Book of the Month: Defending Politics

Last week’s elections were a triumph of anti-politics. In the European election, only a third of the UK electorate bothered to vote and a quarter of those who did supported UKIP, a party whose appeal rests partly on its being ‘none of the above’.   

Of course, European elections in Britain have always had a poor turnout. In the week of the 1999 election, when I stood, more people voted in the final of a TV talent show, Stars in their Eyes (and yes, that hurt). But the anti-political mood has grown since then and people are increasingly impatient of political argument and hostile to politicians.   

So this seems a good time to recall why politics should not be a dirty word. The case is made well by Matthew Flinders in Defending Politics: why democracy matters in the twenty-first century, an updating of Bernard Crick’s great In Defence of Politics.

The specific relevance of all this to CPRE is that much of our work is done through planning and the planning system sits within our (arguably discredited) political system. Moreover, planning itself is an intrinsically political business. It attempts to mediate between different and often conflicting sectional interests in the wider public interest, and this involves controversy, argument and compromise. Attempts over the last fifteen years to take politics out of planning – to make it more responsive to market signals or put ‘experts’ in charge – have largely failed. But if people reject politics, can planning survive? 

Flinders acknowledges that politics can deliver disappointing outcomes, but he suggests this is largely a result of unrealistic expectations. ‘If more and more people are disappointed with what politics delivers then maybe the fault lies with those who demand too much…  Democracy is a fragile system of rule and by constantly deriding its achievements and demonizing politicians we risk destroying what is in reality a quite beautiful reflection of the channelling of private interests for the public good.’ Politics ‘cannot… deliver simple solutions to complex problems’.[1] 

That does not make politics merely the least bad system, a necessary evil. Rather, in Crick’s words, it is ‘a great and civilising human activity, something to be valued almost as a pearl beyond price in the history of the human condition’.

But it is a collective activity, and one that emphasises collective goods over individual demands. As a consumer, I might want a bungalow in open countryside with a couple of acres of ground around it, but as a citizen I want to be able to walk in beautiful countryside that is not littered with other people’s bungalows. Politics, through planning, will deny me my bungalow, as part of its purpose is to assert the public interest over private interests. In a more collective and deferential age, we accepted that we could not get always get our way as we thought as citizens (or subjects). We live now in an age of individualism and consumerism, and people are less happy to see their wants frustrated by some complicated process to assess what is in the wider interests of society.

In this respect Flinders quotes a wonderful gloomy defence of politics from Professor Gerry Stoker: ‘The discourse and practice of collective decision-making sits very uncomfortably alongside the discourse and practice of individual choice, self-expression and market-based fulfilment of needs and wants… so it turns out that a propensity to disappoint is an inherent feature of governance even in democratic societies.’

It may be hard to rally round something with an inherent propensity to disappoint, but we should do so. The case for politics may not rest on its being a lesser evil, but the fact remains that the alternatives are pretty unpalatable.

Crick, writing in 1962, saw the alternative to politics as dictatorship. Today in Western Europe a bigger threat is government by technocrats. A third alternative is the sort of anaemic and increasingly anti-political democracy we now experience and which is both cause and consequence of the disillusionment with politics.

Then there is the promise of online activism empowering citizens and making it easier for everyone to organise and take action. Flinders is not convinced. He approves of Max Weber’s view that democratic politics is like ‘slow boring through hard boards’. It is a hard and dirty business, and nothing meaningful will be achieved at a click of a button.[2]

None of this is to deny that there are other ways of doing politics, and planning. The current planning system originated in an era of high electoral turnouts and strong party allegiances. Local councils (elected by a minority of voters) devise plans in accordance with a framework laid down by national governments (also elected by a minority of voters). It is no wonder that people question the legitimacy of planning decisions, and there are ways of engaging more people and getting more buy-in.

But all these alternatives ultimately depend on people believing in politics – the value of people getting together, weighing evidence, debating principles and their wishes, compromising where necessary, and in the end collectively determining the best outcome for their area and the country as a whole.


[1] A similar point was made in the foreword to Levett-Therivel’s 2007 report for CPRE, Deconstructing Barker: ‘The questions with which the planning system deals are complicated. Sometimes it will get the answers wrong, frequently the answers it gives will be unsatisfactory to particular interests. But the complex questions with which the planning system deals will not be made simple by changing the system, or elevating economic interests over those of the community or the environment.’

