Inaugural Lecture Review: In Defence of Politics

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Andrew Geddes moved swiftly towards the podium. The entire lecture theatre at St George’s Church immediately fell silent. Geddes begins to describe the academic career of Matthew Flinders, who sits across the stage looking humbled yet confident. A prolific author with established expertise on governance and contemporary democratic drift, Professor Flinders took to the podium and addressed the audience.

The argument that Flinders would like to present could not have come at a more apt time. Contemporary British politics has been destroyed in the eyes of many people, and is now in desperate need for reconstruction. The General Election gives us ‘fresh hope’ that things will get better. However, this one day, 07 May, will be overshadowed by the next five years to come. And so, Flinders wishes to adopt Bernard Crick’s famous work In Defence of Politics and develop its core to the politics of today. In his inaugural lecture, Flinders has predominantly attempted to defend politics against society, the media, the market, depoliticisation, and crises. A central theme of this is the ‘expectations gap’ that has run a deep chasm between society and politics.

‘The public have become decadent’. The accusation against society could not be any more stark. And yet, it is clear that in the eyes of Flinders, society has become too lax, too expectant of politicians, and too dependent on the media. Society has shaken off its responsibilities as popular citizens and forgotten its own important role in the political process. Flinders gives countless examples and creates a convincing account of the way in which the public have lost interest in the political process – despite the fact that this process saves and shapes our very lives. To some extent, we have done this simply because politics has become too complex. The issues that the main parties argue around have converged, leading to much finer arguments, hidden in details. This is, however, evidence for one thing – politics generally does work. There are little things that parties would do differently in power, but on the whole, politics works. Furthermore, politics involves costs as well as benefits. It is that we seem to have taken for granted. The prosperous times since the collapse of communism have seemingly taken all our problems away – increasingly, the public expect more and demand more. This is impossible for politics to manage on its own, stretching it to breaking point. In this sense, society has sown the seeds of its own destruction. Is this justified? While Flinders may not think so, many of us would take issue with that – lost, government laptops left on trains, leaked documents, proposed smear campaigns, dodgy dossiers… It would be quick to fire off examples of how politicians and the civil service both are beginning to undermine what they stand for. Is it not that our most important attribute as a society is to hold our public servants to account and remain critical of their performance?

Needless to say, the expectations gap has blown out of every possible proportion, with a single most important cause – the media. In defence of politics against the media, Flinders holds no restraint. The media intentionally dumbs down all content to divide every political issue into black and white. It has eradicated every inch of grey in the democratic process and consensus in the minds of individuals. Artificial dividing lines between political parties, drawn up purely by the media, have been the main wedge between expectations, promises and governance. It is the media that has created Punch and Judy politics which has inherently destroyed every politician. Therefore, one could plausibly agree with Flinders’ argument that journalism only adds to the inflation of the expectations gap. His arguments are certainly based in truth, and throughout the lecture this theme of pure hate against the media, albeit relentless, has a degree of honesty in it. The Expenses Scandal 2009 is an excellent example. The Daily Telegraph, our supposed messiah watching over democracy, has painted all MPs as selfish, corrupt and intent on destroying our democracy. And yet the Daily Telegraph does not exist as a public service – it exists to make money. The true expenses scandal involved less than a third of all MPs. Most MPs are just – a few are just very awful.

The tendency of the media centres on their deep desire to sustain ‘moral panics’. Generally, “crises” are exceptional circumstances in profoundly difficult times. But for the media, “crises” are daily activities involving the general rhythm of life. The media is orientated towards crises, indeed it lives off them. They are entirely socially constructed ideas. True crises, such as major wars, pervasive human conflict or natural disasters are few and far between. It has led to ‘crisis inflation’ and ‘blame allocation’. Politicians are increasingly serving a cathartic role, rather than serving their true role as public servants.

The media, as well as society, ignore the slow, dirty, hard work that goes into honest politics. It involves messy compromises, cumbersome discussions and fruitless analyses. Yet this is the price that we must pay for democratic, stable governance. It is also something that the media refuses to acknowledge. Both society and the media now demand full transparency of all politicians. But by binding the hands of the government in this way, it simply cannot govern. Instead, politicians are reduced to crisis management and persuading disengaged voters that following the advice of an unelected, independent commission is the right thing to do.
It is this depoliticisation that has led to a surge in public expectations against a minimal rise, in cases even a fall, of public deliverability. It has become the favourite pastime of MPs to delegate responsibility to unelected bodies. Too often does this shift power away from democracy towards an unelected elite. Depoliticisation may change the arena of politics and decision-making away from the House of Commons – but this does not change the social significance of decision-making, nor will it change the perception of politicians. Flinders’ remarkable insight draws on something that we, as an electorate, often take for granted, which means that any decisions contrary to societal demand become excruciatingly difficult. Flinders’ point should not be ignored, yet he has left us wondering what possible solutions exist. Democratic theory today is awash with deliberative theories of reengagement by empowering society through “citizens assemblies”. Flinders implies that society would not benefit from it, yet unfortunately fails to give us any reasons in this lecture.

Flinders really does attempt to swim against the tide on this issue. Public trust in politicians is at rock-bottom. And yet, here Professor Flinders stood before as declaring that politicians are not all bad. To what extent are his arguments sound? Certainly, they are not infallible. Perhaps his views on the critical nature of society are too negative, and his cry against the idea of depoliticisation too great. However, as this article has attempted to show, his work does have a powerful resonance with the truth. It is time to ignore the critic, the journalist and the commentator, and look to the man or woman in the political arena. It is this person, willing to make his hands dirty, willing to take the heavy weight of responsibility, and willing to make his or her entire life public that truly matters.

Article by Marc Geddes. Edited by Kate Banks.