Politics as theory and politics as practice

In 1962, the late Professor Sir Bernard Crick published his seminal work In Defence of Politics. Fifty years on, formal political processes have never been in greater need of defending. In this article, former Home Secretary David Blunkett MP argues that in order to defend politics we need to change the way in which we ‘do’ our politics.

There is a certain twist about a student reading for the first time In Defence of Politics, and then finding himself years later offering his tutor and author of the book the opportunity to contribute directly to the understanding of students about the importance of politics in their lives. I was privileged to be that student of Sir Professor Bernard Crick who had linked politics ‘as theory’ and politics ‘as practice’ all those years later. So fifty years on, I can reflect on a man who not only challenged academics to engage with the here and now of day-today politics, but also challenged students to understand that politics itself was a messy business in which you would have to get your hands soiled if you wanted to make any difference and change the world for the better.

For me there were three overriding messages in Bernard’s seminal work. The first was that politics matters because a democracy cannot function without, like it or hate it, the political process. The second was that politics, like life, is a messy business. As Winston Churchill famously testified in the House of Commons in 1947: ‘[I]ndeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ The purists sneer or despair, the cynics poke fun and seek to destroy those who practise the art (or science) of politics, but understanding the nature of compromise, making progress through the morass of contradictions of both human frailty and public bureaucracy is an essential feature of ensuring that those crucial differences can be made. The third message was that political democracy was and remains the counterweight to the market and to the power of financial capital. Democratic politics therefore offers a way of controlling fate and shaping the future that could not come about through individual action or market-based relationships alone. It offers a countervailing force to the power of globalisation and provides a way of weaving together disparate groups, divided communities and fragmented societies. Democratic politics is—when all is said and done—forged upon inclusion, compromise and belief in human capacity.

The reason that theory and practice went together in Bernard’s mind was that simply observing was not to be a citizen in the true sense of the term. ‘The Polis’ was about engaging. Academics might observe and write, but that was to view the world from outside. That is why in his lifetime Bernard not only engaged with, in his later years, chairing working groups on the development of citizenship in the curriculum, implemented in the order laid through Parliament in the year 2000 and threatened by the coalition government’s decision to effectively abolish the national curriculum from 2014; and his work on naturalisation and citizenship for new entrants to the United Kingdom, but also his work in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The latter is little known. Bernard did not parade this aspect of his contribution to the more difficult problems of the political process. Just as his counterweight to the market was political democracy, so his counterweight to the bomb and the bullet was political compromise and the process of getting agreement. It was therefore fitting that before the end of his life he could see so much progress made from the Good Friday Agreement through to the power sharing of the Northern Ireland executive.

It was appropriate therefore that the Political Studies Association should have held its conference in April of 2012 in Belfast, for Bernard’s name would not appear on any roll of honour. Such recognition is reserved for those whose part in history has made them heroes for one group or another, or for those at the very end of a difficult process who manage, like Tony Blair building on the work of John Major and underpinned by the endearing eccentricities of Mo Mowlam, to pull off the impossible. The messiness of politics and political compromise, and the mind-blowing maze of the political process, were writ large in the peace process of Northern Ireland. It was those prepared to compromise, and not the self-righteous bombasts, who won the day in giving Northern Ireland a fighting chance of peace and progress. In politics, giving a little in order to gain a lot and being prepared to be criticised in the process takes time, and sometimes in the real world of the practice as opposed to the theory those who engage in political activity fail. Sometimes by forces beyond their control, occasionally by lack of vision or simple determination, and of course now and then because the forces ranged against them and the bureaucratic obstacles were too great.

For the purists there is no excuse, there is not even a reason, there is just the question where was the will? As though willing something to happen would automatically ensure that it did. The cynics are in a position to be able to dismiss all efforts other than their own destructive dissecting of the body politic as either inadequate or worse. Presumably, the true cynic gains no pleasure, no amusement, no lift, from the hurt caused to others or the amusement created at someone else’s expense. After all, gaining any of those reactions would in itself be a betrayal as it would illustrate all too clearly that the cynic was only acting in order to gain personal satisfaction or increased esteem!

