Some of my earliest memories are of being a small child watching the television news with my father. There had to be quiet when the news was on. I learned that politics was important.
Politics was important, because it was rooted into people’s lives. Britain had an industrial economy and stable institutions which provided mass employment. Most of these jobs could be ‘jobs for life’, with security, the hope of regular pay rises, perhaps even a company pension in retirement.
This sense of ‘social security’ was explicitly political. People expected governments to serve their interests in a very direct way. From the cradle to the grave wasn’t just a slogan.
Democracy was lived in other ways, too. The two main parties had mass memberships, and they weren’t just for political anoraks. From Young Conservative dances as ‘marriage bureaux’ to Labour Clubs where a pint was affordable and the fellowship good, people had little cynicism about politicians as a group, even if there were always a few rogues around to add colour. Turnout in elections was high, because politics mattered.
Things don’t look much like that anymore. That old world, of which I saw the tail end, is long gone. The landscape today is utterly different.
That’s the easy question. The economy is radically different. The world is both smaller, and bigger, the nation-state of decreasing significance. Technological change has been massive, as epoch making as the industrial revolution. Social relations are different, too. These things can be experienced as unsettling, or as liberating. And there are, quite clearly, winners and losers.
One of the things we seem to have lost in all this is the culture of democracy.
Think of some of the follies of our political leaders. Blair and Bush invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Cameron’s “me, too” Libyan adventure. ‘Liberal interventionism’ which was meant to usher in a democratic future in those hapless countries.
I think they believed their own rhetoric. That democracy would flower in the bomb sites.
This fatal misapprehension was because they thought that democracy was something that came with a technocratic blueprint. Democracy, they believed, was a constitution, a voting system, an elected government, political parties, and honest bureaucrats to run a functioning state.
But those things are the exo-skeleton of a real democracy. Democracy is a culture, organic, rooted, built from the ground up, and always a site of contest, but one with clear rules, whatever the disparities in power.
Britain’s democracy was rooted in social institutions – trades unions, voluntary organisations, mass parties, lively and countervailing presssure groups, a 4th Estate holding power to account – which are either long gone, or in poor health.
You can’t impose a stable liberal democracy on a country whose traditions and allegiances are rooted in kinship groups and religious observance, with relatively weak urban middle classes – such countries have to fight their own battles for modernity, and in their own ways. And, alas, you can’t assume the continuing health of democratic culture in what have become, in part, our post-democratic societies.
That’s why we are here, in Brexit-Britain, or in Trump’s America, or elsewhere where the populist, nationalist right is rising. The things which once underpinned democratic culture have been weakened, badly.
The professionalisation of politics (as a business, like marketing, or public relations) effectively deracinated the political class. The voluntary institutions which socialised and educated the general public into an instinctive understanding of democracy have withered. Visible pressure groups have no traction compared to the hidden hand of lobbyists. The 4th Estate is now shrunken and degraded, almost entirely the playthings of oligarchs, except for the poor, cowed BBC.
In this context I have some sympathy for those seeking a return to ‘older’ ways of doing politics, from Corbyn’s wish to renew and empower a mass party membership, to the Lib Dem rediscovery of doorstep ‘community politics’ to rebuild from local government upwards, or even to Philip Blond’s fond hope that Theresa May will revive his communitarian ‘Red Toryism’.
But these are all puny ideas in the face of where we are.
We need a road map to renew democratic culture, to ensure that political socialisation and education reaches everyone, and we need new or revitalised institutions at all levels from the hyper-local to the international. It is a huge task. But one way or another, it must be done.
The alternative is unthinkable.