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A conditional defence of politics.

February 20, 2012 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

Wrestling daily with a medium sized but slightly volatile black dog, I am finding it difficult to get started on a five thousand word piece I have promised to Political Quarterly on the subject of the half century anniversary of Bernard Crick’s book ‘In defence of Politics’. Knowing how tolerant my reader is of my ramblings, my answer is to use this post to sketch out some initial thoughts.

As its title suggests, the argument of Crick’s book is, in his words; ‘Politics is not just a necessary evil it is a realistic good’. Chapter by chapter he defends the task of politically governing free societies from the rival claims of ideology, technology, nationalism. Having on several occasions in several contexts had the frustrating task of responding to people who claim the exclusive right to be speaking on behalf of the democratic will, I particularly enjoyed re-reading Crick’s defence of politics from democracy, in which he argues (following Aristotle) that while democracy is an essential part of a mixed system of government in a free society the case for democracy as a force in itself is nearly always problematic.

The question I found myself asking after reading Crick’s praise for politics as an activity and value system (one in which ‘conciliation is better than violence’ and ‘diversity better than unity’) is; ‘what then is wrong with (domestic) politics as it is practiced today?’. These are the tentative headings of my answer:

Alienation: For most people politics is something done to us by people we call politicians and the wider group of specialists who have a stake or interest in what they do. When we talk about political engagement we mean the degree to which people choose to connect with the specialist activity. But whether we like it or not the way we live both reflects and involves political choices. By arguing for the existence of a ‘social aspiration gap’ separating hopes for the future from our current trajectory, the RSA’s work underlines the need for re-imaging politics, particularly as the process by which social norms and expectations are generated and observed.

Culture: I was speaking a few days ago to a Labour Party figure who wants to stand as mayor in a big city. The person was complaining bitterly at having to contend with the opposition of Party factions well known to be ruthless in their methods. We may have put the ugly dis-functionality of the later Brown Blair years behind us, and we may welcome the greater pluralism of power ushered in by Coalition politics, but still the exaggerated adversarialism, gleeful tribalism, and hierarchical control mechanisms of party politics make it unattractive to any but those driven by the deep conviction or, more likely, soaring career aspirations.

Education: We live in a free society with a free press and the internet provides open house to anyone who wants to attack or expose politicians. But still, too much political communication obfuscates and misleads. As I have written before, in these relatively non-ideological times, if there was a major policy which could be implemented without risks or downsides it would have been on the statute book a long time ago. Yet still politicians tend to argue that every policy they recommend is in every way risk proofed in its implementation and beneficial in its impact. The mainstream media exacerbates this challenge by seeking to present every admission in the worst possible light, but until Government’s fully grasp the nettle of openly describing the pros and cons and possible dangers with policies (and, crucially, the way the success of most policies depends on how the public responds to it) we will continue to have a populace which mirrors politicians’ spurious certainty with equally spurious cynicism. (To be fair, the advent of the Office of Budgetary Responsibility has to some extent seen this greater candour happen in relation to fiscal policy).

Representation: You don’t need to be poor to represent the interests of poor people. However, it continues to be the case that certain groups – most glaringly those from the lowest income brackets – are massively under-represented in the higher echelons of politics. The rise and rise of the lifetime political operative (of whom Cameron, Clegg and Miliband are all in essence examples) exacerbates the problem.

As this list is in danger of being both obvious and whining, I rely on my reader to help me start to create a stronger argument.



  • Andy

    Don’t envy you that task, Matthew. I’ll add a few more areas to consider that strike me immediately:

    1. The relationship between politics and government.

    If you look at some of the biggest successes of the last government (and I understand that many will counter this list, but bear with me) – minimum wage, free access to museums, civil partnerships, devolution, Sure Start – they by and large revolve around individual decisions or policy statements which then have to be implemented.

    Where Labour would like to talk up their successes more – but where they struggle to – is around the extra investment in public services. I don’t know how many additional billions of pounds were pumped into health and education, but one of the great struggles was – and will continue to be – turning such investment into front-line successes.

    This points in turn to the inefficiency of the model of government. This is not a complaint about the civil service per se (ie not meant to knock civil servants), more a pointer about – for whatever reason – how almost impossibly difficult it appears to be to translate central political ideas (and investment) into front-line success.

    That then (perhaps aligned to point 4) to the public not seeing the good that governments can do and are trying to do.