For Bernard the process was a means to an end and not an end in itself. So, when people sneer at the messiness of the process, Bernard as in In Defence of Politics was rightly able to riposte that this was the way in which the practice of politics in democratic societies had materially increased the wellbeing of humanity and the improvement in the human condition. As Bernard put it himself in that little book that punched so far above its weight: Politics may be a messy, mundane, inconclusive, tangled business, far removed from the passion for certainty and the fascination for worldshaking quests, which afflict the totalitarian intellectual; but it does, at least, even in the worst of political circumstances, give a man some choice in what role to play, some variety of corporate experience and some ability to call his soul his own. Bernard recognised the truth that for so many of us who chose to take the route of civic engagement disappointment would be an inevitable outcome due to the simple fact that politics could not make ‘all sad hearts glad’ but it still remained a civilising activity that was wedded to the notion of social progress and social protection. It may not fast enough or clear enough in terms of its decision-making processes, the pressure to compromise and listen frequently made it inefficient in the pure sense of the term, and developing public understanding about the values, ambitions and limits of democratic politics may face many obstacles . . . and yet the fruits of politics lay all around us. Progress has and is being made.

However since that quirky, sometimes infuriating, deliberately provocative 30 year old called Bernard Crick sat down to write back in 1962, the world of politics and politicians has changed dramatically. Not always for the better. Yes, greater transparency has shone a light into the corners and revealed ‘the dark arts’ as well as, sometimes, corruption and wrongdoing. More is known about our professional politicians than in the whole of our history. Their lives, their income, their contacts are registered, surveyed and commented upon. This is a transformation from the much revered and often grossly overblown view of the past. Taken together, the 24/7 news, instant communication through the Internet and Twitter has changed the terms on which we do our politics. In recalling the words of President Teddy Roosevelt a century ago—‘who does strive to do the deed . . . who spends himself in a worthy cause’—it is instructive to reflect on how two millennia on from the Athenian reverence for civic engagement we could have reached the sorry pass of the self-styled essayist and former restaurant critic Will Self being given space by BBC Radio 4 to spread his politics of unconstrained pessimism to the nation. Were it to be known that Will Self was a comedian, we might have laughed at his quips that oblong countries have a worse human rights record than those of a different shape, but Will Self on BBC Radio 4’s A Point Of View went one step further. In describing members of political parties as ‘donkeys’, he exemplified the contempt for anyone soiling their hands by those whose dilettantism borders on dangerous. Extraordinarily, Brunel University have now decided to make this purveyor of profound truth a Professor of Contemporary Thought. Now there’s a thought!

Which brings us to the third and significant element of the role of political democracy— namely, to act as a major counterweight to the power of international capital, the influence of transnational companies and the vagaries of unfettered markets. Even the former neoconservative, Francis Fukuyama, now argues that the key to a healthy middle-class society is government that: ‘Reassert(s) the supremacy of democratic politics over economics and legitimates anew government as an expression of the public interest . . . the new ideology would not see markets as an end in themselves.’ From 2007, when in Europe and North America the banking crisis unfolded, it was in the United Kingdom that we could see most starkly both the problem for, and the failure of, traditional political action. The problem was obvious. The inability to save the rest of the economy from the shortcomings of both domestic and international banking would have been totally catastrophic for families and for businesses alike. The failure was not the actions taken, but paradoxically not explaining that this was one moment of our recent history where political democracy was in the ascendant, essential to saving us from those very unaccountable forces which had and still do exercise such overwhelming power. In April 2009 there was a fulcrum moment when the G20 nations and institutions gathered in London under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Some limited coordination was forthcoming and if nothing else, a stabilisation of the situation globally was achieved, together with a recognition that a hand was now on the tiller. However, three interconnected elements intertwined starkly in the United Kingdom at this time. The least central to world events but most devastating to public faith and confidence in politics was the scandal of the misuse of parliamentary allowances by a handful of parliamentarians.

