The New Statesman Essay

Oliver Pauley, the winner of this year's Webb Essay prize, argues that, for all the bleating of the

Lord Acton observed that "the great sign of true patriotism, the development of selfishness into sacrifice, is the product of political life". He was right: politics is good for us. Our liberty, prosperity and justice are the inheritance of a long and intense western political tradition. Now, we hear, we have arrived; so history and politics are over. We live longer, happier, healthier lives of freedom and opportunity. Politics is the pastime of the wretched; we are content. The role of government is to manage: to manage the economy, stupid, and the media, stupidly.

So we do not love our governments. Nor do we hate them, very much. We may despise them, occasionally, or vote for them, less often still. But, outside Westminster, the shouting is over. In a globalised world, ideology is done for. In a devolved world, consensus is in. Women like it, apparently. In a world of increasing change, disengaged, isolated, we bowl alone and hope interest rates won't go up.

But.

Participation is not as low as all that. Civic society has never been stronger, for all the bleating of the nostalgic, anti-modern right. People demonstrate against fox-hunting, live animal exports and the rest. They care about the NHS and the pound.

Why? How can the disengaged, post-political world imagined by those who make a living out of globalisation theory and pseudo-academic futurology be squared with Westminster postbags? People write to their MPs more than ever before, and they are writing more every day. Why?

Because the wonks are wrong. On the one hand, the nostalgic, anti-modern right bemoans the changing of the world, the decay of old institutions and values, willing us back into a fabricated past. On the other, we are presented with a vision of an atomised, barren future of ever-decreasing participation, as society crumbles before the temptations of new technology.

Certainly the world has changed. It has got better. The old coercive, barren, endlessly self-replicating institutions of premodernity have been swept away. We are free to live as individuals. And the old question of how we should live, alone and together, the political question, is more personal and more pertinent than ever. Living together has at last started to produce the moral goods that the best men and women in all societies always hoped for. Individual charity could never have achieved what universal commitment has. Let the anti-moderns whine. Their villages and families and garden walls, and particularly their Christian church, had their chance. Between 330 and 1517, the material conditions of life, the education, the quality of experience and the freedom of the vast mass of the people of Europe improved not at all. And in traditional societies, where they survive, life is still shorter and more wretched than we could, or should, tolerate.

Modernity, modern states and societies have delivered. And, extraordinarily, as people have become freer, they have made the world better - through politics. The responsibilities of freedom are news only to the politicians. Political freedom has made the state the moral instrument of the people. We discharge our moral obligations through the state, because that way we can do more. We give 40 per cent of GDP to the state. Does politics matter? How could it not, with that level of commitment?

We do not give the state those pounds to no purpose. We expect something for it. The old cry was for "no taxation without representation", but now we want more than representation: universal welfare provision, universal healthcare, universal education. In other words, free people have freely pledged themselves to investment in equality and social justice. The greatest triumph of collective human life - the provision of security, health, protection and opportunity to all - is the product of political freedom and political life. We have never been more engaged, and Lord Acton never more right.

So why do so many people not vote? The distant chattering begins again: because ideology is dead, because government is powerless, because sound management cannot inspire, because no one cares.

But perhaps people don't vote because they no longer need to be involved in that way. Governments, and oppositions, are more responsive than they have ever been. They need less of a steer at election time. If there were a serious prospect of the end of the NHS, or state education, or a benefits safety net, participation would surely rise even higher. As it is, the armies of pollsters and focus groupies are asking for a steer every day. And what are the pollsters saying we want? What we all know we want. What we have paid for: for children to be well educated; for the sick and the old to be cared for; for destitution, desperation and despair to be addressed; for security and social justice.

We all enjoy the fruits of our freedom, by honouring the moral obligations towards each other that freedom brings. Politics is the how. But it is also the who. The big questions don't go away - it isn't just the "How should we live?"; it's the "Who are we?" and the "Why?". "All of us" isn't really all of us. It isn't really all humanity. But we are increasingly less sure of what the "we" is. The old model of the nation state appears threatened - reports of the death of the nation abound, particularly among globalisation theorists simultaneously charting the decline of state power.

