Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Fear itself: Insecurity, not ideology, is the key to understanding the Lib Dems' predicament

Suddenly everybody is an expert on the Liberal Democrats. Among the weirdest outcomes of this years political convulsions has been the transformation of previously disinterested commentators into self-appointed emissaries from planet yellow, explaining the every move and thought of the party in coalition.

The tool of analysis which most of these sages have settled for their chin-stroking is that of the 'Orange Bookers' v the 'Social Democrats'. They inform us that the Lib Dems are led by economic liberals 'at odds' with the social democratic 'grass roots' or 'old guard'. This enables them to explain the history of the coalition as a product of this divide: Clegg was always 'instinctively closer' to Cameron than Brown; the two are "bound by their shared hostility to the state" (Steve Richards); "Just as much as Blair and Cameron, Clegg aims to replace British social democracy with a version of Thatcher’s market-based settlement" (Jon Gray). Even Andrew Adonis recently echoed such a view.

But this is misguided. There are differences in outlook, of course, but the party doesn't factionalise along these ideological lines. The Lib Dems who have rebelled most so far are hardly left-wing ideologues and it's simply not true that the leading lights of the party share a centre-right ideology. It's more complex than that. Chris Huhne, for instance, wrote Reinventing the State, the book frequently touted as the ying to the Orange Book's yang, while Cable comes from a Labour background and he and Clegg devised for the party a whole host of policies (on tax, inequality, banks etc.) which can scarcely be called Blairite.

More to the point, the 'Orange book' analysis obscures the main driver of Lib Dem behaviour since 6th May: fear. Fear of another election, fear that the coalition will fall apart, fear of electoral decimation at the hands of the Tories.

Most detailed histories written of the Coalition so far suggest it itself was conceived in fear. During negotiations and after, Cameron held up (explicitly and implicitly) the threat of a snap second election in autumn should the Tories be forced into minority government. There's a good chance this would have allowed them to blame Lib Dems for the preceding 'muddle' and turbulence, campaign for a majority and wipe many of the already fragile marginals the Lib Dems hold off the map. It seems the fear of this, with a deal with Labour not viable, is primarily what drove Clegg to lock himself and his party so firmly into a five year coalition, rather than any 'confidence and supply' arrangement.

The trouble the party is now facing, is that this logic is now perpetuating itself over and over again and it is spiralling the Lib Dems into electoral oblivion. Fear that the coalition will collapse and of the resultant election seems to be playing a significant part in justifying faithful parroting of the Tory line, word for word, on almost every issue.

This has lead to the Lib Dems being almost indistinguishable from the Tories, and seen the party's poll ratings plummet. Yet, ironically, the more the polls sink the more the logic justifies itself, as by implication the worse the election performance would be. This is a large part of the architecture of the Lib Dems own 'There is No Alternative' narrative on the coalition.

It's a dangerous gamble, based on the premise that if the economy recovers, by 2014-2015 the Lib Dems will be rewarded in the polls. But polling since May has already shown cuts and fees have punished the Lib Dems disproportionately to the Tories. So if Tory/Lib Dem poll ratings and electoral performance are not fixed to each other, then neither should the Lib Dem and Tory line.

So where now?

While not being an expert myself, I'd say it's been fairly obvious from the start that the main way the Lib Dems can succeed in coalition is by being seen to sand down the edges of Tory extremism and carrying, as far as possible, the 'equidistance' ethos of opposition into government. But their current approach of hugging the Tory line close from the beggining militates against this, limiting Lib Dem influence and hamstringing the party's ability to promote any genuine concessions.

Take higher education reform as a case in point. The Browne review reccomended lifting the cap on fees. But that day, Cables support for the review was full throated. It was Cameron, then Willetts, that signalled the row-back and eventually the retention of a cap. This should have been the other way around! The Lib Dems initial echoing of the Tory line left them no room to sieze on improvement to Browne. If they had taken a step back, staked their opening position a little more carefully, briefed their opposition a little more openly, put their name to row-backs, they could possibly have limited the damage they are suffering on this issue now. At the very least, this approach provides a good template for other, less totemic, policy issues going forward.

Instead, their actions suggest that behind closed doors the Lib Dem leadership is being bullied by the Tories and their spindoctors. Its probably also a case of Westminster politicians operating according to Westminster orthodoxy: difference equals 'splits', splits are bad. But the Lib Dem leadership needs to think outside this political box. Just hanging is not a strategy that will ensure the party's recovery.

What is needed is at least a kind of 'ochestrated disagreement'. Clegg and co need to argue for room to be seen to disagree from the beggining on certain issues, to be seen to force concessions and claim them as their own – school sport presents the latest opportunity. They need the spirit of their coalition negotiations within government, to openly define themselves as much against the Tory right as Labour. This would give them a platform to build on for the 2015 election, wheras on present course it's difficult to imagine how they could forge one.

The leadership should argue with Coulson and Cameron the need for flexibility in this respect – there is no reason if they are aware of this strategy that it will break the coalition. Moreover, the Tories own poll ratings are worsening and there's no guarantee they themselves would fancy their chances in a snap election. The Lib Dems may have more room for manoeuvre than they think in this Coalition- but if they don't start to properly use it, they'll continue to lose it.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Why Tony Judt matters: George Orwell and political writing

I wanted to write a quick blog on historian Tony Judt, author of works such as Postwar, who died recently of Lou Gehrig's disease. In 2009, Judt won an Orwell Prize. It hasn’t gone unnoticed among commentators that in recent years this award has been showered upon those not exactly in keeping with the spirit and meaning of Orwell’s writing (think Peter Hitchens).

This seems to underscore a wider abuse of the great man’s legacy, with every agitprop left-wing writer going attempting to lay claim to his mantle, explicitly or implicitly, at some time or another - usually using his name as a kind of smug trump card to prop up their arguments. But in Judt, I think, the Orwell Prize has found a fitting home and Orwell’s spirit an unlikely echo.

Most of Judt’s obituaries and especially those in US newspapers mark him out as a radical or controversialist, owing mostly to his 2003 essay Israel: the alternative in which he argued a bi-national state the only just and sustainable solution to the Middle East conflict. Yet this was the same man who wrote that if there was to be one lesson from the 20th century, it was that “the more perfect the answer, the more terrifying the consequences”.

This apparent contradiction between the radical and the pragmatist often left Judt in the cold. "I'm regarded outside New York University as a looney tunes leftie, self-hating Jewish communist; inside the university, I'm regarded as a typical, old-fashioned, white male liberal elitist", he recently quipped.