It may have been coincidence that the Daily Telegraph chose the immediate aftermath of the April G20 summit to launch their previously purchased bombshell onto the public scene, but whatever the timing, it certainly undermined in the public mind that politicians were to be trusted with the crisis, and they were to be the ones to put right the failures of global markets, and domestic banks. No one could deny the significance of what the Telegraph revealed about what some politicians had been doing. However, greater moves to regulation hid the fact that enormous steps had already been taken in improving transparency, as noted earlier with financial and other interests of Members of Parliament registered, with tight rules on what could or could not be done. In comparison with what had happened over the previous century, British politics was, and certainly is now, the most open and tightly regulated in the world.

Nevertheless, politicians were put on the back foot, and politics itself looked mired in sleaze just at the moment when the financial institutions should have been in the firing line. As one section of the media reviled the ‘political class’, another section found itself on the battlefront for illegal hacking of phones and intercept of emails, drawing in both the police and politicians and further emphasising the ‘dog-eat-dog’ nature of those engaged in our great democratic institutions. This latter issue of intrusion into privacy by substantial parts of the mainstream media (most obviously focusing on News International), which included hacking and covert surveillance, was a slow burner.

The second strand, devastating to the defence of politics, was the action which politicians by necessity were now forced to take in dealing with the financial meltdown. To meet the cost of saving the nation from the consequences of the banking crisis, the government was having to drastically reduce projected spending (and the outgoing government was criticised for not being radical enough in laying out even more draconian austerity measures). Inevitably, the pain was inflicted on the very people (with the possible exception of the vote to demutualise building societies) who had had no hand in creating the crisis—namely the voters themselves! The ordinary man and woman going about their business, earning their living and of course the businesses relying on affordable loans found themselves in the firing line.

Indeed, the effects of this on public perception were revealed by polling for Policy Network in late 2011 [1], which found that 85 per cent of people in the United Kingdom, 83 per cent in Germany, 69 per cent in the United States and 60 per cent in Sweden agree with the view that big companies these days care only about profits—not about the wider community or environment. Voters today are worried about concentrations of corporate power and their inability to do anything about it. People’s faith in the market to deliver social goods, particularly jobs and shared wealth, is at a low. Only between 15 per cent in Germany and 35 per cent in the United States cite as an advantage of the market economy that it is the best way to provide jobs and opportunities to individuals—statistics which, certainly in terms of the United States, demonstrate the schizophrenia of the electorate towards the role of the state and that of the market.

This might of course reflect a major degree of scepticism that any mechanism could provide an answer. Nevertheless, this was an opportunity for politicians to demonstrate the positive role of government as a force for good, but it was an opportunity that was not taken. In fact, the failure in many Western countries to grasp this opportunity to provide a clear narrative and an optimistic vision of the future made space available for the voice of anti-politics. As a consequence, those truly responsible for the mess were able to regroup and reassert their power. The third strand was the more vivid and explicit role of those who might be described as ‘technocrats’. This was coupled with a reassertion of the ‘markets’ and therefore of international finance. The bond markets were now effectively in the driving seat in Europe and North America. It could be described as nothing short of a coup in terms of what occurred in Greece, with the removal of the Prime Minister, and in Italy, with the removal of both the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Whatever feelings people had about Silvio Berlusconi, and those around him, they were at least elected. The technocrats that replaced them were not.

Military intervention, which of course Greece had suffered in the 1970s, would have been condemned out of hand, yet the pressure brought to bear and the role of those second guessing the bond markets were just as effective at removing governments. By February 2012 the Greek Finance Minister, in the coalition that was imposed upon Greece by Germany and France, was describing Angela Merkel in less than flattering terms. The contrast of Germany imposing its will on Greece, laying down in terms the detailed austerity measures required for the ‘bailout’ contrasted sharply with the original intentions of the founders of the European Union. After all, it was to prevent any nation (explicitly Germany) overriding the will of other sovereign nations that the EU, and subsequently the eurozone, had emerged as the great stabilising and mutual force of postwar Europe. Now, in the contrast between theory and practice, Germany did not need the battalions in order to require compliance.

