Taking Things For Granted - To Students At York University

York University

In a fascinating pamphlet recently published by the think-tank Demos called “Everyday Democracy – why we get the politicians we deserve” Tom Bentley writes,

“The form of nation state democracy that dominated the second half of the twentieth century is holed below the waterline. People are withdrawing from its rituals and routines.”

There were so many things I used to take for granted but I have come to realise that my old assumption that we have a shared understanding of our country is no longer valid.

Nick Hytner, director of National Theatre, spoke recently about audiences’ lack of understanding of their heritage and the stories that lay behind the plays they went to see.

Without understanding how something came to exist, the challenges to its very existence grow. Manners, customs, habits, institutions, conventions – everything is now up for grabs.

This is not entirely a bad thing; in a fast changing world technologically and economically we need to be fleet of foot –but as conservative with a small “c” I still find all of this a bit of a shock.

But even more dangerous than massive change can be contempt – and more dangerous still is the belief that an institution doesn’t just need to change but that it has become irrelevant and should be ignored or swept away.

That is the challenge my trade – politics – now faces.

Thanks to the low turnout in the 2005 election we now have a government supported by only around 22% of the British people and an opposition supported by around 20%.

We have a Prime Minister with a majority but no mandate.

This is in large part because people are beginning to think they don’t need politicians – but they do.

It is also because the parties are seen to be too similar – but they are not.

Politicians are seen to be in it for themselves – and we’re not; there are a hundred better ways to gain personal advantage than politics!

Now a lot of that I can cope with and fight back against – but I can’t cope with being seen as irrelevant.

We need politicians as much as ever –
• to fight for individuals in their battles with the state,
• for communities in their fights with central government
• and to fight for the country in a hostile world.

I am passionate to share my enthusiasm with all those who have turned their backs on political engagement and sneer at politicians.

Politics shapes lives, shapes the planet. Whether it’s the public services major environmental threats or world poverty, it’s only through political processes that things can be changed.

So why are people turning away from politics- and how do we bring them back?

Some causes are outside our control – especially the comfort of life in 21st century Britain which has led many to feel they just don’t need to bother. Life’s fine and how would casting a vote change it for the better?

But we have no business feeling comfortable. Here are just some of the more obvious political challenges our country, our continent and our world face:
• Underperforming public services
• Drug culture and gun crime
• The destruction of family life
• Socialising children without role models
• Coping with an ageing population
• Managing the social and ethical consequences of major scientific change
• Environmental degradation and climate change
• Disease and malnutrition in the poorest nations
• Economic and political challenges from the emerging new world order as India and China grow
• Nuclear proliferation
• Coping with the tensions between faiths and cultures in a globalised world, including the most dramatic manifestation, international terrorism

These are all challenges only politics can address.

But other causes of the perceived irrelevance of politicians are more or less self-inflicted:
• Broken – or over-ambitious - promises
• Attempts by politicians to answer every problem when some humility about our limits would be more appropriate
• The culture of spin
• Over simplification of issues by the media (and particularly the end to Parliamentary reporting)
• The craving for celebrity as politicians demean themselves in so many ways

But perhaps the key reason for those dangerous feelings of indifference is that people now feel more powerful. They are consumers of public services, not passive recipients.

They demand the same level of responsiveness from the local council, police force, hospital or school as they get from Tesco or E-Bay.

If they were to get this responsiveness from the services with which they most closely relate, perhaps they would trust politicians more completely on the larger national and international issues.

If they felt empowered and involved the legitimacy of political institutions should be enhanced.

So we must rebuild trust and reengagement – and the task is down to politicians. Here are some ideas:
• A new premium on local engagement by politicians in local issues
• An increased accountability to those we serve – explaining what we do to consumers of our service as local MPs
• A willingness to speak out on sensitive and important issues that concern real people
• An enthusiasm to confront media stereotypes of political greed and indolence
o A country gets the politicians it deserves; one man has done more to drive down the quality of politics than any other – John Humphreys’ ruthless cynicism contrasts sharply with Jeremy Paxman’s effective challenging.
• Get out into the schools which too often see party politics as dangerous and something they should exclude
• Demand a greater respect for parliament from the government (a smaller majority may help there!)
• Explain parliament to society that doesn’t understand it any more

But we also need fundamental changes to the way we deliver services – empowering people and communities as consumers.

A large group of my new Conservative colleagues have published a book on “New Localism”, while that left leaning think thank, Demos in its essay this week concluded,

“Renewing democracy through public participation increases our collective capacity to tackle major problems facing society, such as the pensions shortfall and climate change.”

The author, Tom Bentley set out the principles for the new political leadership he says we need like this:

“Rather than relying on the authority of office, real leadership means motivating people to solve problems for which there are no easy answers. These principles for leadership could help societies adapt to new challenges:
• Acknowledge the limits of existing solutions
• Allow solutions to emerge from different sources
• Distribute power to people who can solve a problems most effectively
• Refuse to be diverted and learn from failure.”

Perhaps he best summarises the idea when he says,

“Democracy must also be embedded in the everyday reality of people’s lives.”

Here are just a few ideas as to how we could achieve that:
• Develop simplified, more comprehensible structures of local government – unitary status should be the norm
• Link local government revenue raising to spending – raising more money locally for genuinely local services
• Give more power to the lower tiers (e.g. parish and town councils) and develop neighbourhood governance in the cities
• Give people direct control over services wherever possible
o management committees, perhaps, for some
o elected officials – e.g. local police commissioners – accountable to local communities for their decisions
o Breaking up public sector monoliths and giving real consumer choice.

There are real challenges to our democracy and they go beyond apathy– the growth of dangerous fringe parties is a real and lively problem.

By a happy coincidence, at least part of the answer is distinctively Conservative – trusting the people, making the state smaller and people bigger, decentralization.

The declining respect for politics is something we cannot take for granted and which risks leading our nation into very dangerous waters indeed.

But we will not stop this just by shouting louder and working harder – we also need to respect and empower people and communities. And we will need to ensure that all forms of government seek to involve people.

Britain is no longer a nation of passive voters who cast their votes once every four or five years, but people with real power over their lives, the power that affluence and education has brought. They will not just delegate power to MPs and let them get on with it.

Here is an attractive philosophy for our new leader – whoever he may be.

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