But such positioning is what made Judt such a great writer. He was no pacifist or fence sitter, but as a documenter of the Soviet Unions’ crimes his writing was characterised by a rejection of ‘master narratives’, whether Marxist or neoconservative, which sought to explain or reduce every phenomenon through an over-arching ideology; that is, absolutism so cocksure it invariably finds its most natural expression through violence and bloodshed - but always, as Judt regularly quoted Camus as noting, the bloodshed of others.

Instead Judt argued that “incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for, and probably all we should seek”. His creed was that of a thread of social democratic ideas which though argued for belligerently never believed it could explain or befit any event before it had happened, and so in acknowledging its infallibility naturally found expression through words and argument, a passion and commitment to slow democratic struggle, to faith in the everyday banalities of activism and collective thought above the outlandish fashion statements parading as serious politics of Chomskyite vogue.

It is this which puts him most firmly in the tradition of Orwell. Orwell was one of the most important authors of the 20th century, but he is misunderstood if he is quoted as a guru of untouchable truth and virtue. As Christopher Hitchens has written, he is best appreciated as an ordinary man who first and foremost battled his own imperfections, prejudices and pride in the pursuit of intellectual integrity.

The point here is that this is an extremely difficult pursuit – as Orwell wrote, “to see what’s under one’s nose requires a constant struggle”. It is also a rather unfashionable one. Countless writers and thinkers set themselves up as tellers of ‘impolite truths’ or contrarians but often this is simply a posture - in reality they’re as liable to the same intellectual contortions as their enemies, as they try to make events chime with their over-arching view of the world or their notions of the human race’s unstoppable historical trajectory. This is not to sneer; the reason true intellectual integrity is so hard-won is because the kind of Manichean, ‘us v. them’, crusading visions of the world are so seductive. The complex problems of the world are much easier when seen through one lens. This is why even great writers like Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen or Johann Hari ended up supporting the Iraq invasion as an extension of the humanitarian interventions they backed in the 1990s despite huge qualitative differences - they got so caught up in the excitement of a ‘new age of liberal interventionism’ or a ‘clash of civilisations’ they just filtered out the inconvenient facts and in doing so discredited their own doctrine. It’s also why so many ‘anti-imperialists’, of which there are too many to mention, end up excusing the most hideous crimes as long as the perpetrators are anti-American.

It’s because Judt took humility as the starting point of any political world view that he largely avoided such intellectual obfuscations and, ironically, in hindsight got so many of the big calls right. His suspicion of dualisms and utopia meant he hardly ever strayed from a clear sighted empiricism. Subsequently he could make radical and often prescient arguments, such as in Israel: the alternative, powerfully based on specific facts on the ground rather than as a wearing anti-establishment posture, while also being able to judge when outright overhaul of institutions was unnecessary*. He proved that it is intellectual honesty alone that renders the dichotomy between the pragmatist and the radical a false one.

There is a crucial final dimension to this. This is that though he had an outstanding grip on the English language, Judt was not a fancy writer. He didn’t deal in the ‘paradigms’ or the flowery jargon which characterizes much academic writing. Like Orwell, his writing was short, sharp and to the point – and all the bolder for it. In this respect his clear thinking was reflected in his clear writing. As Orwell famously observed in Politics and the English Language, and Judt likewise in ‘The Marxism of Louis Althusser’, the more intellectual contortions an author is trying to pull, the more evasive and unreadable their writing. Thus hard-won intellectual integrity is strongly related not just to accuracy of argument, but clarity of argument, and clarity in return to accuracy; it’s a delicate, mutually reinforcing relationship which hardly anyone gets right. Judt did.

Perhaps he did because as a historian first and foremost, he felt distanced from the New Left political writers of the 60s who, though important, tended to tip into dense ‘structuralist’ explanations of everything and carried within their “expressly opaque” writing (Judt’s term) a deep suspicion of traditional academic empiricism. But he did so mostly because he doubted himself constantly, watched himself constantly for hypocrisy and double standards, policed his writing for cant or bunkum. The world desperately needs more intellectuals like this, and with Judt’s passing it has lost perhaps its best, its most inspirational – and above anything else – its most truly radical of all.

Tony Judt: 1948-2010
Some writings of his for anyone interested:

What is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy? (Remarque lecture – truly brilliant if you get the chance to listen/watch)

Israel: the alternative
The Dilemmas of Dissidence
Albert Camus: the best man in France? (in Reappraisals - can't find an online link?)
The Gnome in The Garden: Tony Blair and Britain's 'heritage' (likewise)
What Have We Learned, If Anything?
'Edge People'
Girls! Girls! Girls!
Goodbye to all that? Leszek Kolakowski and the Marxist Legacy
Captive Minds: Then and Now

*The best and funniest manifestation of which comes at the end of a brilliantly detailed and rich 1987 essay. The essay speculates on the future of Central and Eastern Europe after the overthrow of the Soviet Union in revolutions lead by intellectuals committed to liberal democracy. “If we are lucky”, Judt wrote, “there are some very dull times ahead”.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

In defence of Ooh-missus!: why Andrew Pierce's article marks a worrying trend in the gay community

I've never met Andrew Pierce, but I can't imagine he's much fun in bed. His rather joyless little column in The Daily Mail yesterday, 'Why I, as a gay man, abhor these TV queens' follows in the footsteps of 'Why I, as a gay man, agree with the Pope' in February. Whether this is just lazy sub-editing on the Mail's part or old Andy is developing a camp sitcom-style catchphrase of his own is unclear. Nevertheless, it seems he is fast developing into the Mail's 'House gay' of choice.

There's nothing inherently wrong with criticising the attitudes or values of gay men, but take a look at the bile that drips from Pierce's fingertips in his latest offering. He rails bitterly against “the prancing, preening fashion icon Gok Wan”, the “lisping, limp wristed” Alan Carr, Graham Norton - “with his mincing, ooh-missus act” - and Julian Clary, “who has made an entire career out of making Larry Grayson look butch by comparison”. These “simpering, soppy, superficial cissies” give “ordinary [gay] men” a bad name, he says.

That the Mail has to resort to channelling its resentment towards the gay community through the proxy of a gay man is a strange victory of sorts for the gay rights movement, I suppose. Ironically, it is the history of that movement which Pierce owes his throat-clearing, 'as a gay man...' identity politics-stylee prefix to – a history he betrays by using his article to define himself against other gays. By so thoughtlessly bashing 'camp personalities' he inherently looks to set up a discursive divide between 'ordinary' gay men and 'camp queens'.