[2] Flinders is particularly astute on how the internet makes it easy for people to talk only to people like them. ‘Not realizing that most thoughtful citizens do not agree with them, on-line group members generally assume that the government is either failing or corrupt when it takes contrary positions. The result is a form of political activity, practiced by a relatively small section of the public, that is increasingly shrill and aggressive in its approach to politics and politicians while also being increasingly unrealistic about what politics can and should deliver.’ Information cocoons and echo chambers leave people ‘in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage’. Anyone who disagrees with that has not been on the receiving end of those angry people.


7 Responses to “Book of the Month: Defending Politics”

  1. 1 H Brooks May 29, 2014 at 9:01 am

    How about steps requiring for example members of committees like planning to pass an test of competence before being able to be nominated? Make democracy work properly / professionally rather than throw it out of the window or allow rule of the loudest voices etc

  2. 2 Tim Lund (@TimLundSE26) May 29, 2014 at 9:41 am

    I don’t agree that last week’s elections were a triumph of anti-politics – just anti-politics-as-they-are. For all the party’s anti-statist associations, UKIP’s central message was an appeal for more use of state authority in a particular area – control of migration. That’s politics, just maybe not as we know it or like it.

    I may agree with you that “planning itself is an intrinsically political business”, but what do you mean by “intrinsically”? If it means there is always a political context, I do agree, but if you mean it is always a matter of politics, I don’t. I would say the same – albeit to different degrees – about how decisions get made on science and the arts; yes to a political framework, and ultimate political control, but relatively arms length. In my maybe idealised view of planning in operation, as opposed to development, it should be an open transparent system, in which anyone can see the plans, the relevant policy, and assist non-political planning officers get the right decisions by drawing their attention to details they may have missed – such as bats roosting in a disused railway tunnel. Would that amount to “government by technocrats”?

    We all know that’s not how it is, and somehow we have failed to build enough houses where people want to live. By that “where”, you and I understand in cities such as London, as indicated by abnormally high market prices. Instead, the typical advocate of building more houses jumps to advocating building on the Green Belt, such as, recently, Helen Lewis, Deputy Editor of the News Statesman.

    I cannot imagine why they do, unless for political reasons – maybe not even realising it themselves – of feeling good about annoying CPRE types and imagined rural Tories, while comforting their own political base. Last year, in conversation with a Labour Councillor in Oxford, I was immediately told the problem there was caused by the Tories of South Oxfordshire not allowing building there, when my daughter was living inside the city, but in old, draughty, damp rented accommodation. That is where the expansion of the housing supply is needed, but instead we have Nimbies playing politics across the spectrum, and from both sides of the lines on the map defining the Green Belts.

    Beyond the control of immigration, UKIP is notoriously – perhaps wisely – policy-lite, but that does not make it anti-politics. Any other policy, as with candidates and Councillors, is liable to be dropped instantly if it causes embarrassment, but still, on planning, a quick Google reveals a thorough going commitment to politics as usual:

    “Planning and development

    UKIP has ‘serious reservations’ regarding the national planning policy framework’s impact on the green belt, Mr Charalambous says. UKIP would establish a strategy for developing brownfield sites, including a ‘national brownfield decontamination agency’ as a source of information for potential developers.

    UKIP would also ensure councils have a duty to sell surplus land for development.

    ‘We would merge the planning and building control departments in local authorities,’ he adds, and ‘accelerate the planning process by introducing a system of “rapid generic approval” for non-contentious applications’.

    Where planning decisions affect significant numbers of people, UKIP would establish binding referenda ‘enlivening and imbuing democracy into the planning process’.”

    I do defend politics, but not as it is, and I don’t think we need more politics. Wanting less politics is not undemocratic, and not the same as not wanting politics at all. It’s probably what most people feel, including all those who voted UKIP. The challenge for our political classes is to slim down, and articulate a more positive vision than merely controlling immigration. Good planning should be central to such a project.

  3. 3 artsmonkey May 30, 2014 at 8:05 am

    Reblogged this on cultureactiveuk and commented:
    A few thoughts on politics, and why we should use it not lose it from CRPE – culturally speaking we need to be more politically savvy in the UK….

