mutually supports the content of each subject.  History can provide an overview of the 19th century Reform Acts and the extension of the franchise, along with an understanding of the role of prejudice and discrimination in war, and Britain’s imperial past.  This kind of approach is critical if citizenship education is going to have the society changing impact that the Crick Report argues for.  Citizenship may appear on timetables, and its curriculum may very well be ardently adhered to, but to have an effect on the level of political literacy in this country it requires across the board support.  A politically literate person is more than just an individual endowed with a textbook understanding of the workings of the first past the post electoral system; they are critically thinking, informed individuals able to make decisions, and access services without outside interference.

The cross curricular approach to citizenship is already considered best practice, Tony Breslan states that the best provision of citizenship ‘…is likely to be characterised by a combination of: Discrete provision: Citizenship ‘lessons’, identified as such on the timetable and within any broader framework such as the one that PSHE might provide; Cross-Curricular support: Themed and clearly identified work within other subjects of the curriculum which complements that undertaken in the discrete sessions…’ (Breslan 2004: 15)  How widespread practice like this is will determine how successfully political literacy is delivered in schools.

Citizenship and ‘Group politics’:

It is arguable that the British education system has been delivering a certain type of politically literate individual for some time.  Although we may not be voting in huge numbers, or becoming involved in party politics, the rise of single-issue politics has been substantial in the last 20 years.  Arguably a politically illiterate society does not witness 2 million people marching through Whitehall against an unpopular war, or a nation gripped by fuel shortages brought on by protesters demanding tax cuts.  Equally organisations like Greenpeace, Oxfam, and media campaigns like Comic Relief, and Children in Need have year upon year raised more money as people donate their time and effort to fundraising.

However, despite the attractiveness of this view of political literacy, single-issue politics is not real engagement with the political process.  It is group politics.  Politics which does ‘…benefit the political system by strengthening representation, promoting debate and discussion, broadening political participation, and acting as a check on government power…. [but also]…poses a threat in that they entrench political inequality…are socially and politically divisive, exercise non-legitimate and unaccountable power, and make the policy process more closed and secretive.’  (Heywood 1997: 268)  Therefore despite the apparent safety of using a group issue in lessons, you have to consider the structure of the organisation, its funding and membership, and question whether the group is an exemplary example of democracy in action.  The truth is that interest groups are elitist, and promote specific agendas that may be contrary to the principals of democratic governance, and one of the roles of citizenship is to promote democracy.

In the majority of schools citizenship is not being taught by subject specialists, this means that historians, geographers, and religious studies teachers have been given the responsibility of introducing citizenship into the timetable.  This has meant that many of the narrow basic content on how parliament and pressure groups work has become the main source of teaching, coupled with looking at the media, and human rights often through single-issue case studies.  It is here that citizenship education faces a real challenge it must overcome the single issue bias of group politics, and attempt to engage pupils with broader ideas, like why vote, and what are the differences between right, and left wing views of society.  Broader subject content on the economy, global citizenship, and electoral systems has been pushed inadequately into careers talks, or interpreting active citizenship as a fundraising opportunity for non-governmental organisations (NGO’s).  NGO’s are probably to date the largest beneficiaries of citizenship education, as teachers and inspectors avoid more sensitive ‘political’ issues by repeatedly returning to group politics as the focus of pupil’s engagement with politics.

Pupils could be protesting about a proposed bypass, or the construction of housing on their playing fields, but instead their energies are being directed outside their community which is likely to reinforce current political trends towards group political engagement, rather than affect the levels of turnout at future elections, or improve their own environment.  If our children only experience political engagement through saving pandas, or protecting water reserves in Palestine then is it any wonder that they fail to engage with things closer to home.

There is a danger in allowing a society to increasingly seek change through protest, rather than through its established political process, as fewer and fewer people vote the representative nature of democracy can become undermined as whole sections of the community fail to engage, and therefore lose their voice in the political debates of the day.  Citizenship education must therefore through a combination of discrete and cross-curricular support from related subjects bring across to pupils that change and influence over politics can be achieved through action within the political system.  Make pupils aware that MP’s hold surgeries, and encourage letter writing, petitions, and convey that the ballot box is an effective way of bringing change.  This is not to say that NGO’s can’t play a role, they certainly must, but not at the expense of building civic pride and concern for issues that directly affect pupils quality of life.