This seems to reek of a desperate plea for acceptance to his conservative audience; “Accept me, I'm not like them!”. He swears to them that most of his gay friends just want to watch Football and “worry far more about the state of the economy than over whether Kylie has found true love” (and what a hoot they sound!). Sadly, though, this kind of self-loathing should be placed in the context of a worrying trend within the gay community, where the more gay guys become integrated into mainstream society, the more they become embarrassed by their peers in the gay world. Go to any gay dating website and you'll see men describing themselves as, and looking for, “straight acting guys”; “no queens please”, “Sorry, I don't like camp guys”, and so on.

Many gay guys, at some point, feel alienated by mainstream gay culture and can become resentful. This is usually – like it was for me - just a stage on the path to self-acceptance, owing more to how we feel about ourselves and fretting over what our family or friends will think of us. The trouble is more and more gays are becoming stuck in that stage, legitimising it with the kind of intellectual froth Pierce echoes: gay identity doesn't 'define them', it's 'just who they fuck'; through this view, gay clubs, gay pride seem rather old hat. The corollary is often – as it is for Pierce – that all this is needless now gays have “genuine equality”.

But this is deeply misguided and dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because there are many remaining battles to be won by the gay community at home and abroad. Related to this, though, it ignores the history of camp. It was not 'ordinary gay men' who lead the Stonewall riots, kicking back against police harassment and sparking the gay rights movement in the Western world, but drag queens. That movement was not led successfully by people who defined themselves against others being oppressed or denigrated in a scramble for the lifeboats, but who wore their homosexuality proudly, loudly and with a sense of togetherness and brotherhood against outright hostility.

Most fundamentally, the gay movement which 'camp' spearheaded has achieved what it has because it was radical. It was not fuelled by a desire for Pierce's conservative ideas of equality (non-discrimination, marriage etc.), it has just come to land there in modern times. It was originally linked to a much wider political and social critique; it wanted to change institutions not just be accepted by them, to challenge conservative ideas of 'normal' gender roles not be subsumed within them. Through this prism calling camp an 'act', even if true (a tricky argument anyway based on its complex interaction with orthodox femininity), misses the point and betrays the original cause. Such ignorance could also partially explain so much of the gay worlds disgraceful treatment of transgender members of the community.

I don't mean to imply here, as Peter Tatchell has, that any gay who is not a radical is a sell-out. It is rather that people who bash 'camp' at least partially owe it the comfortable place within mainstream society (and columns in the Daily Mail!) from which they emit their prickish sneers, and should understand and respect its place within gay history.

Just because people like Pierce feel they don't need gay identity, or gay clubs, or gay pride, doesn't mean others cast out by their families or society don't. What binds gay men is not just 'who they fuck' but a shared history of exclusion, denigration and (until recently at least) out right oppression.

Articles and attitudes like Pierce's splinter solidarity and carry within them historically illiterate, depoliticised concepts of sexuality and identity. As worryingly, they are complacent, potentially offering a new cloak for those who wish to attack the gay community or unpick its successes. I've lost count of the number of times straight guys have said to me words to the effect of “You're fine, it's the mincers I don't like”. It will not do for people like Pierce to legitimise this modern form of homophobia. It's high time they thought twice before being so selfish and lazy, and recognised whose rather more fabulous shoulders they stand on.

Twitter: @SteveAkehurst

Also see: The hilarious David Hoyle's little rant!

Friday, 25 June 2010

New Labour meets its maker: cuts, TINA and the future of centre-left politics in Britain

There was a strange and queasy moment during last months Queen Speech debate when, returning Harriet Harman's questions from the Labour side of the House, David Cameron leant over the despatch box and advised: “Let me give a little warning: I can tell you, having sat on the Opposition Benches for the past nine years, that opportunism does not work.”

Coming from a politician as intellectually vacuous as Cameron, the hypocrisy was enough to make your eyes bleed. The queasiness, though, came from the ring of truth to the statement and its broader implications. Labour have not formed a coherent intellectual argument against the Conservatives, the new Coalition government or the significant cuts in public expenditure imminent. Neither have many prominent progressive figures.

Conservative language on cuts and the economy is now largely hegemonic in public life. It's widely seen as a matter of absolute necessity that cuts are deep, immediate and far reaching. Phantoms of Greece are summoned and we're told (wrongly) that our situation is analogues, and that all hell will break lose unless cuts are made. A state of exception/emergency style logic has been set up through which every decision to cut is explained and incorporated, no matter how small the saving or socially damaging the impact; case in point here is the cancelling of a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, essentially described as regrettable but 'unavoidable'. In sum, the politics is being stripped out of highly political decisions.

This is the way Conservatives do business. The whole Thatcher era was built on the idea that a small state and free market was an unavoidable necessity, that There Is No Alternative (TINA) to neo-liberal prescriptions of economic growth, the state ('waste') and the market ('efficiency'). Opposing it was like opposing ageing. Now, as then, the refrain in face of opposition is: “ah yes, but what would you do?”. The worrying sign is that much of the public accept the TINA argument, as surveys and the Conservatives unblemished poll ratings attest (here and here).

Many in the Labour ranks seem to think this support simply owes to the Coalition's honeymoon period; that once the pain kicks in voters will come home. But the problems are more systemic and they involve New Labour's ability to counter the TINA narrative.

That problem is that New Labour, owing to a post-mortem of its defeats in the 70s and 80s, is itself predicated on a peace pact with Thatcherite/neo-liberal political economy and the TINA argument, from which Conservative arguments on cuts emerge. This is not to say it continued Thatcherism, but it accepted it as a framework for economic growth, believing a trade off between investment in public services and free market economics to be a false one; basically their departure from Conservatives concerned what to spend the proceeds of growth on, rather than the model for generating that growth.

What followed was, rightly or wrongly, an adoption of much Conservative language and idioms; idolising 'wealth creators', a view that a sustainable economy could centre on financial services, unfettered movement of labor, 'you can't pick winners', a focus on 'choice' in public services, that government should 'get out of the way' for entrepreneurs, and so on. Many of the policies which flowed from this world view (de-regulation in particular) lead to the very financial crisis which now puts a question mark under the previously untouchable neo-liberal model (such crisis were not supposed to happen in dynamic, free market economies, afterall).

But by broadly adopting that model's language and economic logic, Labour has helped entrench it among the public and tied its own hands in opposition to cuts, not least by posturing to the markets before the election that cuts would be deeper than under Thatcher. That's why it now seems opportunistic and doomed in its tentative forays into Keynsian language (talking about jobs, government stimulus, pushing back against the deficit hawks), when for years it parroted neo-liberal mantras and defined any alternative as an untenable return to the past. At the top level, at least, it has lost a language of social value, of state involvement in the economy, that is now so unfamiliar as to seem cheap and unrealistic.