    2. The inability of Parliament to reach out.

    While as appalled as the rest of the electorate at the revelations in the expenses scandal I was for a while hopeful that the additional heat the public outrage brought could actually lead to positive and long-lasting change. I was therefore hugely dismayed at the slow and (I guess, now) almost inevitable retreat from lots of talk of reaching out – to a retreat to a number of talks in committees – to focus on the process of approving expenses – to MPs expending huge effort complaining about IPSA. All at a sloth-like pace where any chance of real change bled away day by day.

    The opportunity for a real national conversation about the role of MPs and their ideal engagement with the public was never more present. That it was wasted – by all parties – shows to me just how impossible the ‘establishment’ finds it to reach out beyond the bubble in which it finds itself. This is not to say that individuals within the system did not want to do this; they just did not seem to know how. If they couldn’t do it then, what chance now?

    3. The media filter.

    I agree totally with your ‘education’ point.

    I think those close to politicians appreciate that most MPs are in it for the right reasons – to do good and make progress (no matter what political ideology they follow to do that). Sure, there are self-interested and ego-driven examples, too, but the majority of everyday MPs are decent, hard-working individuals. Not a message that is easy to support at the moment. But it also led me to consider the wider point about delivering positive messages through the media.

    Bad news sells. Whether you believe that to be true or not, it’s certainly the most widely-held maxim. It does bear some weight when you see successive governments, ministers and departments struggle to get any media purchase around positive strategies and policy developments. While many commentators may well take balanced and discursive views, the news agenda really seems only interested in looking for the flaws – the slight hypocrisies, the u-turns, the potential waste, the controversy.

    While such considerations are of course valid, does the search for flaws overshadow the genuine and balanced reporting of such initiatives? And that’s without even considering political bias within the media.

    I could go on (about the archaic party political systems, the apparent lack of innovation in local engagement and dialogue, the yah-boo nonsense of Commons debates, etc), but I’ll save those for later.

    Not sure this helps you get closer to your 5,000 words, unless it underlines quite how entrenched the problem is – and quite how much effort it’s going to take to make a difference. Good luck.


  • Ian Christie

    Thanks Matthew. I think these are good headings for a start.

    You might look closely at the formation of politically capable citizens – ie people who are informed and capable of engagement in decision-making about public goods – and at the training of poltiicians.
    Is civic education in schools fit for purpose and how can it be improved? What difference do good political learning schemes – eg school debating challenges – make over the longer term?
    How does the hollowing-out of big ‘congregational’ associations – churches, unions, parties – affect the formation of citizens and could-be politicians? These are settings and communities in which essential skills are learned, but among a shrinking pool of members and potential joiners.
    Is it possible to challenge and change the ultra-narrow career paths now emerging in politics? Two huge problems exist. First, the tendency for would-be polticiians to head for Whitehall and Westminster with little or no experience of intermediate levels of action, local or regional or professional. Second, the paucity of meaningful roles in local governance, for all the talk of localism.

    Here are three ideas to meet some of these challenges.
    1) Experiment with Political Jury Service in local and national governance, as proposed for example by Barnett and Carty in The athenian option (Demos, 1998) – a case for a section of the upper house to be reserved for people chosen by lot and paid for stints as deliberators. This would have the aim of expanding access to meaningful political engagement, educating people in democratic process and the practicalities of policymaking, and adding to checks and balances on the representative system.
    2) Raise the minimum age of entry to the Commons to 35, while opening up opportunities for 16-34 year-olds for much greater engagement in local and national deliberative governance.
    3) And/Or make entry to the Commons dependent on at least one term as an elected member in local government.

  • Helen Wiles

    Sir Bernard was the father of citizenship education, a national curriculum subject in grave danger of being phased out by the current Government. You could look at the research into its impact by NFER, the campaign to save it by Democratic
    Life and for its importance beyond school see Active Citizens FE. When you sratch beneath the surface you’ll see that effective citizenship education is more than just a subject. It has the potential to create the sort of engaged, critical, innovative and collaborative citizens who will re-image politics for themselves.

  • Jamie C

    I think part of the challenge is that we as a society have slipped into the easy mistake of taking our democracy for granted, creating a dichotomy of professional politicians divorced from real life and the public who pay little or no attention, with any resulting focus tending to be limited to personality politics. A generalisation I know, but one which is demonstrated on a daily basis.

    Ironically, one of our greatest strengths in British democracy, in comparison to somewhere like the US, is that personal money is not essential to become an elected representative; yet at the same time we have seen a narrowing of the background our politicians are bringing. Many politicians now follow a consistent path – study politics, work for a politician/political party, get elected. Not exactly the diversity of representation which is the basis of a strong democracy.

    I had this rammed home to me while running a voter engagement programme in the East End of Glasgow, an area of high social deprivation. I worked with highly connected and inspired local people who ‘got’ the problems their community faced and who would be excellent local representatives. Yest each responded to the suggestion in the same way – they lacked the education, suits and language to be able to participate in the democratic life of the country.

