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Restoring America’s beleaguered democratic culture: Graham Allen reviews 'The Bill of Obligations'

US Capitol 2021: January 6 insurrection | Alamy

Graham Allen

3 min read

Richard Haass has written a lucid and convincing case for placing the obligations of citizens on the same footing as their rights

In the Tony Blair era whenever you heard of “Rights” you could be sure that its rhetorical twin “Responsibilities” would not be far away. In John Smith’s absence the reforming zeal of that 1997-2010 government ran out long before either twin found serious legislative shape. The convenience of government came first and so the last big opportunity to renew our democracy to be ready for what has become an existential battle against domestic corruption, and foreign autocracy, slipped away. Yet 13 years later the excruciatingly embarrassing conduct of an unrestrained government in the last five years, the autocratic abuses of China, Russia and Brazil (to name but three) and the possibility of a fresh and reforming government in less than two years’ time, all conspire to present the United Kingdom with another moment for a democratic future to be written.

The reminder of this second chance is given to us from an unexpected direction as United States academic and trusted State Department friend Richard Haass makes the case for citizen’s rights to be written down for all of us to see. We would expect that from someone steeped in the US culture of the Founding Fathers. The surprise is that he then goes on to make a lucid and convincing case for a “Bill of Obligations” to sit alongside it. Haass uses Donald Trump’s failed coup in 2021 to underline that the US has to use the time bought by Joe Biden’s victory as a second chance to fix the holes in its democracy.

The Bill of Obligations is not the expected list of legal requirements but a set of moral truths

This is directly important to the UK and the wider democratic world. Who amongst us believes that Vladimir Putin would not now be eyeing up his next victims had Trump won? Haass also reveals the truth that, while written constitutions are essential foundations for democracy, they have to be complemented by the whole political ecosystem being a living, healthy, evolving organism and not worshipped as a frozen moment of perfection.

The Bill of Obligations is not the expected list of legal requirements but a set of moral truths familiar to those schooled in extending deliberative democracy to citizens. It covers 10 habits of good citizens and politicians – the things that our better selves should always do. These behaviours range from being informed, staying open to compromise, respecting government service, supporting teaching of civics and others. They are each given a dozen or so carefully crafted pages, a refresher not only on informal politics but also on how to be a decent human being. It turns the book into an indispensable navigation around our political anthropology, about how our behaviours can help restore our democratic culture, and how being decent people counts for just as much as correcting our institutional decrepitude.

The Financial Times’ chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has produced the most important political book of the year so far with his The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. It is the highest compliment to Richard Haass to say A Bill of Obligations should be a close second on your list if you want to understand how to keep and upgrade our democracy.

Graham Allen is Convenor of the Citizens’ Convention for UK Democracy and former Labour MP for Nottingham North

The Bill of Obligations: The ten habits of good citizens
By: Richard Haass
Publisher: Penguin Press (book available for delivery from the USA via Amazon UK)

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