Amidst the transatlantic Trump-Brexit gloom there are some bright rays of light that help us see a better way forward. On the face of it we are in a time of deep disenchantment with politics and with the process of political debate. In fact the the Edelman Trust Barometer shows that government and the media compete to be the least trustworthy institutions of the modern world, and the UK has particularly low levels of trust in both.
But trust in politics can only be restored by returning politics back to where it belongs - to the people. For instance, Festival of Debate, now in its fourth year and one of the largest political festivals in the UK, brings together up to 10,000 people, in over 75 real political debates. Local citizens can debate directly with celebrities like Ed Miliband, Yanis Varoufakis or Reni Eddo-Lodge, or they can create platforms to discuss what’s important to them: how to protect the NHS, what we learned from the Miner’s Strike, or how to pilot basic income. As Festival founder James Lock said:
“Our chance for a better world comes from facing issues head on, learning new points of view, making the effort to listen and being empathetic with one another. We believe this is everyone’s responsibility and hope that this year’s Festival programme goes some way to furthering that ideal.”
One important theme at this year’s Festival is how to achieve real democracy in our local communities. For politics is not just about getting things done; there is also a real human need for us to share in the responsibility of crafting our world together. This can only be made easier if we develop a new kind of politics which is more local and better at engaging the energies and enthusiasms of local people.
Lower trust in politics is not really about the declining standard of our politicians (say the decline from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson) it is more that our capacity for political action has grown at a rate which is not matched by our institutions. We are now wealthier, better educated and have more time on our hands. We don’t need to take things on trust; we can ask harder questions and do our own research. Trust is cheap - we can now afford to be less trusting.
But this capacity for questioning is double-edged. We can use it positively, to create new possibilities for change. For instance, the Centre for Welfare Reform, a Sheffield-based think tank, exists because so many people are willing to work together, without pay, to share their ideas and to work for a better world. But people can also indulge their cynicism, share fake news and fan the flames of prejudice. Give humans new tools and they can turn them quickly into weapons.
We are in a new situation, and our political structures are lagging behind. While wealth and technology have freed many of us from immediate and pressing need, our political system remains highly elitist, with a small group, based in London, making all the important decisions. We are a democracy in name, but Aristotle would not have recognised the UK as a democracy. We are closer to an oligopoly, where elites groups compete for power.
In fact it’s hard to imagine what true democracy would look like in the modern world. Our experience of politics is not one of debating and deciding things together - instead it is of watching Question Time, where characters like Nigel Farage are endlessly presented to us for our irritation or excitement. Modern politics can seem like a circus, put on to distract us from what is really going on.
Scale is critical here. Athens, the seat of democracy, had at the peak of its powers, a population of 250,000 people and it managed to involve tens of thousands of citizens in decisions at multiple levels, through local communities, juries, administration, government and ultimately in the popular assembly. Athenian democracy was complex, well designed and it genuinely involved people (I know, I know… not women or slaves). Athenian democracy was possible because it had a human scale - Athens was large, but it was still possible to meet people, to talk and to decide things together.
Sheffield’s Festival of Debate demonstrates that many of us have a passion to play our part in a real democracy and that real democracy must start by paying attention to the local. Sheffield is leading the way again, at it did in the nineteenth century, to show that democracy and justice must go hand-in-hand together.