This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

 “We are today in the midst of one of the greatest crises of civilisation. A wave of barbarism is sweeping over the world… threatening to destroy everything that is best in human society”. 

Ernest Simon

Given the rise of demagogic authoritarian leaders, such a statement appears to be a tragically apt description of the state of international affairs today. Furthermore, this rise has been accompanied in recent years by exponential levels of automation which, instead of freeing people from the toil of labour, has failed to eradicate poverty and made work more insecure. Whilst automation should allow us to lead “leisured lives, free to pursue the true, the good, and the beautiful”, there has actually been a “frightful failure in our civilisation” given that “poverty and distress exist in the midst of a glut”. Whilst these words may suitably illustrate contemporary society, they were actually spoken in the 1930s by an industrialist from Manchester called Ernest Simon (1879-1960) in the context of economic crisis and the spread of totalitarianism in Europe. Simon, however, was not a prophet of doom, but was actively engaged in cultivating Britain’s democratic culture. In our current epoch marked by similar crises, we can learn much from exploring how Simon believed citizenship education could strengthen democracy and foster prosperity. 

Simon was the son of German immigrants who had settled in Manchester. Together with his wife Shena (née Potter) he was a leading social reformer. Involved in politics at the national and local level, Simon dreamed of a flourishing democracy. As Lord Mayor of Manchester in 1921, Simon called on the city’s inhabitants to emulate the civic virtue of the Athenian citizens of the fifth century BCE so that they could replicate Athens’ great feats. The following decade, worried that not enough was being done to safeguard democracy, Simon co-founded the Association for Education in Citizenship with Eva Hubback in 1934. The association garnered the interest of prominent figures from across the political spectrum with a conference hosted by the association in 1937 seeing speeches from Clement Attlee, William Beveridge, and Viscount Halifax. 

Simon had come to found the association to address the shortcomings of democratic culture in Britain. In Simon’s eyes people did not receive any education which prepared them to become members of a democratic community. This paucity in education imperilled the future of democracy as it left even the most well-educated individuals prone to being swayed by fascist demagogues and their pernicious propaganda machines. Moreover, it left voters apathetic and uninformed about politics and thus unable to select competent representatives who were desperately needed to address the increasingly complex issues facing the world. Despite major advances in production, levels of terrible destitution demonstrated to Simon that current politicians were simply not up to the task of managing the economy. The economic wellbeing of millions would be greatly improved if citizens were educated and able to elect the “expert” instead of the “quack”. Simon hoped that through the efforts of the association British democratic culture could be transformed. The introduction of civics education would lead individuals to respect the liberal democratic values of tolerance and deliberation and come to recognise their role as a citizen, having an informed and engaged interest in politics. Such an educated citizenry would hold the key to overcoming the threat of fascism and the economic crisis. Instead of electing incompetent figures or despotic demagogues, citizens would elect virtuous and capable representatives who could tackle the pressing issues of unemployment and poverty.

In 1938 Simon hoped to further strengthen British democracy by searching for a democratic culture which Britons could learn from. He toured Switzerland and the Nordic countries, publicising his findings in his book The Smaller Democracies the following year. Impressed by all the countries, especially with Switzerland’s local government which compared remarkably well to Manchester’s which was characterised by self-interestedness and pitiful levels of participation, Simon ultimately championed Sweden’s exemplar democratic culture. Swedish citizens, like those of Denmark and Norway, were not only freedom-loving and interested in politics, but had also elected particularly able representatives and resultantly Sweden had led the way in addressing the economic crisis. Through the innovative ideas of its talented leaders who had employed deficit spending to resolve the economic slump, Sweden had successfully tackled unemployment and thus had staved off the threat of political extremism. Simon argued that such competent leadership owed much to Sweden’s educational culture. Alongside a strong respect for the social sciences by those in government, citizenship education held pride of place in Sweden where compulsory post-elementary civics classes were combined with an impressive national literature on citizenship. Moreover, the availability of adult education had enabled many members of the social democrat cabinet who had come from humble backgrounds to become well-educated leaders. Awe-struck with Sweden’s well-educated voters and representatives, Simon concluded that the country was heading towards the abolition of unemployment and becoming “a perfect democracy”.

In sum, whilst we should never seek to directly copy the past, given today’s eerie resemblance to the world of the 1930s, Simon’s ideas on how to fortify the bastion of popular rule in the face of economic turmoil and growing authoritarianism can guide us towards establishing a healthy and prosperous democracy. We should especially heed Simon’s warning made on the eve of the second world war that education was now in a contest against disaster, a contest in which disaster was gaining on education.

By John Ayshford