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Review: Defending Politics - Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century by Matthew Flinders

Defending Politics: Why Democracy Matters in the 21st Century

Matthew Flinders

Oxford University Press, 224pp, £16.99

The late Professor Bernard Crick’s classic work In Defence of Politics was written, he said, “at a time of brittle cynicism about the activities of politicians”. That was in 1962. It has been downhill ever since.

Today, 50 years later, Matthew Flinders, a professor at the University of Sheffield, has attempted an update. He is facing a much greater challenge than Crick did. A flavour of the scepticism he has to confront may be gleaned from the opening clips of an excellent Radio 4 series Flinders produced last autumn (and strangely not referred to in this volume). It opened with a series of vox pops from citizens stopped, apparently at random, and asked what word they most associated with “politician”. The results were stunningly awful: “corrupt”, “rubbish”, “garbage”, “useless”, “liar” and “crook” were just a few of the responses.

Later in the programme, people were asked, “What have politicians ever done for you?” Again, the answers were unremittingly negative. If they are to be believed, most British citizens see no connection between the great social gains of the 20th century – pensions, free secondary education and health care, sick pay, redundancy pay, the minimum wage, protection from unfair dismissal – and the political process that brought them about. Indeed, some appear to believe that we live in the western European equivalent of a banana republic.

The question arises: how, in an age when most people are materially better off than they have ever been and allegedly better educated, have we managed to manufacture such stunning levels of ignorance, stupidity and indifference?

Flinders offers a number of explanations: unrealistic expectations, a fickle electorate, the triumph of the market over collective values and over the public interest in general, rampant consumerism and, above all, a feral and destructive media, made worse by the rise of so-called digital democracy.
Politicians get off fairly lightly – too lightly, in my view. Some disasters are self-inflicted: the great parliamentary expenses meltdown, to name but one. The rise of focus-group politics and, with it, a generation of politicians inclined to follow rather than lead. A reluctance to level with the electorate on difficult issues.

It is generally considered bad form for politicians to blame the electorate for their woes but Flinders, not being dependent on votes for a living, is under no such constraint. He talks of an electorate that is “politically decadent”, possessed of a growing sense of entitlement but
a diminishing sense of responsibilities, and too ready to believe the worst of the political classes without any understanding of the compromises necessary for democracy to function.

But it is for the media that Flinders reserves his worst scorn:

If we really want to understand how the public [is] misled, abused and exploited, how “false wants” and “false fears” are created, and why the ‘expectations gap’ is so difficult to close, then it is to journalists and the media, not just to politics and politicians, that we must turn . . . [A]ll too often they abuse their role and position by adopting a shallow and essentially destructive view of politics.

As Flinders points out, the task confronting the current generation of politicians is all the more difficult, since the evidence suggests that it will be their job to manage decline. Crick was writing in an age of abundance when it was taken for granted that the citizens of western states were entitled to an ever-increasing standard of living. All the signs are that the era of abundance is drawing to a close. It will be the job of politicians in a mature democracy to confront their citizens gently with the consequences of decline. Failure to do so risks eventual meltdown. The big question is whether our political system is capable of giving space to any mainstream politician or political party that tells them what they don’t want to hear. Thus far, the signs are not encouraging.

“I want to provoke a very loud debate about the need to revitalise politics by recruiting politicians with the nerve and confidence to make tough decisions,” writes Flinders. We need, he says, to replace the politics of fear with the politics of optimism. Admirable sentiments – but how realistic in an age of relentless cynicism?

Flinders, like Crick, offers an optimistic view of politics as a “great and civilising human activity”. To be sure, it is sometimes messy and muddled but it is, in essence, an honourable profession that exists to reconcile peacefully competing demands and guarantee the boundaries of civilised life and that, contrary to what is often alleged, has enjoyed a fair measure of success.

This is a brave effort. It is lucid, learned and occasionally repetitive but, unusually for a book by an academic, jargon-free. Above all, Flinders’s message is one that cannot be too often restated.

Chris Mullin’s third and final volume of diaries, “A Walk-On Part”, will be published in paperback by Profile Books on 7 June


This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.