In advance of a Greek general election, the main political parties were ‘forced’ to sign up to a pre-election pledge not to offer the people of Greece an alternative fiscal and economic scenario! Even in Britain where austerity measures had been previously praised by the faceless ones of the credit rating agencies, in a parody of the organ grinder and the monkey, Chancellor George Osborne in mid- February 2012 could be seen to welcome the threat of downgrading Britain’s ratings as a vindication of his own policy. Even former Chancellor Alistair Darling is on record as feeling that the pressure from the rating agencies was helpful in his internal struggle to offer a balanced response to the crisis. However, this misses the point: if the pressure of such unaccountable organisations is to be lauded, where does this leave the ordinary citizen with a mere vote to cast?

Historically the two large and powerful credit rating agencies and their smaller counterpart (Fitch) had provided ratings for pension fund investors. The practice of rating the credit worthiness of bond issues (more recently for sovereign funds) was not matched by any regulatory or review mechanism of the credit rating agencies themselves. Only now, in the United States with the work of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the 2012 investigation by the British House of Commons Treasury Select Committee and investigations initiated in Italy has any meaningful counteraction being forthcoming. Questions have at last been raised relating to the fact that the large shareholders owning credit rating agencies also have an interest in the outcome of their work. Paradoxically, governments have no such influence. Somewhat belatedly, the question is being asked ‘are these the right organisations, should they be making these judgements and, who is holding them to account?’

While the European Commission has tentatively raised the issue, it almost immediately backed off the idea of seeking to create a European counterweight to organisations which, after all, were set up originally to avoid a modern version of the South Sea Bubble. At this, they failed abysmally. Inevitably governments have found themselves having to succumb (if economies were not to have collapsed completely) to what sometimes has amounted to the whims of those setting short- and medium-term interest rates. This has resulted not in a major political education exercise, explaining where power lay and how best in future to be able to counteract these forces, but politicians turning on politicians, and country upon country. Blaming other politicians has come at a price, with the price being that the message to the electorate is that politics and politicians, and not the markets or the little known credit rating agencies, are to blame. Professor Sir Bernard Crick’s ashes will undoubtedly be wrestling in his urn. The process of politics and the accountability and responsibility of politicians was now playing second fiddle to the very market forces which had created, by being under-regulated, the problem in the first place.

Democracy has always been understood to be about empowering those without wealth and privilege, to balance the purely economic with the social and human element of dealing with globalisation. What is happening now is the disempowerment of politics by, of all people, politicians. On 9 December 2011, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom walked away from the other 26 members of the EU, proclaiming that safeguards for the City of London and the single market were not obtainable. Ironically, while other politicians in the United Kingdom may well have found allies—and stayed to negotiate—there was a perverse twist in Britain’s ‘walk out’: the UK was not signing-up to a potential framework which literally sought to preclude governments being able to implement what had become known as ‘Keynesian economics’. Quite simply, monetarism and a political view of fiscal rectitude were being established not just as orthodoxy, but within a definable framework of policy and potential measures of enforcement. Instead of challenging the rating agencies head on, questioning not just the regulation of individual institutions but through coordinated action across governments, the markets themselves, European governments bowed to the Hayekian orthodoxy and even (as in the United Kingdom) revelled in austerity. This was seen by some in the political arena as an opportunity to ‘roll back the state’ and reinforce the view that social democracy, having failed to properly regulate the financial markets, should now accept the orthodoxy of complete capitulation to those very markets! And the consequences? Not surprisingly, the message received by the voters was twofold: first, that interventionist politics had somehow failed; and second, that an individualistic ‘fend-for-yourself ’ suspicion of the state was the common sense way of responding.

Hence in the 2011 Social Trends Report, it became clear that in Britain (in this context, read ‘Britain’ for ‘England’, for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were different, both in devolved powers and in their social make-up), individuals and attitudes towards solidarity had hardened [2]. In 2009, for example, 53 per cent of adults questioned either agreed strongly or agreed that if welfare benefits were not so generous people would learn to ‘stand on their own two feet’ (an increase of 15 per cent since 1999). Meanwhile, although four in ten adults in 1999 agreed the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, this fell to just 27 per cent in 2009. Further to this, in a poll carried out by YouGov for Prospect magazine in February 2012, it was found that 74 per cent of people think that Britain spends too much on welfare and should cut benefits [3]. Moreover, 70 per cent of people also agreed with the statement ‘Our welfare system has created a culture of dependency. People should take more responsibility for their lives and families.’