    To change this, I think we need to work on the way we teach politics in schools but also outside school – it is a lifelong pursuit. We need to make it more relevant by demonstrating the very real impact that politics has on day to day life. What ever you think of the Electoral Commission, their video of a few years ago ( where a desire to ‘not do politics’ meant that no topic could be discussed was a powerful tool.

    My favourite quote is “Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics doesn’t take an interest in you”. Politics is vital for the very reason that it is crucial to virtually everything we do in life and continues to happen whether the public choose to participate or not. We need to demonstrate this to the public, so that they can demand, and deliver, the politics that they wish to see, as active participants rather than passive consumers.

  • junius

    I am not sure that the harkening back to the 18th century doctrine of the ‘balanced constitution’ (aka Jean Louis De Lolme, The English Constitution) which Crick seems to advocate is a particularly useful perspective for addressing problems with (or aspirations for )politics and democracy in 21 century Britain. If this doctrine ever applied, the concentration of power in late 20 and 21 century Executives of party government- now the real expression of the Crown in Parliament- the lack of independence and relative weakness of Parliament to hold the Executive to account and the lack of direct citizen powers of accountability have put paid to it.

    The strong tendency toward a skewed centralization of power within the hands of the Westminster parties, if they have a sufficient majority of Parliamentary seats- (not popular votes I would add)- makes the expansion of an enhanced, effective popular democracy a more, and not less, important factor in exercising countervailing power and improving accountability. (This is given that the monarchy will never again play the kind of power balancing role allocated to it in the 18th century ‘balanced constitution’ model).

    You neglect to accord ‘popular accountability’ any significant place in the priorities that you identify for your article. I would argue that there is a serious accountability deficit in the Crown in Parliament model we have, in part because of the way that majoritarian party power straddles the Executive and Parliament to the detriment of Parliamentary accountability. There is a also deficit because the citizen body is deliberately excluded from exacting accountability except in the highly stage managed and increasingly token events of periodic general elections. The British constitution has assiduously prevented any manifestation of popular sovereignty throughout its history with the result that ‘democracy’ has grown in a stunted way, always submitting to rule by elites.

    Accountability would be much improved if a constitutional power was introduced for the citizen body to directly sack a government where its policies had egregiously offended public well being or the public interest. This was advocated in the Age of Enlightenment by Dr Richard Price amongst others. I suspect that this alone would generate a considerable impetus into public engagement with the political process. There should also be Parliamentary powers- independent of Executive control- to impeach government ministers who bring government into disrepute.

    The 1776 Pennsylvanian constitution stipulated that representatives could only stand for election a limited number of times. (I believe the period was seven years). Limiting the time that UK MPs could stand for election may counter the growth of political careerism and assist rotation of office/ increased public participation in these roles.

  • Joe

    Personally, as a relatively plugged-in young voter, I’m put off from the first by the deeply unattractive system of party representation. It’s hard to engage even with well-known local politicians when their ability to act is constrained by the current stance and needs of the party that got them elected (take many individual lib dems on HE as an example). I’d like to see more independent MPs elected, but I imagine it’s nearly impossible to overcome the obstacle of our culturally-entrenched 2-party political narrative, to say nothing of funding and campaigning in the face of hostility and apathy.

    When a politician first and foremost serves his/her party’s interest, as their job depends on it, they have limited scope for local representation and contemplating ideas beyond their party policy. If you’d prefer something else, it seems everything conspires against your being able to vote freely, and forces you to compromise in your most basic form of political participation unless you’re a party tribalist. This is why I feel my politicians can’t communicate with me sensibly like fellow humans, can’t represent the views of the people giving them their mandate – only their party, and why I can’t imagine becoming involved myself except through an array of pressure groups, protests and doomed attempts to change the voting system.

  • Joe

    If that wasn’t clear, I think many of the problems discussed above, such as accountancy and alienation, are a permanent feature of this basis of our politics. If we were able to change to a more consensus-based system, the culture and the rest may follow.

  • Francesca

    I think you need to be explicit in treating the extent to which these problems are dysfunctions of a (our) political system and the extent to which they are emergent properties of any, or at least most, political systems.

    So for example, one thing that I observe to be deeply embedded in our political system is perverse incentivisation. An example of this is the style of discourse in Parliament, which rewards the overconfident, the bombastic, and those willing to make ad hominem attack, and discourages those willing to admit that they do not know all the answers, those willing to acknowledge the complexity of social problems and any kind of collaboration. There are many other examples.