  4. 4 CPRE Local Supporter June 16, 2014 at 10:21 am

    The writer fails to explain how what was a good present planning system has deteriorated. When John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment under John Major, left office in 1997, the development plan system was the best that it had ever been.
    We had structure plans, district-wide local plans, unitary development plans (UDPs) and non-statutory regional planning guidance (RPG). RPG settled housing numbers by County and Unitary Authority by a form of Planning Authority Conferences. In London and the South East of England this role was carried out by the well-regarded Standing Conference on South East Planning (SERPLAN). The Department of the Environment haggled sometimes with these Conferences to push up housing numbers per region, but generally their housing requirement figures were accepted.
    This structure worked fairly well. It prevented developers pursuing greenfield sites, and appeals against housing refusals were not significant for some years after that. Labour arriving in 1997 accepted the structure – at first. It backed up the tight plan-led system created by the Tories, by introducing a tighter policy still, PPG3 of 2000 which was a policy for housing that had a presumption in favour of brownfield sites and against greenfield development.
    The planning system in England in 2000 was not a political issue as both main parties had had a hand in creating it.
    For reasons that are still not understood, and with little opposition from either CPRE National Office or the (then fading) Civic Trust, the development plan system was wrecked first by Labour, then by the present Coalition.
    Lord Falconer, Minister of State appointed by Blair after the 2001 election,. started it with an (unnecessary) Green Paper in 2001 which claimed the planning system needed ‘fundamental change’ when it did not. This was followed by the forcing through by Labour of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. Structure Plans, District-wide and Unitary Development Plans were all abolished and RPG was replaced by Government-controlled Regional Spatial Strategies (RSS). Chaos began soon and the 2008 Planning Act (which introduced the again-unnecessary Infrastructure Planning Commission) made matters worse. Labour left office in 2010 having turned a good planning system into a bad one.
    The Coalition has made the development plan system even worse. (The present policies are effectively the Tories’ policies as LibDems have had little influence in this area of Government.) Abolishing RSSs was justified but only if Structure Plans and Local Authority-led Planning Conferences were restored. The Government has not done that. Instead it introduced the dire 2011 Localism Act which does the reverse of what it claims to do, as housing numbers are now imposed on each local planning authority by using ONS population forecasts.
    All this is against public opinion and the views of many MPs. But MPs of both parties have voted for these Planning Acts under whip, and they are in the end responsible for the serious and damaging decline of the system since 2000.
    Had the Civic Trust been active and as effective as it was from its inception in 1957 to about 1980, Government would not have dared to push through what has been imposed on the country. Without the Civic Trust as lead body covering the urban part of England, CPRE was too weak and ineffective to halt the slide by itself. And CPRE National Office’s wish, under both the last and the present Chief Executive, to get along with Central Government, and not be seen to always oppose it, has been counter-productive in this field.
    Whether the next CPRE Chairman and the new Trustees to be elected at the 2014 AGM can change anything is a moot point. Probably things have gone too far for CPRE National Office to be able by itself to achieve much. It won’t get help from the ‘urban’ side of the conservation movement; Civic Voice is a pale shadow of the vanished Civic Trust and is not effective in this field.

  5. 5 Kristian Niemietz (@K_Niemietz) July 2, 2014 at 9:32 am

    Oh, the delicious hypocrisy. Of course you would defend politics, Shaun. It works for you, and the repugnant organisation you represent. It is through politics that you lot pull up the drawbridge behind you, deny the housing opportunities that you take for granted to everyone else, and then call it ‘the common good’ or ‘the public interest’. You are the best illustration of everything that is inherently wrong with politics, and inadvertently, you provide the best case for minimising the role of politics in our lives.

    • 6 sspiers July 3, 2014 at 9:58 am

      Kristian, you may remember our Twitter exchange in May. I tweeted: ‘IEA worldview: whatever the question, the market is the answer. And let’s trash the countryside!’ You retweeted it and sent a tweet saying: ‘I couldn’t have said it any better myself. You guys should write our press releases.’ That was entertaining, but I am beginning to think you might actually mean it! I would sooner put my faith in democratic politics than in unrestrained markets, which give power to the already powerful and little value to ‘public goods’, such as the beauty of the countryside.

  6. 7 Kristian Niemietz July 8, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Shaun, keep telling yourself the nonsense that those who don’t share your deluded worldview are out to “trash the countryside”. Avoids discomfort.

    The reality is that there’s a massive housing crisis up and down the country, which has been caused by organisations like yours, and people like you. Whenever you read a news story about people renting garden sheds, trapped in dilapidated accommodation, stuck forever on a housing waiting list, or spending most of their income on the roof over their heads, you and your chums should feel ashamed of yourselves.

    So keep telling yourself that you’re fighting a noble cause of ‘protecting the countryside’. More comfortable that way.

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