That is why many mainstream Labour party activists needs to take the opportunity of a leadership election to assess how much they believe in the idioms I listed above, a wholesale critique (rather than temporary), which need not lead to outright rejection by the way, of the fundamentals upon which New Labour was based. You can see a partial attempt at this in its intellectual acrobatics over the movement of labor and immigration, where it seems to be trying to face in both directions at once. It is not currently a party with coherent ideas of political economy or language; until it is, its policies will continue to seem like a series of positions and postures.

In undertaking this review, it would carry with it the future of progressive politics in Britain (at least while the Lib Dems are locked into coalition) and Western Europe, which desperately needs an over-arching, alternative economic vision for spasms of unrest or discontent to coalesce around.

This does not have to indulge a culture of betrayal that says all New Labour has done is wrong, but to realise that the New Labour project was a product of its time, and times have changed. Significant doubts over the neo-liberal/Thatcherite system of economic growth have arisen for the first time in a generation. Opposing it need no longer be seen as electoral suicide. The public could, over time, be swayed by a credible alternative narrative, especially if lefties are savvy and play on events cleverly (the crash as private sector failure, bankers greed, forthcoming pain from public expenditure cuts etc.).

Such a narrative would not be afraid to talk about raising income tax again, about a higher minimum wage, or the inequities private education still entrenches, for instance. More importantly, it would not be afraid to talk about government investment and stimulus to create a re-balanced economy, less dominated by financial services in London, so kids growing up in Stoke or Leeds have more options than either going to University or getting a job in a call centre or supermarket (Paul Mason has done a great piece on this). It would not row back the moment it was accused of being 'anti-city' or 'anti-aspiration'. In sum, it would not be afraid to talk about the state again, in the face of a Conservative ideology which sees the state as the problem.

Only if New Labour, and the left, can generate an alternative political economy in this way, can their opposition to Tory cuts seem anything but opportunistic, and the idea that There Is No Alternative be chipped away at and finally dislodged. One of Blair's many talents was an ability to spot a moment and build an agenda around it. His post 9/11 words, which defined change in the international political system in the last decade, could and should easily apply to the economic system in this. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux", he said. "Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.". It is into this spirit which progressives, of every stripe, should tap in to in 2010.


Twitter: @SteveAkehurst

Bit more reading, for anyone interested:

Ross McKibbin

Simon Johnson

Tony Judt

Guardian editorial

Dean Baker

Jon Cruddas

Laurie Penny

Stuart White

David Aaronovitch and John Harris

Paul Krugman

Saturday, 1 May 2010

An appropriate number of cheers for the PC brigade!

An article I wrote for Leeds Student online.
An appropriate number of cheers for the PC brigade!
Political correctness has had a bad name for too long. It's time we took pride in being PC
By Steve Akehurst

I was amused to read in LS recently that two shirtless men promoting for RAG were asked to cover up by the Union’s Equalities Officer after a complaint was lodged about ‘objectification’. I thought the best bit of this escapade was one of the men’s angry response. Storming out of the building, he’s reported as saying: “This is political correctness gone mad!”

In terms of parodying yourself out of an argument, this could only have been bettered by him jabbing his index finger down onto a conveiniently nearby work surface and bravely declaring: “Do you know who the most oppressed minority in this country is? Straight, white, middle class men!”. Very 2005, dear! Yet it reminded me that somehow ‘political correctness’ remains a derisory phrase in public life. I don’t see why it should be.

Political correctness at its heart is just the recognition that the power which shapes our lives lay everywhere; that norms inherent in acceptable language, tone or behaviour shape our society, our personal relationships and how we feel about our place within them.

In this sense PC has always been around. You would have been admonished in the 1950s for blasphemy; you’d still be today for slandering the armed services. No one calls these right-wing norms ‘political correctness’ - why? If you’re frowned at and deemed sexist in polite society for calling a woman a ‘cunt’ then it’s because times have changed, not because you’re about to be hauled off to a Gulag. Likewise, that “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” isn’t an acceptable election slogan in 2010, as it was for the Tories in 1964, is also a function of political correctness.

More institutionally, ‘Political correctness’ in the form of Equalities officers, workplace training schemes, International Womens Week and so on is just a recognition that minorities currently face a culturally uneven playing field, and that efforts should be made to combat this at every level.

Paranoia over this leads to a ludicrous position in national life where ‘PC gone mad’ is used to resist any change to the status quo. If you want to argue against being criticised for using the term bum bandit then do so on its merits, don’t hide behind reductivist arguments about free speech. “You can’t say anything these days can you?” Yes you can, we’ll just tell you you’re an idiot.

This is the fine line between censor and censure that gets lost in debates over PC. Of course it’s frightening and unnecessary if norms of politeness are actually enforced by law and an old man is carted off to prison for holding an offensive placard, but such instances are extremely rare.

The much criticised ‘twitter mob’ which complained about Jan Moir’s infamous Daily Mail article were not asking for her to be slung in jail – why shouldn’t they be able to collectively express their disaproval? It’s vital for any healthy, democratic civil society that they do so.

That’s all that happened to our two shirtless friends. No one called the police or asked for RAG, or say the Shirtless Men Solidarity Group, to be banned by Union diktat from organising on campus - heaven forbid, that would be really despotic. Someone made an individual complaint to a democratic representative, who then acted on it by making a request.

At the very least, these slightly excessive incidents are a price worth paying for the wider cultural shift in the UK towards tolerance that PC has cemented. At best they get people thinking about the ways their behaviour impacts on others.

It’s about time that more of us were proud to be politically correct and that we stood up, jabbed our index finger down onto a conveiniently nearby work surface and declared that ‘PC gone mad’ has gone completely bloody mad!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

'This Week' and what it says about the BBC

For odd ball political junkies like myself, the BBC's 'This Week' is part of a staple weekly diet. What I find curious about This Week, though, is how it has come to project some of the BBC's most deep seated insecurities.

This is probably best manifested in the programs god forsaken obsession with visual metaphors. The latest edition provides a perfect example (the first 90 seconds really have to be seen to be believed). It opens with Andrew Neil introducing the show with the loose conceit of being, for some reason, James Bond. Some accompanying Mission Impossible music is played, interspersed with some piss poor 'technological looking' graphics. Then there's John Pienaar who gives us an interminable round up of the week through the prism of jogging puns. This is usually complimented at some point by a celebrity, wheeled out by their agent to talk about a cause they care about. Usually they admit to "not knowing much about politics really", but that they really think we should care more about the elderly, or something. At this point Neil usually engages in some limp banter to fill the gaps.

