Matthew Flinders In Defence of Politics

In a week of strange political events – imaginary petrol shortages created by politicians, pasty-gate, and the surprise by-election landslide by an outside candidate – it was interesting to hear Matthew Flinders talking about his new book “Defending Democracy: why politics matters” at the RSA, and a fascinating and provocative talk it was. Flinders was experimenting with what he called 20/20 – twenty slides in 20 minutes; it wasn’t quite pecha kucha (not least because Flinders controlled the slides, and because he had three times as long for each slide), but it was close.

Given its apparently earnest topic, it was a very entertaining talk, which reinforced Flinders’ desire to get away from dry academia and engage people: he wanted to provoke. He was critical of political scientists who reckon if ordinary people can understand their work, they can’t be doing it properly. Instead, he subscribes to the views of Bernard Crick, who himself adhered to guidelines on writing laid down by George Orwell. (I clearly don’t: Orwell would have written “stuck to” instead of “adhered to”…)

In In Defence of Politics, Crick looked at various threats he saw to politics in the middle of the last centiry – ideology, democracy, nationalism, technology, and “false friends”. Flinders has examined the threats he sees today, using Cricks’ book as a model: he examines the threat to politics of itself, the market, denial, crises, and the media. Where the 20th century was, he said, the century of democracy, the 21st century has seen a divergence: as much of the world cries out for democracy, the advanced western democracies have become distrustful of politics and politicians: we have a view – what Flinders called “the bad faith model of politics” – in which politicians are seen as venal, inept and corrupt: a view Flinders was keen to challenge our knowing cynicism.

He believed that democratic politics delivers more than most of the electorate understand – essentially that we take hard-fought for rights for granted. (It is less than 100 years since women were granted the right to vote in the UK and the franchise was extended to most adult men.) Politicians are people just like us – and those who stand for office apparently do so because they want to change society for the better. It has to be said, though, the thought that politicians are just like us makes me think that maybe we get the politicians we deserve.

Flinders made what he saw as five key points:

  • healthy scepticism has given way to a corrosive cynicism, an assumption that politicians are wrong and corrupt
  • in modern society, there are no simple solutions to complex problems: and yet people want – and expect, even demand – simple solutions
  • we have become democratically decadent: we look to our rights, as if we were consumers of democracy, rather than our responsibilities (and I would say politicians were complicit in this: the Thatcherite revolution in service delivery at all levels made people think as consumers rather than citizens): politics is about voice rather than choice
  • there is a deficit in the public understanding of politics: the public are not educated to be politically aware, and Flinders puts the blame for this on the media and political scientists like himself (the corrosive cynicism I am suffering from today can’t help adding politicians to that list – surely it benefits them to keep people in the dark?). We may be media-literate, but we are not politically-literate
  • politics is not a spectator sport: it is all very well shouting at politicians on BBC’s “Question Time“, but we need to be more involved than that: Flinders believes we should move to a politics of optimism and actually get engaged with politics

What he thinks this comes down to is public expectations, which will shape the politics of the 21st century. We have high expectations – we want all those simple solutions – which can’t be delivered. We want more – of everything – for less (mostly money). Politicians are trapped – and they make promises which can’t be kept, or try to manipulate our expectations (let’s call that “spin”). It is easier to get into power than it is to govern. Politicians will outbid each other in their promises in order to get into power, increasing public expectations as they do so. (This is Flinders’ need to defend politics from itself – perhaps better phrased as defending politics from politicians.) Politicians work in the short or medium term, but most of the big problems are long term: and so they disappoint.

The media clearly has a role in this as well – another of Flinders’ targets for defense. Only bad news sells. The media like clear cut black-or-white stories – but it is always more complicated than that. By focussing on adversarial “attack politics”, the media contribute to the bad faith surrounding politics. They too want simple answers – and so politicians give simple answers that can be reported. (Some might say that in doing so, they lie.) The media like to make mountains from molehills (pasties make good headlines). Whether this changes in a post-Leveson world remains open.

I think the adversarial nature of party politics in the UK is a central issue. The complex problems we face in the 21st century need a bi-partisan approach – collaboration rather than confrontation. The Liberal Democrats are finding out how hard it is to collaborate: by being in coalition government with the Conservative party, they are seen as sleeping with the enemy. But as Flinders contends, politics is about compromise: no one party has all the answers.

Flinders said that people need to force parties to change: but to change political parties requires working within political parties, which many people aren’t willing to do. Instead, people are focussing on those issues most important to them: the rise of single-issue politics. As party membership falls, and if coalitions become more common, parties may need to change themselves just to survive. People rarely vote for candidates over the party, however good the candidate. Perhaps party allegiance runs too deep.


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