Therefore, despite the fact that the state in the form of the Labour government prior to 2010 had intervened to save the economy and the wellbeing of the British people from the collapse of the banks, the legacy was painted as being one of profligacy, even though until 2009 (and in the case of the Liberal Democrats until after the general election) the Conservatives and opposition generally had pledged to maintain Labour’s public expenditure commitments Politics as Theory and Politics as Practice 649 on key services. Having equivocated over action taken to prevent a wholesale run on the banking system, they were now able to disassociate themselves from any responsibility for political failure! Instead of the debate being about how politics had ridden to the rescue, and what needed to be done to curtail the power of the rating agencies and the behaviour of the bond markets, the argument started to be how best to present the face of austerity from opposition benches. In other words, some on the left of British politics had bought the propaganda of the right. A combination of adherence to Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman (with their somewhat different, but substantially similar, approaches to the role of politics in taming economics) was in the intellectual ascendency. The result of this, of course, is that politics began to have fewer and fewer defenders.

As indicated earlier, it is critical in defending politics not to defend the indefensible. Distinguishing the positive role of government and participative political engagement from the caricature of top-down bureaucratic inefficiency and waste is vital. Defending politics means defending the rights and the positive role of the individual and family, but combined through solidarity into having the genuine ability to offer influence and to hold others to account. Juxtaposing communitarianism and active participation with the proper role of government is both unhelpful and unnecessary.

Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson in their Political Quarterly article in the autumn of 2011 make the obvious point that it is not just community, but the type of community that matters, but they also go on to knock down an Aunt Sally, which is not a serious player [4]. For advocating that people should be mobilised into political action is in no way to deny the critical importance of the state in confronting those issues and drawing down on the power that only the state can use.

For instance, they say ‘in some ways, localism is indistinguishable from laissez faire’ and that only the central state can perform essential tasks and only the central state can perform certain other tasks fairly [5]. This analysis misses the point. The state draws its legitimate power from the people. Where power cannot be exercised by individuals and families or within the context of community, then on behalf of the people, the government must act decisively in taking on those forces and proving those mechanisms for equality and justice, which can only be achieved through that central framework.

While globalisation has not taken away much of the historic role of the state, it has changed the terms on which power can be exercised. Engaging people in their own community and mobilising their time and talent as part of the political process is to empower—not to disempower—government.

The build-up to the Gleneagles summit in July 2005 is a classic example of how people power cannot only provide the momentum and time for change, but also the political environment in which world leaders could act. The one and a half million, mainly young people, who walked quietly through Edinburgh was an impressive example of, albeit temporary, engagement with politics. Politicians who cling to some bygone era of believing that they and they alone as elected representatives should be ‘in charge’ are delusional. For it is only through genuine political engagement at every level of our society that we can begin to ensure an understanding of the fundamental changes that have occurred not only in our own country, but across the whole of the developed world. It is at this moment we need to ask ourselves precisely what the role of formal politics has to offer, how it can facilitate and support different and innovative forms of influence, and how to engineer a situation where far from dismissing the political process, the public can be persuaded that a renewal of political engagement is the only way forward. Eyes wide open—and political naivety set aside—a new way of explaining politics and then practicing it has to be tried. Not simply a handful of senior politicians agonising over impossible decisions, but an explanation of what has happened, how it might be avoided in future and, yes, how a different process of doing our politics might engage people in helping rather than simply watching their politicians and those global forces which almost at one bound freed themselves from political accountability. While individual bankers were ridiculed, arguments about bonuses or dividend payments raged, those with real power sought to assert it.

