It's time to get involved again

Why Politics Matters

November 24, 2006

Why Politics Matters is an attempt to bring Bernard Crick's sprightly old warhorse In Defence of Politics up to date. It shares much of Crick's sense of what politics is and why it matters; and the success of the update can be judged from the fact that the Political Studies Association named it its Political Book of the Year.

Gerry Stoker himself is convinced that politics does matter (just as well, given his line of work) and healthily perturbed by the fact that in democracies -the sole surviving plausible candidates for respectable regimes - it appears to ever more of their citizens to matter less and less. This verdict has naturally been disputed by some social scientists as well as by those in the firing line; but as results in the social sciences go, it is remarkably uniform and notably strong. (You will find much the same if you consult your next-door neighbour or indeed your memory.)

The best part of the book is Stoker's discussion of this phenomenon and what is causing it. He rejects the view that what prompts it is better education, enhanced personal self-assurance among the citizenry, aggravated mendacity on the part of professional politicians or the relentless rise in the frivolity of the media, coming down (in my view not entirely plausibly) on the side of globalisation: the widening and deepening inscrutability of the field of our political exposure.

As an account, this lacks the immediacy of Rory Bremner, but it is sober, sensible, frank and consistently illuminating. I know of no more instructive treatment of this momentous topic.

The second half, as the subtitle suggests, discusses how to reverse this dismaying trend. It is well-informed and reflects some of Stoker's own most assiduous research efforts, especially on attempts to revivify local government by involving its presumed beneficiaries. The remedies it proposes are reasonable, and it cannot be said that there are clearly superior recipes on offer. But it is a warier and less assured piece of writing than the first half of the book and, in the face of the scale of the problem, the palliatives it offers seem fairly feeble.

How much this matters depends on how much politics itself does now matter. One conception of democracy is as a recipe for ensuring that politics ceases to matter to most of us (anyone not already addicted or locked in). If you think the governments of the rich and powerful countries in the world are failing disastrously at present (fiddling complacently while the globe smoulders), you will think that it matters a lot and that we should choose another conception of democracy and the claims it has on our lives.

Should you think that, you should read this book and think and act on it boldly for yourself. If you do not think so, you almost certainly will not read it, unless forced to as part of a captive academic audience. But the reasons you should read it are altogether more peremptory. In a democracy, the limits of your attention and comprehension must always be a large part of why it is not working.

John Dunn is fellow of King's College and professor of political theory, Cambridge University.

Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. First Edition

Author - Gerry Stoker
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 248
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 1 4039 9739 X and 9740 3

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