All this sits in bizzare juxtaposition with the show at its best, which is essentially when they actually get round to detailed discussion with the shows regular pundits (essentially establishment figures) Michael Portillo and Dianae Abbott or a guest of some intellectual weight, on the weeks' political goings on and their wider implications. It can be genuinely engaging and informative.

Why, then, does the program so regularly feel the need to dumb itself down? I think it is basically because it's obsessed with retaining the attention of 'young people (TM)' and/or the politically disaffected. But this is bizzare. The show goes out at 11.35pm, straight after Question Time. Most of the people watching are already engaged to some degree. Perhaps I'm being a snob, and it's just an attempt to unbutton politics in a way I complained needed to be done here. But it still doesn't make sense if you think about it. Does anyone need to have the weeks political events elaborated on by Quentin Letts in an astranaut suit, talking about how the governments recent housing initiative was "brought back down to earth"? Is anyones understanding of the world lubricated by listening to Craig David talk about the merits of personality politics? "Oh I was going to switch this off and take no particular interest in public life, but look, Toby Anstis really seems to care about local planning regulation".

All this points to some fundamental anxieties at the Beeb. It is increasingly operating under the same logic as commercial competitors. This is that peoples attention spans are essentially incredibly thin and can only be retained by novelty, or failing that, celebrities; basically, the lowest common denominator. Be that true or not, it is not the BBC's job to perpetuate this - they have the budget, the mandate and the position within public life to be able to offer something different. This in a way cuts to the heart of the BBC's current existential dilemna. To what extent does it chase ratings in an 'inclusive' way that justifies a universal license fee ("A BBC for everyone" etc.), or is it's chief function to provide what other channels cannot?

This Week shows us that the the Corporation is not particularly confident in its own skin, that it thinks itself too high brow. If it's historical mantra is to "inform, educate and entertain", it is increasingly jettisoning the first two in pursuit of a narrow vision of the latter. Obviously it's important that the BBC 'does' low-brow at some point in its schedule, but should this really extend to late night political discussion shows? Likewise, Question Time is becoming increasingly devoid of public intellectuals or commentators, instead favouring bland 'talent' (think Adam Rickett!) who usually have very little to say. You can even see it running through programs like Match of the Day 2, with its growing tendency to throw in some wacky illustrative graphics - no, calm down, just show us the football!

The BBC's role is to be a standard bearer for quality. It may think by making essentially serious programs more zany that it will fend off accusations of elitism, but by so prolifically lowering itself to its rivals level it trivialises both its subject matter and, in turn, itself. It's like a close friend who constantly competes for your attention by randomly throwing in slang words and wearing a cap backwards. Just be yourself, mate!

A further response to 'Politics - why bother?'

I've had another response to my first blog on political apathy. After Joe kindly sent me his the other day, Josh sent me something adding to it, putting a slightly different slant on it. Anyway, it's great and I wanted to stick it up here!


Steve, I think, is quite right to say that people are beginning to feel othered from politics, and it is barely worth reminding ourselves of the many reasons for this. Chief among these are the discrediting of politicians as a class of people, misunderstandings about the levers of politics, and a series of policies that appear to be against the majority of people’s wishes. Some of these can be alleviated – I don’t say solved – by cosmetic reforms to politics, but fundamentally, I don’t think you can justify politics without making the case for political participation.

There are three arguments for politics, I think. The first is that it is in people’s self-interest. Not only is it the ‘process of power and decision-making distribution’, but it is more mundanely the setting of your tax bill and the management of public services.

Parties aren’t always clear about their politics, politicians often appear to require limited liability before they back policies, but taking manifestos and tone into account, I think lots of people do make decisions based on their personal interests. Furthermore, I think that triangulation and depoliticisation are much more limited than they were.

The second argument is a lot like Steve’s politics as the continuation of morality, but I would prefer to term it justice. The good life, as you both say, is a motivation to vote and a lot of people do think about justice in politics. You only have to look at support for the army, if not the policy, as a symptom of what is acceptable, and if Brown does lose the next election I criticism of his defence policies will cost him a considerable number of votes. The one thing I will say about just politics, is that they require even more considerable advocacy, and a lot of office holders tend to be more cautious.

Finally, we have what I call the liberal argument for politics. An active interest in politics is the small bit of ground between men and women who take what is given to them without regard to themselves, and men and women who take what they want without regard to others. If you state that case plainly, I think you will find that most people will admit that politics is integral to their self-respect and that if they are uninterested in politics, they are probably demoralised.

It just so happens that as I type, I have been watching The People’s Politician on BBC2, which makes the quite convincing case that most people do not know which levers they should pull in response to the issues that matter most to them. The constitution that we really need is the one that tells us where power lies. Unfortunately, it would almost certainly have to be published annually to take reform into account.

I think it is ironic that we look to an age known as the era of consensus as a time when people were more interested in politics and yet criticise our own leaders for their broad similarity. I will admit that this doesn’t help the view that voting doesn’t change anything, and nor do broken manifesto commitments or large protests that have little effect.

These are often necessary, however. The problem, I think, can be offering too much. The vagueness of New Labour’s ambitions have ultimately served it ill. Where broad swathes of people once felt they could buy in, they now feel excluded because the government hasn’t delivered their agenda. Obama has proved much the same. He hasn’t changed the way politics happens at all, and it remains to be seen whether he will change the mood of American politics.

It’s interesting that Steve raises the common identity that Americans seem to feel. Part of the success of their government is indeed that the constitution is revered, and that it has lasted. I’m also glad that you raised the phenomenon of the Tea Party, which is an interesting and important phenomenon and probably more revealing than popular election is in America.

There is a wonderful civic tradition in America that exists outside government. Barack Obama is an example of it when he talks of his role as a community organiser – a novel idea in Europe. But it is the art of association that make citizens out of people. They educate, organise and arouse the passions of people and offer a compliment, but also an alternative to Westminster politics. On the other hand, they are dependent on a certain level of acquaintance with politics and education.

I disagree substantially only that politics happens all in Westminster. In today’s Britain, policy, in contrast to politics, is a fast-developing industry. The contracting out of public services has led to a proliferation of policy departments, all offering more or less informed comment on government. We could see more elected mayors and more powerful local councils. The Internet may provide the transparency and wealth of information that is not afforded by our national system, but it is still a bewildering trail of responsibility.

Talk of the good life does not serve the politics I have argued for particularly well. Instead of grand visions, which are often poorly-defined, politics needs a more pragmatic bent. Low confidence and poor education militate against political-engagement, but they are not irreversible. Otherwise we leave politics to the likes of us who love the intellectual glamour of it. Scary thought.

