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

New Statesman
The Houses of Parliment in the middle of the 20th century. (Photo: Getty Images)

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