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Strenuous liberty

Party leaders come face to face with participatory democracy.

Many years ago, the American political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote a lovely little essay entitled "A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen". In it, he imagines a man who "hunts in the morning, fishes in the afternoon, rears cattle in the evening, and plays the critic after dinner" -- a beguiling portrait" he borrows from Marx's German Ideology.

Crucially, however, it's a picture that requires some elaboration (bear in mind that Walzer was writing in 1968, at the height of New Left enthusiasm for "participatory democracy"). For before he goes hunting in the morning, Walzer writes, this "unalienated man of the future is likely to attend a meeting of the Council on Animal Life, where he will be required to vote on important matters relating to the stocking of the forests".

And so on, through a special session of the Fishermen's Council and sundry other debates and disputations, with the result that "citizens will have to rush through dinner in order to assume their role as critics".

Behind Marx's huntin', shootin' and fishin' man, then, looms another figure: "the busy citizen attending his endless meetings". Socialism and participatory democracy, Walzer concludes, will demand "an extraordinary willingness to attend meetings, and a public spirit and sense of responsibility that will make attendance dependable and activity consistent and sustained". The problem with this, as Milton observed a few hundred years before Walzer wrote his essay, is that people often prefer "bondage with ease" to "strenuous liberty".

I was reminded of Walzer's observations today when I attended the General Election Assembly at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster held under the auspices of Citizens UK, which describes itself as "the national home of community organising, and the largest coalition of civil society organisations in the UK".

Today's assembly, at which Citizens UK presented its "general election manifesto" to the leaders of the three main parties, was itself the product of 12 months of meetings at which the body's member organisations (churches, mosques, synagogues, schools, charities, etc) had deliberated on a range of policies, preferences and aspirations that were ultimately distilled, in one huge exercise in participatory democracy, into six demands -- as follows:

* Recognise civil society and agree to an annual meeting with Citizens UK.
* Adopt the living wage in the public sector and champion it across the country.
* Create a 20 per cent interest-rate cap on all unsecured money loans and bring access to affordable credit to local communities.
* End the detention of children in immigration centres.
* Facilitate affordable owner-occupied housing through community land trusts.
* Introduce a one-off, conditional, "earned regularisation" for long-term irregular migrants (ie, a so-called amnesty).

That Methodist Central Hall (site of the first-ever General Assembly of the United Nations in 1946) was packed to the rafters with more than 2,500 delegates from member institutions (themselves representing countless thousands more) suggests that the people's taste for "strenuous liberty" -- the "extraordinary willingness to attend meetings" that Walzer said genuine participatory democracy, not to mention socialism, would depend upon -- is indeed growing.

And David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown, who addressed the Assembly in turn this afternoon, each made a point of praising the sheer dedication of those present: Cameron by co-opting them into his "big society" ("I talk about the big society," he said; "you are the big society"), Brown by inviting those who "say people are apathetic and indifferent" to take a look at Citizens UK. (Clegg, for his part, flattered the audience by offering a rather refined summary of his liberal commitment to the "dispersal of power" -- a relief to those of us who find that his "plague-on-both-your-houses"/"there-you-go-again" schtick is beginning to pall somewhat.)

The leaders were right to be lavish in their praise: Citizens UK is a reminder that civic participation tends to cultivate a sense of the common good. That's why John Stuart Mill, for instance, regarded it as desirable. For all its stirring, revivalist fervour (which is partly a function of the affliations of participants in Citizens UK, the overwhelming majority of whom come from faith-based groups of some kind), the event was also a reminder (and this is implied in what Walzer says in his essay) that political organisations, of whatever kind -- even heterogeneous, extra-parliamentary agglomerations like this one -- have a tendency to make a fetish of their own procedures.

There was lots of shouting out to delegates (I'm not sure, in fact, if this is the right term) from various London boroughs and, more unsettlingly, mass recitations of the manifesto pledges, which were flashed up on a large video screen, all of which delayed the leaders' speeches.

But when the moment for the speeches did finally arrive, it was, as my colleague James Macintyre has already observed, Gordon Brown who, for once, best matched his rhetoric to the occasion (though, in fact, he appeared to endorse fewer of the policies in the Citizens UK manifesto than either Cameron or Clegg). Where he usually bulldozes or bludgeons, here Brown soared, ending with a peroration that played Demosthenes off against Cicero ("neoclassical endogenous growth theory" this wasn't):

When Cicero spoke to the crowds in ancient Rome, people turned to each other when he had finished and said: "Great speech." But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece, people turned to each other and said: "Let's march!"