This ‘new way’ of doing politics has to be multilayered. It has to start by challenging people to take responsibility in their own lives—in old-fashioned terms, to accept the duty to be engaged not solely in their own survival but in the wider arena: to be, in a reflection of ancient Greece, ‘citizens’. This is to reinforce the importance of looking after themselves and their family, not to negate it. This is where the much scorned ‘Big Society’ of David Cameron has to be matched by an understanding of self-responsibility and civic obligation. If the ‘state’ is seen as the enemy and not the vehicle for liberating change, it is the state that must change in order to refute rather than override the perceptions of the individual. So how can this be done? With the power of government behind the people, it would be possible to foster a whole new spirit of seeing the political process as a way of organising, advising and, yes, funding not just an upsurge of negative feeling but a demand for something better from big institutions both public and private. Let us therefore think the unthinkable. What if government, not as a pressure group or in some pretence of being at one removed from decision taking, but as a force for enabling the power of the people to be exercised, actually took that seriously? For instance, government actually facilitating (funding) specific action; consumers taking action is the obvious example, but there may be many others. Funding the development of leadership and community development is something that we are familiar with as already illustrated. Why not build on this? In simple terms, the government using the collective power it still possesses and of course the resources of the taxpayer would be putting those resources at the disposal of people who in their own lives were fighting battles against vested interests or forces outside the normal realms of everyday life. This would indeed be radical politics!

Of course it already happens. On a micro scale, communities have taken hold of their own destiny. From Balsall Heath to Bradford, from East London to East Glasgow, men and women have decided that enough is enough. Tackling drug abuse and prostitution, unfit housing and unacceptable behaviour, they have changed the immediate world around them. And here is the rub. Just at the moment when central government was facilitating the sharing of that experience by making some resource available from government to exchange that practice from community to community, the old bureaucracy intervened. The Treasury’s longstanding desire to avoid messy pots of money, government support for individual communities and initiatives, swung into action. And, yes, politicians capitulated. Tidiness and civil service inertia was instigated. The funding for Guide Communities was simply removed. Instead of learning the lessons from the good and the bad experience of the New Deal for Communities, new programmes were invented. If politics is to be a reality in improving the lives of men and women in this new globalised era, then giving backing to sharing and scaling-up best practice has to be a way forward.

‘Think global, act local’ has to be put into practice. City and regional banks, based on the experience of the CLP (Caja Laboral Popular) in the Basque country, or the best of the experience of German city/Lander banking, would make sense both for small businesses that even with government ownership of two large banking entities have found it so difficult to obtain investment could benefit. Sensible lending, which building societies used to do perfectly well, could resume providing the wherewithal for a revival of the housing market. However, it takes more imagination than appears to be currently present, in a world where daring seems to have been replaced by political debilitation. Just as the traditional strike was the weapon of the organised employees versus the power of the employer—the balance of forces—so now in this very different era creating new forces of countervailing power, and the use of more formalised political action to energise and resource mutual action, should be seen as real possibilities. As already illustrated, the key role of government at all levels is to help individuals and families and the broader community to cope with rapid economic, social and cultural change.

No bigger challenge exists than that rapidity of change. Old certainties are disappearing, unknown experiences are pervading daily life and the differences around the world suddenly are seen not just on television but around the corner, in the changed shops, languages and culinary smells. The Politics as Theory and Politics as Practice transitions of life and economic and employment uncertainties exacerbated by austerity create subliminal fear. Instability leads to negative reactions, to defensive postures and the closing of minds. In the United Kingdom at least, history teaches us that the more fearful and insecure, the less likely it is that people will feel and think radically as the Social Trends statistics demonstrated earlier. It is this reality that has to be addressed in renewing and reinforcing democratic practice. Nothing short of a radical rethink will do if we are to challenge head on the economic orthodoxy of the eurozone, the overbearing hegemony of German economic European supremacy and the antipolitics of those who revel in the applause of those who believe that to coin a phrase ‘there is no alternative’! Margaret Thatcher infamously described the miners as ‘the enemy within’. Today, we should be asking the question who is ‘the enemy without’?

 

Cross-posted with kind thanks to The Political Quarterly

 

Notes

1 Policy Network, The Quest for a New Governing Purpose, Oslo, Progressive Governance, March 2011.

Social Trends 41, London, Office for National Statistics, 2011.

3 Available here.

4 R. Hattersley and K. Hickson, ‘In praise of social democracy’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 83, no. 1, 2011, pp. 5–12.

5 Ibid., p. 9.

About the author

David Blunkett is Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside. He was Britain's Home Secretary from 2001 to 2004.