As many commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, the scandal over MPs’ expenses reflects a deeper crisis of confidence in the state of UK politics. Further, the election of Barack Obama in the US on a manifesto of radical change and the protests in Iran clearly show the clamour for political transformation stretches beyond our shores. But these events have also presented a rare opportunity for voices calling for change to make themselves heard beyond the elite circles normally interested in such issues.
In the last of this year’s Reith Lectures (broadcast yesterday), Harvard professor Michael Sandel gave a compelling analysis of the problem. The world faces dire environmental, social and economic challenges with which our political systems seem wholly ill-equipped to deal. The narrow market-driven focus of politics devalues democratic debate by framing complex moral questions and value judgements in purely monetary terms. For example, he cited the over-reliance on cost-benefit analysis in making critical policy decisions. “It is a spurious science that shifts decision-making from democratic politics to technocrats,” he said. “Democratic government is radically devalued if reduced to the role of handmaiden to the market economy…We have come to think of public life as an extension of markets, as economics by other means. But a healthy democracy requires that we think of ourselves less as consumers and more as citizens,” said Sandel.
I was reminded of another talk I heard earlier this week on TED, where US educationalist Liz Coleman called for radical reform in liberal arts education. Coleman believes the goal of academia should be a system that promotes a breadth of interdisciplinary knowedge and a yearning to engage with real-world issues, rather than to create an elite of experts focussed on ever-narrower specialisms. This transformation, she argued, was also crucial to reinvigorating public engagement with politics. “There is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators,” she said.
In his Reith lectures, Sandel points out that if we are to succeed in creating a ‘politics of the common good’, then we must reinvigorate public debate and address the complex moral questions that underlie many of the monumental challenges we face. However, he offered few practical suggestions of how we might bring this new politics about and notably failed to examine the burgeoning potential of the Internet to facilitate debate and organisation among citizens.
Others, however, are certainly thinking along these lines. In his recent TED talk, respected social media guru Clay Shirky illustrates how the Internet and social media tools are already creating more bottom-up engagement with the political process - for example, empowering people to oversee the smooth running of elections by monitoring and uploading evidence of voter-suppression techniques at polling stations, or giving them the opportunity to organise and make their voices heard on particular issues.
But such bottom-up action also needs to be supported by top-down initiatives to bring the political process closer to the citizenry. This means introducing much more transparency across government, and putting in place mechanisms that allow public participation in decision-making. Again, the Internet and online social media today make this a much more realistic proposition. In The Independent last Friday, MySociety’s Tom Steinberg wrote: “One of the most pressing information problems the Internet can help solve is the problem of producing better laws, and new laws that more people have seen before they’re hit over the head by their practical consequences.”
Steinberg’s essay was part of a series the paper is publishing as a prelude to Monday’s Reboot Britain conference, which will explore how we can “take advantage of the radically networked digital world we now live in to help revive our economy, rebuild our democratic structures and improve public services”. Other essays in the series (by the likes of Lee Bryant, Andy Hobsbawm and Paul Miller) explore many more practical suggestions for transforming political engagement and tackling our national problems. The Guardian’s Activate 09 summit today (tagline: “Politics, economics, technology and society: Building a better future through the internet”) has been pursuing a similar agenda, and I’ve been following tweets with interest [edit: Roo Reynolds has now produced a great summary of the event here].
I’ll be attending Reboot Britain next week and look forward to hearing even more good ideas. But ideas on their own aren’t enough. Those of us calling for change need to build a momentum that becomes unstoppable, and that involves presenting a compelling vision of what our politics could be - a vision that captures the public imagination and puts the onus on politicians to respond with meaningful and lasting structural changes. Let’s show people what an engaged citizenry can really mean.