It is the nation that is the foundation of political life. We are in it together, and the "we" is the nation. In peacetime, nationality is not about laying waste small Belgian towns. Nor is it simply a question of pounds and passports. The nation state may have given rise to the worst atrocities of man, but it has also been the site of the greatest achievements, notably the welfare state.

But things are changing, as they always do. What, now, are the obligations I owe to a neighbour, a Londoner, a northerner, a Scot, a Belgian, an African? An asylum-seeker? Someone who is the victim of political oppression halfway around the world? Where do the universal obligations of humanity shade into the national obligations of welfare, the local obligations of community or the personal duties of friendship and family? These are political questions, public questions in the old, high sense, and the answers will determine whether we continue to progress in the future, whether the world continues to get better, or whether we abandon the gains we have made and revert to lives that are not only nasty, brutish and short, but lonely, aimless and wrong.

That is the promise of the prophets of globalisation: a world without politics or common bonds, where identity is composed of consumer choices, where the globally cosmopolitan few again abandon the many to their fate. It must not happen. Where people do not feel bound together, they can do no good. But where they have made common cause, they have made progress. Politics, the common, public life of people in societies, has drawn us together. We do more for each other now than we ever have.

Yet we worry. We worry that the nation is too large to engage people, and too small to survive. We devolve upwards and downwards while, nationally, governments tell us we must do less with more, that the good old days are over, that we have become too rich to do what we know is right. These are the messages that feed on doubt. They exist in the wasteland outside society. There is no pasture here, they say, and would bring the desert into the heart of our society. People cannot connect with a government that would disconnect them from each other. And so we worry. We worry not least now about a referendum and a currency. Why?

We worry because marginal economic considerations are no match for questions of identity; because we are too political; because the politicians are not political enough. Where politicians hold up tables of imports and exports, people worry about identity. Where they offer referenda, people worry about sovereignty. Where they offer choices between Europe and Nafta, or even, in the depths of Tory nostalgia, the Commonwealth, people worry about Britain. This is deep custard, and shark-infested. But the old questions have not gone away, and it is their answers that will help us choose. Freedom matters, not sovereignty. The quality of justice, not the location of the court, secures our liberty. Prosperity counts for more than currency. What we have in common is more important than what divides us.

Where we have been free to do so, we have chosen a better future. We must do so again. Inclusiveness, the will to do all we can for as many as we can, the exercise of freedom in the pursuit of moral good: these are the stuff of politics and of communal life.

But everywhere the enemies of freedom, society and politics pine for the old, limiting institutions of injustice and oppression, or promise that technology will keep us apart while the institutions of social justice crumble. In the universe of the Old Testament, slaves might have built pyramids, but the free, together and unhindered, would have built a tower to heaven. In a world freed from the jealousy of a solitary God, the aspirations of co-operative life are sins no more, and their potential is unlimited. To give away 40 per cent of everything might once have been a sign of grace. Today, it marks a citizen. And we may yet come to realise that all those prepared to give are entitled to receive. We have nothing to fear from the free.

The strength of our common endeavour has made us free. It has given us the power to build the most just society in human history. It will protect us from the serious, as well as the frivolous implications of new technology. It will make us go further. The "perpetual augmentation of satisfactions" is more than a motor for spiralling consumption; it opens up new ways in which people's lives can be enriched, and provides new mechanisms to address the continuing deprivations and injustices that blight our society.

Remember Tom Paine's envoi: in the fullness of time, all the trees in the wood will blossom, except those that are rotten. We are not rotten. We have not yet done all we can. Of course politics matters.

This was the winning entry in this year's Webb Essay prize, sponsored by the NS, the Foreign Policy Centre and the Webb Memorial Trust. Essays were invited on the theme: "Does politics matter any more?" The judges were Mo Mowlam; Polly Toynbee of the Guardian; Mark Leonard of the Foreign Policy Centre; and Peter Wilby, NS editor