    Is this a necessary property of politics? Or has our system become corrupted (for the electronic rather than the moral value of corrupted, although the latter may also hold).

    I don’t know the answer to this, and in all honesty I’m not sure which answer would worry me more. But I think you need to treat the question explicitly if you are to have a chance of changing the minds of the disaffected.

  • junius

    I would think that entitling your piece ‘A Defence of Politics Aainst Democracy’ would be a distortion of Crick’s book which argues for nothing of the kind. Below is a useful link which concisely sums up key themes from his book;

  • junius
  • Livy

    Neither obvious nor whining, and well put. ‘Culture’ and ‘Representation’ may however have overlapping implications warranting a single section.

    The answer, really, can be thought to be very little in terms of substance. There’s nothing really wrong with domestic politics as it is practiced today that hasn’t been wrong for some time. Worthy of concern is the underlying assumption that politics has (or can have) the answers to the unprecedented set of challenges we face, while the practices of mass membership political parties and voter loyalty are clearly waning for external reasons.

    The real solution to this, which I sense you already know as ridiculously self-evident, and outside the scope of this discussion, is that we are a species suffering from collective amnesia. The ancients understood something we have long lost sight of, that truly free individuals are free only to the extent of their own self mastery. Still hardwired for tribalism, the human race may not be ready for freedom.

    Ian Christie:

    Just a quick comment on your 2nd point – agreed, but perhaps even older. Minimum age of entry to the commons should be 45 or 50. Our Ministers’ international counterparts probably think they’re meeting bag carriers during trips abroad, especially in the Far East.

    On the Representation issue. There is clearly a hunger for this particular piece of flesh among the public as well as (ironically) the media. Sometimes, however, it pays to know the difference between tastes and appetites.

    It has become de rigueur to bemoan the professionalisation of politics, but what would its reversal actually look like, and why would that necessarily be desirable? The lifetime political operative has been a feature of our system for some time, and the attempt by Cameron to limit the number of advisers at Number 10 had unfortunate consequences culminating in an inevitable top-up. If anything, it’s not professional enough. The crisis lies in the field itself, which is eerily narrow and produces remarkably similar individuals as a result. It is easy to be confused into thinking this is due solely to pro politics, however the real reason could be even more disturbing; the very early age at which many of those operatives get radicalised. It may well be the type of individual attracted to party politics in the first instance, and how unhealthy it is for one’s character development to start on the career track in the early teens.


    I agree entirely with you about the overconfident, amateurish discourse in Parliament – but I fear it’s a symptom of a wider problem rather than an infection that has spread.

    On culture, and the more combative, adversarial elements, it seems so ruthless and dysfunctional precisely because of its unprofessionalism. The reason CCTV footage of drunken fights in our city centres seems so ugly and horrific and a Muhammad Ali match (filmed with worse quality film) is as beautiful as a symphony or oil painting is precisely down to professionalism and defensive strategy. Forgive the cliché use of a sports metaphor, but I’ll try not to digress too much.

    Politicians and policymakers need to defend against the angle, not the attack.

    A jab of an orthodox boxer (a right hander) is a completely different strike to the cross of a southpaw (a left hander). To Ali, Mike Tyson in his prime or Floyd Mayweather today, the difference is irrelevant; the attack they defend against may different but the angle is exactly the same. It’s why their head movement, footwork and evasion skills are so well honed, the finality of their technique so clean and their ring craft so mesmerising to watch.

    Political debates see an exchange of clumsy cheap shots because of a focus on individual attacks with no understanding of why opponents make them, where they’re coming from, why people really believe what they believe. Really coming to know your opponent and their foundational ideals makes you empathise with them as well meaning human beings passionate about their – worthy adversaries who help you raise your own game, rather than enemies to be destroyed for the sake of a decent headline and a two percentage point increase in the opinion polls.

    Otherwise we really are no better than those drunkards scuffling under a CCTV camera on a Saturday night.


  • Livy


    I fear you’ve been misled by someone.

    The reason the original blog entry referred to a defence of politics against democracy may be due to a chapter heading in Crick’s original.

    It wouldn’t be fair to link to a pirated version of the ebook, but I did you a camera phone picture of the contents page of my rather battered old copy.

    Chapter 3:

    Hope that helps.


  • Will Moy

    Picking up on “a populace which mirrors politicians’ spurious certainty with equally spurious cynicism,” Charles Manski has this down in Policy Analysis with Incredible Certitude ( He criticises bill scoring in the US for producing ridiculous exact numbers where a range is appropriate.

    Similarly, replacing UK Impact Assessments with work from a beefed-up House Library that acknowledges uncertainty would be great—not that the Library are keen on the role.