Some immediate thoughts:

I think talking about politics as justice is a useful way of illuminating what we're talking about. I would say the main problem is there are too few differing conceptions of justice in our politics. That doesn't mean I just want people to imagine 'the good life' and fight for it in a prescriptive, abstract sense. That is just half of it. Fundamentally I mean conceptions of justice in a diagnostic sense, if that's not too arsey. That is to say, how one makes sense of the world. Take the 'Peoples Politician' program Josh mentions. It's clear from the program that people don't necessarily engage on the level of grand ideas; they want drains unblocked, bolders moved and so on. That's perfectly natural. The trouble is they have no story to tell themselves about why their drains remain unblocked (other than perhaps 'politicians don't care') – rather than, for instance, privatisations, sub-contracting or cut backs in public services. Blocked drains or pot-holes are taken in an individual, atomised sense – they aren't thought about collectively, as part of a wider political narrative. These issues are political, but they aren't politicised. Hope that's not putting too fine a point on it, but I hope this argument can take us away from the 'pragmatic bent v. intellectual glamour/grand visions' dichotomy Josh presents at the end.

The decline of trade unionism is difficult to avoid here, given it linked up the 'pragmatics' of politics and the wider, more socialist vision that was predominant in the Labour party until the late 1980s. This isn't a call to revive socialism or a hankering over the old battles of the 1970s per se, but I think we really feel the lack of alternative narratives and beyond the green movement, or some social democratic elements in Labour/Lib Dems, there is little prospect of this changing.

Anyway, i've done that angle to death. I think Josh is spot on to talk about levers. Efficacy is the key word here and it was implicitly flagged up throughout the 'Peoples Politician', too. People have to see that making the effort is worth it. Just how impotent most Mps are to effect the wider problems stares us in the face here, and we need to go beyond reductive ideas that re-balancing power between executive and legislature necessarily equals 'gridlock', but that's another discussion. I also agree that education is vital – what excuse is there to not be taught an overview of the different political ideologies, rather than just institutions, in secondary school or six form? I've heard it said that teachers will foist their own agenda on kids, but I don't see why that is unavoidable – it hasn't necessarily been so in other controversial areas, like RE or History.

That said, I can't help thinking that talk of education is too easy. If we both agree that civil tradition is vital and that the UK has too little of it, can something so deep seated simply be changed through education? I think the problems are fundamentally situated and perpetuated by our constitutional set up, which limits the influence people can have outside the ballot box. The solution is not just teaching people 'where power lies'; I think that fact is actually part of the problem.

On politics happening in Westminster; I disagree that this is really changing. The battles may be fought in ever changing spheres, but the war still unfolds in central London. The way it reaches us, which is what i'm most interested in here, is still predominantly filtered through the political-media class in Westminster. Mark Oaten touched on this – no matter where politicians go or on what platform (real or cyber) they speak, they always stop to think: “How will this play with colleagues, the media”, I.e Westminster. Furthermore that policy is formulated elsewhere doesnt mean people necessarily feel they can influence it there. More elected mayors might help things, but local politics actually has to matter to shift where we get our politics from so to speak, and in the context of huge centralisation, the hardly noble standing of councillors/local organisers and a withering of the local press, I'm not too hopeful. That said, the powers and position the London Mayor has in the cities concious is a source of optimism.

Anyway, i've once again written too much! Really appreciate the response and hope more will follow :-)

Saturday, 13 March 2010

A response to 'Politics - why bother?'

Just wanted to put up a great response my friend emailed me to my post the other day on politics and apathy. Not so much an argument against but just a different perspective on it.


I agree completely that the use of language is vital, in fact I might go as far to say that it the most important thing. So, aware of the limitations of our tools, let me offer a slightly different angle on ‘politics’ and ‘the political’.

I see ‘politics’ as the process of power and decision making distribution. In this, I wouldn’t limit it to states or government but wherever agreement is sought, on a course of action or dispute resolution. People recognise this process inherently involves give and take – see the popular usage of the phrases ‘office politics’ and ‘family politics’ to mean the ways by which those structures reach consensus (however successfully). Note that politics doesn’t apply in a strict command structure, no accommodation is necessary between the views of army generals and privates. Politics is the ‘art of the possible’ of compromise and deal making.

‘The Political’ on the other hand is a conception or explanation of society and the ‘good life’, (something you alluded to in your summarising paragraph) whether it’s at a local, linguistic, level as you describe or in formulating and applying a systematic explanation and solution to the perceived woes of society. So, feminism is right to assert that ‘the personal is the political’, our societies vision of harmony is in the family as we define it.

You are spot on about American exceptionalism – the deification of the ‘founding fathers’ has built an axiom upon which all American discourse rests, ‘the political’ has been set and as you say interpretation is the game (at which FDR was the master in the framing of the four freedoms and claiming of the mantle ‘liberal’). Consider then, the counterexample a British society where the state and the distribution has come about entirely by ‘politics’. The evolution of the UK has been through power accommodating and compromising itself in the pursuit of its own maintenance – as inspiring as the Magna Carta is, it’s essentially a deal as later the mollification of burning class conflict would be. That is not to say that actors within British history were not political, but there are no set truths of the British political. (This is not necessarily a bad thing, post-war we were able to re-define national success from imperial glory to basic welfare.)

However, despite this, I think the causes of apathy in both countries (and indeed many others) have similarities, in the inability for the practioners of ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ to respect each other’s discipline. There is a conception of both forces as almost viral – able to infect and damage people and institutions. This is most clearly seen in the ritual disappointment of politicians who win support with a inspiring vision of society (‘the political’) but are forced to compromise, take symbolic positions. They’ve ‘caught’ politics. This can be observed clearly (and frequently) but the reverse is also true. Those who focus on more practical issues and outcomes resent the imposistion of doctrines, ideology and ‘the political’ as at best naivety or indeed as dangerous, blind to practical consequences. Its often expressed as the populist cry of ‘why can’t we/they just sort it out?’ meaning don’t take – infected – decisions to fit your system of beliefs. Constieunts feel equally alienated from a representative who is engaged in constant horse-trading and one who checks her bible or das kaptial before every vote.

With both ‘politics’ and ‘the political’ having been perjoritised important parts of public life are ‘taken out of politics’. The Supreme Court or the Bank of England montary policy committee take vitally important decisions supposedly devloved of all ‘politics’ and ‘political’ factors. Now I can see the obvious vast merit in both bodies, their decisions are respected by particpants (litigants or the market) because of their structure and have mostly been quite wise. But it is lunacy to pretend that these decsions actually took place quarentined from eitheir ‘politics’ or ‘the political’ – witness the court’s (admitadly occasional) acqiuenscene to public opinion or the backgrounds of BoE governers and Fed chairmen (Greenspan was famously close to Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand!). I raise this because, as Habermas would descirbe it, these decisions have now been ‘de-coupled’ from public interaction.

