A conditional defence of politics.
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.