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Good Citizen XIII: Still nasty, brutish and short

3 April 2008

Jon Bright (London, OK): Thomas Hobbes' definition of life without the state, the Leviathan, was published in 1651 - but it was based on a document written eleven years previously, during the English Civil War. Hobbes was a royalist - or, at least, he kept company with many exiled royalists in Paris - and it's unsurprising that his theory of the state, needed to keep humans from tearing each other apart, provides somewhat of a foundation for royal (autocratic) rule.

Plus ça change etc. Last month came Lord Goldsmith's report on what it means to be a citizen, which we wrote a fair amount on. Goldsmith lifted his definition of citizenship straight out of the 350 year old work above:

Citizenship has been the basic form of connection between individuals and the state. In modern terms it is the statement of a reciprocal relationship under which the individual offers loyalty in exchange for protection (p11).

There is an unspoken naturalness to this assumption, which gives a real insight into what some of our modern day governers - people who Hobbes would surely have socialised with were he still alive - think of the human being: that we are fundamentally savage. If the state wasn't there to separate us, we would be at each other's throats within days. 350 more years of "civilisation" - quite a lot of it ocurring in a period of "Enlightenment" - hasn't and couldn't change this basic fact.

I was reminded of this during the last few days when - checking the news on holiday - I saw Harriet Harman in her flak jacket. My first thought was that she was trying for a little bit of that "running from sniper fire" kudos. Harman claimed the whole incident was just a misunderstanding (misdressing?) - it was simply like putting on a team vest (thankfully our PMs have so far abstained from donning a general's uniform to visit the army). But most of the papers reported it as an indication that Harman didn't feel safe walking the streets, following on from what Jacqui Smith said some weeks ago.

Violent crime is on the rise, undoubtedly, in popular consciousness at the very least (see Anthony's back and forth with Iain Dale below). Harman, might well not have been "safe" had she been walking in the same area, alone, late at night. Perhaps none of us would. But you get the slight, creeping feeling, that quite a lot of the political class believe that we - "the people" so to speak - are essentially still the savages that the state rescued from mutual destruction so long ago. With that thought in mind, what possible desire would there be - on anyone's part - to give more power to these dangerous thugs? To put it another way - while we remain nasty, brutish and short in the eyes of our leaders, what hope can there be for democratic reform?

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