One way out of this ‘toxicfication’ trap is shown by President Obama whose campign was in many ways a ‘politcal’ defense of ‘politics’. He emphasised America’s unity and assert the value and importance of using ‘politics’, and democracy, to improve the ‘good life’. Naturally, we can see this didnt last long but all of society and culture has to be continually re-asserted and as activists we must promote not only our issues but politics as the field for them.


Some quick thoughts:
Only point I disagree with is politics as the 'art of the possible' in a restrictive sense; in so far as I think it implies politics or government as an essentially practical process. I think we should see parliamentary politics, for instance, as the arena where different ideologies or views of the 'good life' robustly exchange views and force one another to different positions. The trouble comes when there is no broad range of ideological views or one over-whelmingly dominates. Then politics becomes what I think you see in the UK today; largely managerial, where pragmatism is an ideology in itself. Pragmatism should be a position argued to, rather than one started from; this just serves the political status quo. We shouldn't see, I don't think, Obama as 'catching politics', but rather engaged in a struggle against other ideologies that have a significant advantage in American politics for lots of reasons, and that have watered down his proposals, have forced him to be 'pragmatic'.

His side needs more dogmatic advocacy, rather than defeatism from the left which sees politics as grubby, as Martin Kettle beautifully outlines here. This is where I think that FDR quote from the first post has most resonance: he wants to and we must make him etc.

Anyway, i've blabbered on for too long here. Really interesting response, any more would be greatly welcomed :-)

Friday, 12 March 2010

The meaning of MUST and Manchester United's green and gold revolution

Following the Beckham endorsement, I thought now would be a good time to write on Manchester United fans anti-Glazer protests. They are really interesting from a number of angles, not all footballing. They seemed impossible in spring 2005, when I faintly remember my Dad and I rather forlornly traipsing down Sir Matt Busby Way with others who were handing out leaflets for Shareholders United (SU) around Old Trafford. SU were belatedly trying to rouse support from United fans to buy enough shares in the club to prevent the Glazer takeover. They failed to do so, most fans did not care, and SUs impotence compounded the profoundly depressing spectre of seeing one of the worlds most prosperous clubs saddled with the £650 million of debt (now £717 million after refinancing), which the Glazers had borrowed to leverage the buyout. To meet eye-watering interest payments alone they have since ratcheted up ticket prices, introduced abominable ticket schemes, under-invested (not one penny net) in the squad and personally siphoned money from the clubs accounts for personal use.

Thousands have since boycotted and protested from 'the outside' but now a huge swell of resistance to Glazers reign has taken hold from inside Old Trafford too, taking the form of vocal, prolonged anti-Glazer protests and banners during games. Its been brilliantly visualised by fans casting aside the clubs famous red colours to don it's original 19th century green and gold, “until the club is sold” (see here from 1.10 on for a great example). This has coincided with the emergence of a group of partially-United supporting bankers - the 'Red Knights' - who are working with Manchester United Supporters Trust (SU's reincarnation) to launch a bid for the club, as well as public endorsement by United legends past and present (probably).

But it would be wrong to view, as done here, the protests as simply a matter concerning Manchester United fans, or even football per se. It is rather, as one of the Red Knights has said, a kind of “social phenomenon”. In fact, it's not much to do with the team – United have been successful on the pitch in spite of the Glazers.

The anti-Glazer movement implicitly (whether it knows it or not) challenges the idea of a football fan as a passive consumer, an atomised observer of their clubs fortune. It's mostly being driven by a hardcore bulk of fans pissed off on a broader scale with the commercialisation of the club, and football, that has taken it away from what they perceived it should or was intended to be (hence the old colours). Not least this is things like not being able to stand, smoke or drink on the terraces as well as the pricing out of the clubs working class fan base, all of which have long been blamed for the decline in matchday atmosphere and experience.

By demanding and attempting to force the Glazers to sell the club to owners who would put fans at the centre of its operation, the anti-Glazer protest looks to claw back the idea of a clubs principle responsibility to its most passionate fans; it looks to re-place it within its 'community'. An alternative club set up by those who boycotted in 2005, FC United of Manchester, works as a model for this. The G&G protests have also given some previously alienated fans a new sense of identity, a kind of rebel spirit that distances them from the 'asian tourist' or 'gloryhunter' stereotypes surrounding United fans (many of United's hardcore fans have long seen wearing red replica shirts as 'plastic' or synonymous with these stereotypes).

The anti-Glazer protests have worked as a rallying point vocally and visually, on top of just looking pretty damn cool. It also lets a lot of people feel like they are a part of something. This last point shouldn't be understated. To this end, it's interesting to look at the way different anti-Glazer protests are constituted.

MUST is a more traditional, hierarchical activist organisation which draws on the volunteered experience of a small band of dedicated professionals to plot strategy. It lobbies Manchester United, the government and places stories in the press. More recently it's liaised with potential buyers for the club. Equally as important is its role in disseminating information among fans and the media on the clubs finances/debt, putting it in a firm position to dispute and undermine the club's official “nothing to see here” line. This was especially critical around the time the Glazers revealed their bond prospectus.

But it's probably fair to say that MUST owes its (now over 130,000 strong) mailing list, and the G&G movement more broadly to word of mouth among spontaneous groupings of United fans. Though Twitter and Facebook has played a part, this is mostly centred around networks of hardcore, match going fans and particularly on Red Issue forum (which conceived the green and gold idea) where a lot of those fans exchange ideas on protests as well as tips on “how to get a shit stain out of a pool table”, obviously.

Both MUST and the G&G 'movement' need each other to sustain momentum. G&G could easily have fizzled without MUST's efforts surrounding the Red Knights, yet such defining pictures as this could scarcely have occurred without the more organic forms of protest, nor could MUST alone have engineered such ubiquitous and accessible form of protest as G&G.

The anti-Glazer movement, then, currently has its foot both inside and outside of institutions, and Old Trafford, to great effect. So far, it has shown the utility of various forms of power and protest; it has publicly humiliated the Glazers in front of their sponsors (as club attempts to rip banners down and silence players show), which has put pressure on them to sell up and are close to providing them a money-making route out. It also spreads awareness and encourages people to boycott, which is where fans can have the most immediate impact.

However MUST has yet to explicitly endorse an outright, wholesale boycott. Here they face a dilemma that possibly threatens it's symbiotic relationship with the G&G movement. It could end up alienating its hardcore element if its seen as not standing up to the club sufficiently and in the way deemed most effective. Plenty of fans, though, still can't bring themselves to boycott and resent the implication that they're a lesser fan for it. Here MUST may re-ignite old divisions over the virtues and efficacy of fighting from 'within' or 'without'. Neither is it certain that enough money will be found to convince the Glazers to sell or to wipe Uniteds debt, nor how the essentially corporate-minded Red Knights would actually implement the fan-centred model it has promised.

