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What is politics?
What is politics?

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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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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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