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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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis