What is politics?
What is politics?

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What is politics?

4 Perspectives on politics

How do conceptual contests over the meaning and practice of politics translate to actual political practice? To try to unpack and answer that question, you will now be introduced to four people who engage in politics more than the average citizen:

  • Iain Stewart, the Conservative MP for Milton Keynes South since the 2010 general election
  • Matthew Parris, a columnist for The Times and a former Conservative MP
  • Bianca Todd of Left Unity, who is also involved with Community Courtyard, an organisation set up in memory of her grandfather, Ron Todd
  • Ivor Gaber, professor of journalism at the University of Sussex, teaching politics and political journalism.

The following audio introduces you to their perspectives on what politics is and why it is important. Iain Stewart, Matthew Parris, Bianca Todd and Ivor Gaber responded to two questions. First, they responded to the question of what politics is and why it is important. Click on their photos below to hear what each had to say.

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Transcript

Iain Stewart, Matthew Parris, Bianca Todd and Ivor Gaber: ‘What is politics and why is it important?’

Iain Stewart
Hello, I’m Iain Stewart. I’m the Member of Parliament for Milton Keynes South and I’ve been in office since the general election of 2010.
What does politics mean to me? It’s the interaction of lots of different issues that affect how we live. Those are local issues, national issues, international issues. Most issues interact with each other in some way, and when you’re making a decision you have to think through the consequences of each decision. It’s like playing a multi-dimensional game of chess. You have to think what would happen three, four, five moves down the road. Whatever decision you make has implications elsewhere at lots of different levels. And the job of a politician is to try and understand the complexity of the situation and think through the consequences of making a decision. And that might actually lead you to make a different decision from the one that you might have initially thought. And that’s why I find politics fascinating, because it’s the interaction of so many people and arguments, and spaces.
Politics is the safe way of resolving disputes. At every level of society, and globally, people compete for resources, for wealth, for lots of different things, and if you didn’t have politics to resolve these issues, you would have an armed conflict in some way. Now that still sometimes happens with politics, but it would happen a lot more if we didn’t have a civilised parliament or other forum through which to discuss and decide on all these issues.
Matthew Parris
I’m Matthew Parris, Times columnist and former Conservative MP.
As a journalist, politics is about stories, very much about human stories. About battles, about struggles between political parties, about ambition, about the rise of personalities and the fall of personalities, about revenge and backstabbing and all the things that newspapers love. I have to write about that and, to be honest, I enjoy writing about it. But the older I get, the clearer it becomes to me that politics, in the end, should be about administration: the administration of a country. People love to talk about change. I came into politics to bring change. Change is all very well, and sometimes things need to be changed, but a country also simply needs to be governed. Government is mostly about administration: sound administration, efficient administration. It’s about raising taxes, it’s about spending the money wisely, and these aspects of what I think politics really is tend to be rather lost in all the excitement about the warfare of politics.
Politics is what governs us, what governs a country. All human society, in the end, comes down to organisation. Every society must be organised: there must be leadership, there must be roles for people, people must be paid for what they do. Politics is about the organisation of society. Hopefully the good organisation of society. Bad politics brings you the bad organisation of society. But in organising society, what politics has to do is represent different and sometimes competing interests within society, so politics is also about balancing and adjudicating competing interests, hopefully in a fair way.
Bianca Todd
My name’s Bianca Todd and I am the principal speaker of Left Unity [at the time of interview], a new political party of the left brought about by a group of people who felt that there was a shift in politics and a gap for the left brought about by Labour’s move to the right. And I’m also involved with Community Courtyard, which is an organisation set up in memory of my granddad, Ron Todd.
My granddad was the General Secretary of the TGWU, which amalgamated with Amicus and became Unite the Union. So I come from a family where actually the principles of the trade union movement, such as social justice, equality and fairness, were right at our everyday living. They were the values which actually struck the heart of the family and what we had to live our lives by. I wasn’t a trade union member until very recently. However, I’ve been a trade union supporter all of my life.
Politics is everything. I don’t think there is an aspect of our lives that isn’t political. So it’s decisions that we make in our everyday living and what we’re allowed to do. So, for me, politics is about everything I do, and how I’m able to do it. An example might be of how much a pint costs, where I’m allowed to drink; it might be what school my child can go to and what’s in the curriculum. More than that, it might be about who my neighbours are and what benefits they may or may not receive.
Politics is important to me and a big part of my life because of the injustice that I can see occurring in my community, in my family, in, in the UK, and so, for that reason, politics has played a really big part recently, because I feel an urge to do something about the area that I live in.
I didn’t realise until recently how politics had affected me. However, what I now know is that it affects me very significantly. I can relate to the fact that if you want to make an appointment at your doctor’s, years ago you’d get an appointment quite quickly and there was a different process to now. I understand now, in terms of accessing NHS resources, things have changed. So the politics has actually become more important to me because I want my children and my grandchildren, and the great grandchildren who I haven’t met, to have the same level of living that I think we all deserve. So I now realise that politics is the vehicle to demand that.
Ivor Gaber
My name is Ivor Gaber. I am currently professor of journalism at the University of Sussex. I teach politics and political journalism and I teach political subjects, so I am a political scientist.
Many years ago Aneurin Bevan, who was a leading Labour politician, said that politics is the distribution of scarce resources. In other words, politics is how societies make decisions about how it’s going to both spend its money and its resources and distribute them. It’s about trying to work out what is fair.
The classic model of democracy was ancient Greece where people would gather round, men, actually, would gather round – no women, no slaves – and discuss how to run the society. It was pretty simple. In modern democracies, we need politics because we can’t all sit round the village square, the town square, the city square, discussing how to allocate resources, how much to spend on roads, how much to spend on hospitals, how much to spend on education. So we have to develop a political system to make those decisions. In the UK and most other countries of the world, we have what’s called representative democracy. We elect people to make those decisions on our behalf and if we don’t like the decisions that they’ve made, the next time they come up for election we don’t vote for them. So politics is about organising mass society.
End transcript
 
