WHY POLITICS” — Dr John Kingdom — 12th December 2016


By any stand­ard in living memory, 2016 has been an excep­tional year.  The Queen’s 90th birth­day, Andy Murray’s second Wimbledon, GB’s per­form­ance in the Rio Olympic Games. But it’s likely that all this will be over­shad­owed by what has been a year of polit­ical tur­bu­lence, which has shattered the estab­lished order.  Brexit, Farage and Trump will have the greater his­tor­ical and polit­ical impact in both the US and UK, where so many long held expect­a­tions have been over­turned.  Our speaker find­ers’ pres­ci­ence  invit­ing John Kingdom to present our pen­ul­tim­ate talk of the year was per­fectly timed.

John Kingdom, a retired Lecturer in Political Science in both the Sheffield Universities and the author of sev­eral books, set him­self the seem­ingly impossible task of trying to distil what seemed like a three year under­gradu­ate course into just over an hour. Drawing from polit­ical quotes and philo­soph­ers from the ancient Greeks to Marx and Maggie,  our speaker began by review­ing the recent polit­ical scene where, for once, politi­cians could not com­plain of apathy by their elect­or­ates.  The recent European Referendum (72% turnout) and US Presidential elec­tions had res­ul­ted in “peoples ver­dicts” which had been unpal­at­able to many in the estab­lish­ment, who con­tinue to be reluct­ant to accept the result. Last week’s Sleaford by elec­tion pro­duced a more normal 32% turnout with a return to what John termed the “demo­graphy of apathy” among the group with the most reason to have an interest in the future –the young.  He quoted from Martha Gellthorn, an American com­ment­ator: “ People will say  “ I’m not inter­ested in polit­ics” but they might as well say “I’m not inter­ested in my stand­ard of living, my health, my job, my rights, my freedoms, or my future” (1984).

To many, the answer given to the ques­tion “why polit­ics?” is “why bother?” For Aristotle, involve­ment in polit­ics was the essence of the good life because, “man by nature, is a polit­ical animal”.  Centuries later, English philo­sopher Thomas Hobbes ima­gined  life without polit­ics as reduced to a  state  of nature “nasty, bru­tish and short” (Leviathan 1651), when con­flict would be inev­it­able over self-interests and the con­sump­tion of resources.

So why are polit­ics neces­sary?  To R A Butler, polit­ics is the “Art of the Possible” (Title of his auto­bi­o­graphy 1971).  To Bernard Crick, polit­ics encap­su­lates “ A way of ruling divided soci­et­ies by a pro­cess of free dis­cus­sion and without viol­ence” ( In Defence of Politics 1964).  Not all would agree.  To Margaret Thatcher, com­prom­ise was a sign of weak­ness.  “If you just set out to be liked, you would be pre­pared to com­prom­ise, and you would achieve noth­ing.”  Yet others saw polit­ics as the exer­cise of author­ity: the right of a King or Government to make decisions apply­ing to a com­munity.  Military dic­tat­or­ships soon seek the appear­ance of civil­ian rule.  The German Sociologist Max Weber (1854–1920) dis­tin­guished three types of author­ity: tra­di­tional (con­ferred by his­tory, reli­gion, or inher­it­ance); cha­ris­matic (where per­sonal qual­it­ies of the leader inspire con­fid­ence: Churchill, Hitler, Mandela) and Legal ( bestowed by con­sti­tu­tional rules and elec­tions).  In recent times John thought that gov­ern­ment author­ity has been weakened by the per­ceived role of ‘Spin Doctors’ and media expos­ure of such mat­ters as  MPs’ expenses, and ‘Cash for Questions’.

John Kingdom con­tin­ued to take us through more of the attrib­utes of polit­ics includ­ing the exer­cise of power, decep­tion and viol­ence. Members enjoyed the ref­er­ences to Shakespeare’s ‘scurvy politi­cians’ and Enoch Powell’s “ the stage used to be called the Court, now they call it the Cabinet, but all the char­ac­ters are in Shakespeare…. Only the cos­tumes date”(1958).  We went on to appre­ci­ate obser­va­tions from the likes of de Toqueville and Machiavelli  “Who the act accuses, the end excuses”.  “Politics is the art of pre­vent­ing people from taking part in affairs which prop­erly con­cern them” (Paul Valery) and “…”the art of gov­ern­ing man­kind through deceiv­ing them” (Disraeli).  John roun­ded off this sec­tion with con­tri­bu­tions from the likes of Karl Clausewitz “War is noth­ing more than the con­tinu­ation of polit­ics by other means”, Chairman  Mao “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun and Plato’s “Might is right”.  While Mrs Thatcher was con­cerned about the “Enemy within” Churchill opined that “Jaw- jaw is better than war- war”.

So do we need polit­ics? There is a con­stant refrain from some quar­ters that we should get polit­ics out of Education, Health and Infrastructure pro­vi­sion. John Kingdom sug­ges­ted that such areas could, as in the past, be provided on a free market or “lais­sez faire” basis. But most people still expect mat­ters of State secur­ity, defence, edu­ca­tion, wel­fare and man­age­ment of the eco­nomy should remain as public con­cerns –as with the cur­rent Southern trains dis­pute. “They should do some­thing about it”.  Someone has to be the “They”.  While experts cannot be relied on to cor­rectly pre­dict polit­ical out­comes, no Minister worth his salt would make  com­plex tech­nical and account­able decisions without ref­er­ence to com­pet­ent people. But as George Bernard Shaw observed “If all the eco­nom­ists were laid end to end, they would not reach a con­clu­sion”!

On that note of humour our speaker con­cluded his talk by draw­ing some of its many  threads together.  He con­cluded that the term ‘Politics’ has many dif­fer­ent mean­ings, that there were many ways of living together and that soci­et­ies varied in their res­ol­u­tion of public issues.  History showed that politi­cians did fail if only due to human frailty, power did tend to cor­rupt and that all men are liable to error or to be vic­tims of events.

Our speaker was thanked for his thought pro­vok­ing talk by David Shaw.  Members can now watch “Yes Minister” with better informed interest!