Putting the City Back into Citizenship: Civics Education and Local Government in Britain, 1918-45

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This article is about interwar Britain, civic education, and the theoretical and practical expression of local citizenship. Building upon recent analyses in urban history that have reassessed the perception of municipal and civic decline, I argue that historians must now also challenge the historiography that views citizenship as indivisible from national identity. It was indeed actually common for both children and adults to be taught that it was in the local, and the city especially, that the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were received and enacted. I trace this distinctive conception of citizenship to the ideological resilience of the Victorian idealist philosopher Thomas Hill Green. Drawing on his justification for state intervention to ensure individual liberty, educators positioned municipal government as the guardian of the life and health of individuals and communities—an educational approach they termed civics. This was apparent in organizations such as the National Association of Local Government Officers, Workers’ Educational Association, and the Association for Education in Citizenship, and expressed through the flood of civics textbooks published following the First World War. Using a case study of Manchester I unpick the points of contact between these organizations and the individuals connected to Green, and show how civics was applied in both formal and informal sites of education. While this discourse of citizenship was damaged by the social democracy of the post-1945 welfare state, I conclude that, in the interwar period at least, citizenship was still very much local and urban based.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)26-51
Number of pages26
JournalTwentieth Century British History
Issue number1
Early online date11 Sept 2014
Publication statusPublished - 2015


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