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Activity 6

Timing: About 30 minutes

When you have listened to the four perspectives, try to answer the following questions:

1. How do each of the four people you listened to define politics? How are their definitions similar?

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Discussion

Both Iain Stewart and Bianca Todd offer quite broad definitions of politics. For Stewart, politics is the interaction of a myriad of local, national and international issues. For Todd, politics is all around us, determining what we can or cannot do on a daily basis. Ivor Gaber offers a more specific, though still broad definition of politics. For him, politics involves decisions about the distribution of scarce resources, and thus is about trying to work out what is ‘fair’ in society. For Matthew Parris, approaching politics from the perspective of a journalist, politics is about stories: of the battles and struggles between political parties; of the rise and fall of personalities; of revenge, backstabbing and all manner of scandal. But it is also about the more mundane, and everyday governance and administration of societies – about the organisation of mass society.

The definitions are similar in at least two ways – all four seem to agree that politics is about a lot more than politicians, and is of crucial importance to our day-to-day lives.

2. All four of the people you listened to argue that politics is very important. Why do they believe politics is important?

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Discussion

For Iain Stewart, politics is important because it offers a non-violent way of resolving conflicts and disputes at every level of society – local, regional, national and international. For Matthew Parris, the importance of politics lies in its role in organising, administering and governing societies – all societies have to be organised and governed in order to function, and politics provides that governance. For Bianca Todd, politics is important because of the significant effect it has on our day-to-day living, and our access to healthcare, education and other social services. Politics is important because it affects our standard of living, and equally, provides the vehicle for each of us to demand the kind of standard of living we feel we deserve. For Ivor Gaber, as for Parris, politics – and political systems such as representative democracy – are necessary for organising large, complex societies. As Ivor Gaber points out, societies are too large and too complex for each of us to be directly involved in all decisions – and hence the need for a political system where those decisions can be made on our behalf.

Iain Stewart, Matthew Parris, Bianca Todd and Ivor Gaber were then asked something different: to list what they thought were the two most important political events of the twenty-first century. Click on their photos below to hear which events they chose, and why they thought these particular events were of crucial importance. As you hear their choices, think back to the boxed list titled ‘Some extraordinary global events’ in Section 1, and to the list of important political events you made yourself. Is there any overlap? What might explain the similarities and differences between the events chosen?

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Transcript

Iain Stewart, Matthew Parris, Bianca Todd and Ivor Gaber: 'What do you think are the two most important political events of the twenty-first century?'

