“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!