Political Literacy and building ‘Social Capital’:

Citizenships approach to teaching political literacy must also break free from the confines of the school timetable, and reach out into the community.  Research that reveals ‘…growing levels of apathy and political distrust, concentrated among the young…’  (Richards & Smith 2002: 195) has also highlighted the decline in the membership of voluntary organisations, and political parties.  ‘Although the membership in environmental groups has grown rapidly in recent years, the membership of political parties has been in decline since the war.  The Conservatives had 2,800,000 members in 1952, but this figure had fallen to 400,000 [1995] and is still dropping.’ (Richards & Smith 2002: 195) Membership stood at 177,000 in a 2012 House of Commons Library study (McGuinness & Clements 2012).  This is symptomatic of a wider problem within not only British, but also western society as a whole.  Theorists such as Robert Putnam have classed this disengagement with civic life as a collapse in social capital.

‘Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.  In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations.  A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.’ (Putnam 2000: 19)   This concept offers a clear analysis of the nature of political engagement amongst the young today, ‘virtuous individuals’ engaged in single issue movements, yet totally isolated from the community around them, in other words many little ships each with different concerns passing in the night.

In taking this concept and applying it to Citizenship education the emphasis must be on trying to anchor some of these ships in their own communities.  This should not develop into a campaign against NGO’s, but it must mean that when approaching the active citizenship element of the Key Stage 4 curriculum (Unit 7) the aim should be a project grounded in the schools, and/or pupils community that will enrich relations between young people and their surrounding environment, and between the school and its supporting community.

Disengagement with the political process (meaning more than party politics) cannot continue at the current pace, if turnout continues to decline at elections and communities maintain their isolation then the social fabric of the country will be at jeopardy.  Constructing social capital through citizenship is based on the view that‘…the more people join together in face-to-face meetings either as neighbours or through clubs and societies (which may have nothing to with politics); the more likely they are to work together in an attempt to solve the problems that affect their community.  Contact produces trust that enables people to work together without state compulsion to solve problems.’ (Richards & Smith 2002: 195-196)

Fortunately the opportunities for civic engagement offered by citizenship education are being embraced (QTS: 2.1); the then Home Secretaries publication  ‘Civic Renewal: A New Agenda’ in June 2003 advocated participatory democracy, and supports the idea that civic engagement involves encouraging people to become involved in taking responsibility for improving their communities.  Unit 7 of the Key Stage 4 Citizenship curriculum ‘Taking part – planning a community event’ allows pupils to ‘…take responsibility for planning and implementing a community event…. work[ing] as part of a team, taking on a variety of roles and responsibilities, including aspects of leadership. They learn to respect and value others’ opinions and contributions.  They consider how the event can make a difference in their school and local community and can provide opportunities for individuals and groups to contribute to social change’ (QCA Unit 7: 2004).

I have experienced this unit in practice as part of a GCSE Citizenship Short Course; however, the environmentally grounded project was very much focused within the school, which was far from the spirit the curriculum intended, and what I fear is common.  An example of this unit being implemented in line with its community focused aspirations can be seen at the Hinchingbrooke School which ‘…. entered into an effective partnership with Huntingdonshire District Council who had begun to explore how to engage young people and were keen to form partnerships with schools.  A group of 10 students volunteered to consult other young people in order to inform the development of the Community Action Plan, setting up the interviews in the form of a Big Brother diary room and interviewing 40 pupils.  They collated the findings, identifying key recommendations, and a PowerPoint presentation was given to the Leader of the District Council.  He and the Deputy Head of the school were also asked by the young people to respond to questions that had arisen from the project.  The project group of young people concluded that “young people do have opinions about community issues, that they need to be encouraged to express them, and that they raised some very sensible solutions.” (Stenton 2004: 61)

Community involvement like that highlighted above, working along with a whole school approach to citizenship teaching shows the potential for creating politically literate individuals.  Only through the recognition of political literacy as more than party politics, pressure groups or institutions along with its incorporation into the teaching and learning of pupils throughout primary, and secondary education can the goal of creating a ‘…nation of engaged citizens…’  (Crick 1998: 8) be achieved.


