Owl of Minerva sought as MPs fail to talk turkey

February 7, 1997

Brian Brivati calls on academics to sweeten the foul air of politics with refreshing ideas. The first real skirmishes of the 1997 general election have left a nasty taste in my mouth. If this is as good as the debate gets, then there is a serious problem for democracy in the United Kingdom at the close of the 20th century. What can academics do? Our professional life is about thinking. Perhaps we should take our role as public thinkers a little more seriously. For a generation the academy has been an essentially inward looking place; I believe it is time we climbed out of our trenches.

Jeremy Paxman often glances at the camera as he attacks a politician. His look includes the viewer in his assault: come on, he says, we all know this is a game and we can all see the mendacity of this character's position. We feel grown up as we watch. Part of the club, included as players: the same feeling we have reading about American politics in Primary Colors or Dick Morris's memoirs. These are mature democracies at the close of the century and we understand how they work. Geoff Mulgan in this newspaper a few weeks back praised the quality of political debate and denied it was corrupt. The people who say otherwise, he implied, are the politically disappointed and those left behind in this post-politics world.

He and much of the policy world in which he operates seem to me more and more like generals in a bunker who have lost a war: they are moving imaginary intellectual armies around on a map of our political disillusionment. Perhaps I am just one of the disappointed.

My inclination is that what is needed is not further circulation of ideas among our policy generals. The big ideas exist. What is needed is connection between academic analysis, private feeling and practical politics. This might appear mere spin for a fluffy politics of lifestyle. In fact, it is a real challenge to democracy that more and more people are recognising.

I recently chaired seminars at Kingston University on the agenda for the millennium government. Anthony Seldon, historian of the Conservative party and the biographer of John Major, identified five core problems with British society: relative poverty, alienation and apathy, depression, insecurity and regional division. His solution was the notion of a contract between citizens and the state to force the recreation of a public sphere and thereby alleviate both the public and the private sense of despair by connecting people with their locality and through it the national state.

Seldon did not have a programme for making these connections but there are reforms being discussed, interesting ideas floating about. The failure of the last Parliament and the central challenge of the next is to restore public trust in the political process. This calls for a change in the way Parliament is run and a change in the nature of politics.

For example, is it not odd that we have Citizens' Advice Bureaux so that we can ask the state for help, but as citizens we have very few avenues open for us to give the state advice? Information technology, the Internet, video conferencing and so on might offer ways in which citizens can tell the state what they want.

If politics in an era of small government is about difficult choices, then citizens should be advising the state on what choices to make. This is just one idea, I assume there are many more.

Brian Brivati, senior lecturer in history, Kingston University.

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