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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Why we need healthy scepticism - not corrosive cynicism

I have just finished a short book which I consider a model for the sort of writing which these troubled times of ours very much needs. Matt Flinders may be an academic – but he came up the hard way and, unlike most academics, he’s interested in communicating with the wider public. His Defending Politics – why democracy matters in the 21st century marks the 50th anniversary of a book which impressed me a lot when I first read it in my university days - In Defence of Politics by Bernard Crick (1962).
Indeed the argument in Crick’s book that politics was an important and honourable activity probably played a role in my becoming in 1968 a local politician - and occupying a senior, reforming position in the West of Scotland for more than 20 years
Of course the election in 1964 of a Labour Government – after 13 years of Conservative rule – was another important influence. As was my interest in regional development and politics - and the writings of Labour and leftist intellectuals such as Tony Crosland and John Mackintosh. The latter was a tutor of mine whom I met subsequently in parliament to discuss his take on local government reorganisation and devolution – Crosland the author of the definitive The Future of Socialism (1956) whom I had been honoured to host when he visited local party HQ in my home town…..

Fifty years ago, graduates like me didn’t need inviting to get involved in politics – we had role models and change was in the air….The older generation patently needed replacing, we thought, and we were the ones to do it.
How different things are fifty years on! Cynicism has been at full blast for at least the past decade – with politicians dismissed as self-serving and useless……

Flinders’ book is a counterblast to all this, suggesting that the language of “rights” and “consumer choice” conceals deeper forces which have undermined our understanding of the necessarily incremental and collective “give and take” of the political process.   
He identifies 8 key factors which have made an impact in the past half century…..listed in the left-hand column. The rest of the table is my attempt to summarise his analysis – always a useful discipline!! I liked the book a lot – not least because it is short and yet is clearly based on a good grasp of extensive literature. But the last column indicates the inevitable weakness that comes from such a brave attempt to cover such extensive ground… 

The Basic argument of "Defending Politics"
Changes in Context
Line of argument
“Decline of deference”
Greater education, sense of security and of rights
Politicians and those concerned with politics need to show courage and realisml
“Growth of overload”
State overwhelmed by public expectations
Unrealistic expectations
“Move from government to “governance”
Privatisation, contracting out has led to more complex organisational structure
Inertia, impasse
Need to assert importance of “the commons” ie collective endeavour
“Growth of globalisation”
Not just economic but legal and informational
Blame can easily be shifted to impersonal forces
“Impact of technology”
Move away from door-to-door and personal; aggression on social media
Easy to find scapegoats
Need for cool voices
“Accountability explosion”
Range of agencies monitoring state bodies for performance
Blame culture
More realism
“Ideological blur”
Parties concentrate around the floating voter; journalists focus on trivia
Voters feel voiceless; opening for extremists

“Flight from reality”
Academics talking to one another rather than the public; media focus on trivia
Opening for extremists

What I particularly liked were the summaries each chapter gave of the argument to be conducted and the way he gathered 5-6 books together at various points to illustrate the various points he was making….He is particularly angry about the role journalism has played in the past couple of decades in the demonisation of politics. The recent collapse of Newsweek magazine is just the latest sign of the collapse of editorial standards - and the perversity of the business model based on reader clicks..... 
Flinders rehearsed the basic argument of the book in his inaugural Professorial lecture in  2010 – which you will find here on Alastair Campbell’s blog

Flinders' book indeed was one of the first of what seemed to be for a moment a veritable flood of books challenging the very relevance of political studies in at least the anglo-saxon world
Bridging the Relevance Gap; Matthew Wood (2014)
The relevance of political science; Stoker, Pierre and Peters (2015)

And Gerry Stoker’s Why Politics Matters – making democracy work; (2004; 2016) had anticipated the updating of Crick’s 1962 book…- as did Why We Hate Politics; Colin Hay (2007)

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