The role of citizenship in raising the standards of political literacy is central to its whole purpose in the national curriculum, through providing interesting and expansive content supported across the curriculum to give students an encompassing appreciation that politics is more than David Cameron, and Parliament, but something that is part of their daily lives.  In re-engaging young people with politics, developing community links and encouraging young people to stand up for issues of concern in their own communities as well as global, and national questions citizenship can achieve the goal of changing British society and strengthening the roots of our democracy.

The agenda for citizenship set out here is ambitious, and if it is to succeed it will require commitment, money, and effort on the part of government, Ofstead, teachers, parents, and pupils.  However, it is my belief that unless political literacy is taught in the round, meaning a broad general understanding of institutions, rights and responsibilities coupled with an appreciation of the historical, and social context of these institutions that encourages engagement with the local community; citizenship, at least in the aims set out in the Crick Reports third strand of political literacy will fail to achieve all it could have.

The process of writing this essay has caused me to consider a number of issues I had previously not thought needed much consideration.  The cross curricular requirement for the effective provision of political literacy in schools had not occurred to me when I set out to write, and the expansive nature of the subject was only partially appreciated.  Consequently in seeking to remain relatively brief and focused I have ignored issues such as the role of social class on civic engagement and political literacy, and the wider issues of potential government interference in the curriculum content if we are to pursue such a radical agenda in teaching.  Despite this I hope that the ideas, and opinions expressed here have shed some light on the potential for citizenship education, and the role for it in widening political participation and increasing pupils understanding of how society works.

This is a tall order, and maybe beyond the capabilities of an overstretched timetable, and overworked teaching profession, but if only two thirds of its potential is realised then the introduction of Citizenship into the National Curriculum could well be the most significant development in British education since the introduction of the National Curriculum itself.  Ultimately the goal of increasing political literacy is one aimed at building a sense of belonging between citizens, communities, and government.  It is a positive agenda for change that could result in the radical reinterpretation of the role of schools in society as pivotal centres of community support and investment in social capital.


Attwood, Chris. Singh, Gurchand. Prime, Duncan. & Creasy, Rebecca et al. (2003) ‘2001 Home Office Citizenship Survey: People, Families, and Communities’ Home Office Research Study 270, Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, London pp.9 -10

Breslin, Tony (2004) Think Different!  Citizenship Education and the School of the Future, Eds. Linsley, Benjamin, & Rayment, Elisabeth ‘Beyond the Classroom; Exploring Active Citizenship in 11-16 Education’ New Politics Network, London, pp.13

Blunkett, David (2001) ‘Politics & Progress – Renewing Democracy in a Civil Society’ Methuen Publishing, London

Crick, Bernard (1998) ‘Education for citizenship and the teaching of democracy in schools: Final report of the Advisory Group on Citizenship’ Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, London pp.7-8, pp.13

Heywood, Andrew (1997) ‘Politics’ Palgrave, London, pp.268

Putnam. Robert D. (2000) ‘Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community’ Simon and Schuster, New York, pp.19. pp.186

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2004) ‘Citizenship National Curriculum Scheme of Work Key Stage 3’

Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (2004) ‘Citizenship National Curriculum Scheme of Work Key Stage 4, Unit 7: Taking part –

Richards, David & Smith, Martin J. (2002) ‘Governance and Public Policy in the UK’ Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp.195-196

Stenton, Sally (2004) ‘Community Action and Young Person Led Participation’, Eds. Linsley, Benjamin, & Rayment, Elisabeth ‘Beyond the Classroom; Exploring Active Citizenship in 11-16 Education’ New Politics Network, London, pp.61

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McGuinness, Fergal & Clements, Rob (2012) ‘Membership of UK political parties – Commons Library Standard Note’ (accessed 08/06/2013)