    When it comes to political communication that obscures or misleads, most often it is not by saying white is black, but by saying grey is black.

  • junius

    Livy, you have caught me out- fair cop- I have not read the book for thirty years. I an afraid as an impetuous student, it failed to ‘float my boat’ and, in a fit of boredom, I tossed it aside, later compounding my sin by offloading it to a charity shop. I do not have even a crumpled up copy.

    However, I should have read the chapter in order to comment upon it. Now that I have become re-acquainted with it I find myself in considerable opposition to the way that Crick paints the theory and practice of democracy. It does not help that his references veer wholly toward conservative critics of ‘democracy’ such as Edmund Burke (a particular hero of his), de Tocqueville and do on.

    The case Crick puts forward is not quite as eloquent as de Tocqueville’s. Some of his claims; that democracy (taken to its full logic) equates with totalitarianism; that totalitarian political parties like the Jacobins, Nazis and Fascists had roots in popular democracy (and thus were expressions of it) and that majority rule must always be autocratic and the enemy of pluralism and diversity are extremely contentious.

    Crick fondly quotes Burke (who never directly witnessed or experienced the French revolution before concocting an account of it) while cavalierly ignoring Thomas Paine- one of the most important 18th century writers on democracy who both witnessed and was a participant in this revolution).

    In treating of American democracy, Crick wholly ignores not only Paine but also such contemporaries as Thomas Jefferson and others who extolled the virtues of democracy.

    Crick entirely ignores the important thinking on developing the architecture of democracy- in the form of the popular assembly- which occurred in the early stages of the American revolution in order precisely to address that minority rights should not be trsampled upon by majority rule. Anyone wanting an antidote to Crick’s conservative pessimism about ‘democracy’ should read Thomas Paine’s ‘Dissertation on the First Principles of Government”. This pointed out- to the complete neglect of Crick- that, in a complex society, a so-called ‘majority’ is never a monolithic, unform entity but composed of many interests. Individuals and groups may be, on one issue, part of the majority but on others in a minority. The duty of a well developed architecture of democracy would be to ensure that, although majority consent is always needed for public policy decisions, minorities should always have the free right to persuade the majority to the rightness of their cause. If the argument is successful, a minority position can always become a majority one.

    Because of this diverse and fluid make up of the majority, democracy, when so well developed, actually upholds principles of moderation and conciliation.

    In conflating ‘totalitarian’ political parties with democracy in its end form, Crick fails to address that parties develop from sectional interests and, almost invariably, display the ambition of imposing this sectional interest upon society as the ‘general will’ or ‘common interest’. Political parties endanger the openness and diversity of a well functioning democracy and not vice versa.

  • junius

    A short rejoinder to my last comment on Crick’s ‘In Defence of Politics’- I think his chapter on ‘democracy’ is particularly damaging in that it seeks to undermine confidence in the development potential of democracy by constructing a ‘straw man’- or more particularly, bete noir- for it which bears little resemblence to examples of democratic practices in history.

    Crick’s projection of the straw man of ‘popular democracy’, a kind of monolithic mob rule offending against the ‘political’ virtues of free expression and contest of arguments, has little affinity with historic examples of democratic politics- whether in ancient Athenian popular assemblies, those of the American revolution or in the context of the French revolution before the Jacobin coup d’etat.

    In fact, the virtues of politics extolled by Crick have not only been integral to these historic examples but have also (most probably) witnessed their finest expression within these contexts.

    The aberrations referred to by Crick- attributed by him to the ‘totalitarian’ tendencies of unchecked ‘popular democracy’- in fact have their problematic source within the phenonenon of political parties rather than ‘democracy’. In all cases, these ‘totalitarian’ parties, conspiratorial in nature and of a narrow, not democratic, support base- seized power through coup-d’etats and not by democratic means. (This does not preclude that, in the aftermath they may have appropriated ‘democratic’ language for the exercise of power and staged token elections feeding upon coercion and fear).

    It should also be noted- although Crick does not do so- that, in a number of cases, these usurpations of power destroyed democratic institutions and practices. Notably, in the French revolution, the Jacobin seizure of power in 1793 put paid to the democratic experiment of the Condorcet-Paine constitution. (French history may have been entirely different if this had gone through).

    Crick’s dismissal of ‘popular sovereignty’ as a concept can be criticized on similar grounds.

    Why does Crick construct such an historically inaccurate ‘straw man’ to depict democracy in order to detract from its development potential?. Perhaps because he was a strong defender of majoritarian party power under the Crown in Parliament sovereignty of the Westminster model.