However, whatever occurs in the following months or years the anti-Glazer protests have been pioneering. It has over-come cynicism time and again from within its own base and from opposition fans. It has shown how effective activism can be when enough people care to think and act collectively, especially when institutional and non-institutional, old and new, confrontation and collaboration styles of protest are combined cohesively. There are signs that it's working as a template for other fans, even among hated rivals, who have been similarly shafted by greedy owners. Building on the APPG Football report, pressure should also be brought to bare on the government and footballing authorities to implement changes which would consolidate fans aims. To this end, hopefully the meaning of MUST and the G&G movement will be to start to re-shape ideas of what ownership means, the way fans think about football and football in turn thinks about fans, an era where financially ruinous leaches like the Glazers are an unpleasant memory. Keep the faith!

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Politics - why bother?

It seemed appropriate that this blog should start by questioning its own existence. It's fair to say that in the UK today there is a great deal of apathy surrounding politics. I wanted to try and sketch out some thoughts on why this is, some things that might alleviate it but also why it should be alleviated. That is, why we should actually give a shit about politics.

I think the nub of the problem and the solution is in the distinction between politics and the political. Politics is probably best understood as the public square, the arena where the collective issues of the day are fought out. The purest manifestation of this is Parliament. But it's slightly wider than that; it's current affairs, it's the sphere in which priorities and ideas jostle for attention, converging and congealing to form the surface of what we call public life. This is mostly played out by the politicians, their staff and the media class in Westminster.

But the political is something else. It's the way we construct our daily realities, construe who 'we' are against who 'other' people are. It's the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of things. How for instance, do you interpret a homeless man you might encounter on your walk to work – how did he get there and whose fault is it? What I think might determine whether I give him some change. Our answers are mostly defined by the language we use. Is someone a benefit scrounger or are they forced to subsist off the state? (do they 'claim' benefits or do they 'receive' them?). Does a banker 'earn' their bonus or do they 'pocket' them? And so on, you get the idea.

The problem in the UK today, I think, is the detachment of politics from the political. This is not just because the politico-media class in Westminster is obsessed with point scoring over gaffes, splits and coups rather than 'the issues'. They are, but it's because the issues get conscripted into that point scoring. It's claim and counter-claim. Point scoring becomes a matter of survival even for those with the purest of intentions.

In this environment, understandably, 'party lines' emerge to save embarrassment. A game is created between politicians and the media in Westminster with it's own internal, self-perpetuating logic; what one should and should not say publicly. As this re-creates itself, the terms of the debate become ever more narrow, ever more distant from the political. "Fine", one could argue, "politics has always involved point scoring". But add in 24 hour news cycles and the post-Cold War decline of socialism as the credible, alternative vision of society and politicians, and politics, is talking at us more while saying less than ever before.

Whatsmore, the public are told by the media, rather one sidedly (think The Thick of It, Peter Oborne, Andrew Rawnsley et al), of this process and are thus inoculated against what they perceive as spin. In this context, politicians are 'othered'. They appear to us buttoned up, awkward, blathering in a language unrecognisable; they are not one of us (this can happen to anyone to be fair. I, for instance, thought of calling this post 'the anatomy of apathy', a title so po-faced and remote that it could only be the product of a mind which has read too many political science journals!). Thus, when politicians do get the chance to spell out a different vision of society it's pretty sanitised and by then we already have a tin ear to them.

The result is pretty damning for the way we view private and public life. As we become disconnected from politics, current affairs become events that just happen, things just are. The intrinsically political stories we tell ourselves in private life are unhooked from public life. Perhaps we blame the government (“they”, “the politicians”) or 'the way of the world' in an abstract and rather arid sort of way, but there is no vocabulary in the public ether with which to grasp and articulate a better vision of society, no political overlay through which events can be viewed. The result is it becomes extremely difficult to convince people that politics shapes our lives, not just through determining the allocation of resources, but through representing our collective conscious; politics as morality in practice, as Vaclav Havel termed it.

Making this point, historian Tony Judt recalls his experience of listening to exhausted British passengers on a train regale one another contently about their exhaustion and frustration with civil servants, doctors and politicians; not once did they join up the political dots or get angry. Things just were.

It would be disingenuous if we didn't ascribe this malaise in very large part to the post Cold War consensus on free-markets and business. Hopefully the financial crisis will open up new space for a more social democratic vision which may alter received wisdom in Westminster, but there's no room to bang on about that too much here. What is also true, however, is that despite considerably more consensus on economics, American political life doesn't show the same disaffection. On this, Irving Howe wrote brilliantly in Politics and the Novel:

"The Americans see political life as an autonmous field of action.... Personalizing everything, they could not quite do justice to the life of politics in its own right.... Personalizing everything, they could brilliantly observe how social and individual experience melt into one another so that the deformations of the one soon become the deformations the other."

As the Tea Party movement shows, Americans might get angry with government, or even not vote, but at least they actually get angry; most do it with an alternative vision of what they think America should be. This hints at the issue of citizenship. Politics and the political are inexorably connected in the US through the constitution, which enshrines certain universal values to individuals. With this language in the ether, most political argument or rational is centred on differing interpretations of such values – what is life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness? Etc. This lends itself much better to thinking about ones relationship with the state or to ones community. Despite the despair of the Bush years, this helped give rise to the activism which propelled Obama into the White House in a manner British politics cannot presently hope to replicate.

A UK constitution might help shape what it means to be British, what our rights and obligations are by giving us some shared concepts the meaning of which we can contest.

This is all very abstract, however. The main problem in the UK is that politics only happens in one place: Westminster, or at least London. Our electoral system breeds an obsession with the swing voter. The efficacy of engaging in politics is pretty poor too, with few access points (especially given we still have, ludicrously, an unelected upper chamber) and a Government which castrates Parliament. Clearly the whole system needs to be bust open, but we can't do this as long as talking about politics remains uncool or remote. Speaking to an activist on reforms, Franklin Roosevelt said “I want to do it, now make me”. In my very brief experience, politicians or public servants are not bad people, they just live in their own worlds with their own rules of survival. We can and must change these rules to make politics political again and to start thinking collectively. We have to recover an idea of politics as morality in practice. We have to believe that politicians, power or political institutions are not inherently dirty things; that instead they have the capacity to articulate differing visions of the 'good society'. They want to, we must make them.