Iain Stewart
I've thought about this a lot. I mean, how do you distil down so many important issues? But if I look at the twenty-first century, what's happened in the last 14 years, I think two principal events must stand out. And that is the financial crash that happened in 2008, and the huge shock waves that that sent round the world. And the other would be a collection of events, and that would be the various terrorist attacks on the West: on the twin towers, in London, in Madrid and other places round the world. So, I think, those two events are the ones in recent years that have most shaped political debate around the world.
There was a very painful realisation that the western world was living far beyond its means. We'd allowed at government level, at corporate level and at personal level too much easy credit. And we were spending at a level that we could not sustain. So we have had to seriously rethink how we fund public services, how we encourage economic growth, and that had a huge impact on the tone and terms of political debate. The terrorist attacks in the West, well that's been a very rude awakening, that the conflicts that exist round the world – on a religious basis, on a territorial basis – aren't just conflicts over there, out of our reach, that they can very quickly be on our doorstep and have huge impacts on our way of life. Not just the terrorist incidents themselves, which causes, you know, enormous loss of life and suffering, but the knock-on effects on what level of security do we have to provide. And that can be at one level, what screening happens at airports, before you get on to a plane, how much we should monitor the cyber-traffic, and you get into debates about liberty – to what extent should the state be able to read emails and see who's talking to whom in order to protect our western liberal values, but by doing it in a way which sometimes encroaches on it? So suddenly you get into all these different debates, that stem from one or two – or more than one or two – terrorist actual incidents. It does impact on the whole body politic, and goes into lots of different areas that we have to discuss and decide.
Matthew Parris
It's always difficult singling out one or two events as being the most important, but two that were important was the formation of a coalition government after the 2010 general election, when a lot of people, including me, didn't think that coalition went with the grain of British politics and didn't believe that it could last. And actually, we've had a pretty solid government for five years and it has worked. And that will cast a light forward into the rest of the century, so that whenever anybody suggests coalitions now, we know that we did have one and it did work.
The other, perhaps a rogue event, was the vote by the House of Commons not to intervene militarily in Syria, defeating the government on that issue. I've a feeling that that marked some kind of a turning of the tide, some kind of a dawning of understanding, amongst the people and amongst their representatives, of the limitations of Britain's powers and responsibilities beyond our shores. We are a diminished country, much diminished from what we were a century and two centuries ago. I think there's been a little bit of a delay in our coming to terms with that, but I, that vote seemed to me to suggest that we were coming to terms with it.
Bianca Todd
When you think about the two significant events in the twenty-first century, in terms of politics, for me the two issues are, when Tony Blair came into power with the Labour Party, for too long we had lived under the grey cloud of the Conservative Party, and all of the capitalist idealist policies that they had brought about. So it provided the country with an opportunity to reflect, and think, actually, there's a chance – the song 'Things can only get better' really resonated with the community. However, when we look back at that particular point in history, we realise that actually we were handed a poisoned chalice because Tony Blair did not deliver anything that he said he was going to. I think that one of the best things someone ever said to me was that 'Don't forget that people are human, regardless of their other identities'. And I think that actually this applies very significantly with Tony Blair, that actually, regardless of his Labour politics, he was a human first and actually, it's very few politicians that aren't corruptible. I'm lucky enough to come from a family where my granddad was offered to be a lord three times, as was Jack Jones and Moss Evans before them, and they are the only trade union leaders to not become lords. So I'm very aware of how difficult it is when you're at the top to keep the values that you had when you were at the bottom. So I think the journey of Tony Blair is a very significant one for all of us to reflect on in the left.
The second event that I think is significant links into Tony Blair, and that is when Margaret Thatcher died. And the reason why I think this is significant is because it actually gave people a chance to reflect and to be liberated from the years of misery that they had suffered at her hands. A good example of that is the miners, who in the '70s went through the horrific strike and actually spent such a lot of time fighting and surviving, that what we then saw was a kind of wanting to just move on and ignore what had happened because you just had to get on with your life. So Margaret Thatcher dying gave us on the left an opportunity to reflect and to celebrate our legacy and celebrate our history, and to actually right some of the wrongs that she had actually done.
So those two events are very interesting because they all link right back to the difference between the new kind of politics that I want to get involved in and the old type of politics which is about people and power, rather than grassroots communities and making things better.
Ivor Gaber
The American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has had a profound effect on our world. There are some who claim that it stabilised Iraq. It's caused terrible havoc, and we're paying that price.
The other most important event also relates to current affairs because if the world's focus is not on the Middle East, it's on the Ukraine–Russia problem. And that is a direct result of the other most important event which was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, in 1989, 1990. And in many countries it's proved to be a good thing. Think of the Baltic States, which were part of the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and so forth – all of those countries of eastern Europe have benefited immensely from the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it's also led to huge instability, mainly in the former parts of the Soviet Union which were to the south of Russia, and Russia itself, instability in countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, or dictatorships rather than instability, but in particular the ongoing problems in relations between Ukraine and Russia.
But on a global scale the fall of the Berlin Wall really brought to an end the big cleavage of twentieth century politics, which was capitalism or communism. That simple division, if you like, between communists and capitalists, was replaced by a period where it looked like the free market reigned supreme and then, linked to that – and I'm afraid I'm going to tell you three important events – was the world economic collapse which led to the global economic crisis of 2008. Which indicated actually the free markets weren't the way forward either. So since 2008 we've had a very complicated world view, that clearly communism had failed as a system, but then unbridled capitalism failed as well.
End transcript
 
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