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!"

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war