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Britain’s politics without walls

27 October 2014

Democracy’s decline always makes a good story. But like the country itself, British politics might be adapting rather than decaying, says David Hayes


Competitive marketplace: despite the rain, the Glastonbury Festival retains its allure. Paul Townsend/Flickr

Competitive marketplace: despite the rain, the Glastonbury Festival retains its allure. Paul Townsend/Flickr

The Telegraph’s tiny news item on 7 October seemed hardly worth noticing. Tickets for next year’s Glastonbury, the five-day midsummer pop-and-lifestyle jamboree at Worthy Farm in Somerset, southwest England, had sold out within twenty-six minutes of being made available to online purchase. Yet something made me pause. What was it, exactly?

The sums were impressive, 175,000 people paying £225 for a weekend-plus of top bands and high-end camping in uncertain weather. But also no surprise. Glasto is mega every year: the seasonal fixture of a multi-generational middle class – baby boomers, inheritors, students – and of the makers, traders and cultural purveyors that flock there to service it. The festival’s transition, from post-hippy enclave (it began in 1970, “the day after Jimi Hendrix died”) to mainstream enormodome with a mud-on-the-tracks sprinkle of glossy bohemian cool, can even be seen as a microcosm of England’s last five decades.

Much of this is familiar. But who wants to think about Glastonbury in October, only two months after this year’s festival ended? Well, clearly, the million-plus who registered for tickets. Here, perhaps, to one gratefully outside that loop, was the reason for a second glance at the Telegraph’s story. For it appeared at a moment when the last in the annual series of political party conferences was yawning to a conclusion, in the shape of the Liberal Democrats’ meeting in Glasgow. And I came across it, sad but true, while flicking through the paper to find reports of that event.

The jolting contrast between the speedy efficiency of the Glastonbury operation and the lumbering routines of parliamentary democracy, epitomised by the conference season just ending, was salutary. The Telegraph’s pics of Lib Dem members enjoying a post-lunch nap in a near-deserted hall, the podium speeches wafting around them, could even be symbolic of what Matthew Arnold almost expressed in “Dover Beach”: the melancholy, long, withdrawing snore of the sea of political faith.

More prosaically, being pulled for an instant into Glasto-world was a sobering reminder of a fact that political obsessives – persuaders, pollsters, journalists – can’t afford to forget. Most people fortunate enough to live in developed democracies and free societies have, now more than ever, zillions of outlets for self-fulfilment. Only rarely, usually at or near elections or other times of high drama, do these include politics – at least of the official or party variety. This kind of politics is competing for attention and credibility in a marketplace where the glamour is almost always on the other side. Digital forward planning versus the we’ve-always-done-it-this-way procedures of analogue politics: what customer-citizen would hesitate over that existential tick?

Let’s put that thought on hold and return to it by way of an autumn perambulation – for it is that loveliest of seasons in England – through the party conference cycle in three great Victorian cities, by-election discharges in two peripheral towns, and a fusillade of nationality politics in London – through the forest of British democracy, in other words.

This year the party conferences had an oddness that seemed to disconcert all present – leaders, delegates, media. As in comedy or crime novels, timing was at the heart of everything.

The cycle began with a reshuffle of the calendar that turned the Lib Dems from forerunner to afterthought and the Conservatives’ gathering in Birmingham (28 September–1 October) into a direct riposte to Labour’s in Manchester (21–24 September). This might have seemed a minor detail, yet the opposition party’s insipid effort on home territory – the northwest city and its region are Labour redoubts – gave a fortuitous lift to the governing Tories’ waning spirits.

Labour’s timing was ill-starred in another way. Scotland’s vote on 18 September to stay in the United Kingdom had vanquished the spectre of independence, but a too-close-for-comfort result (55–45 per cent) and Labour’s rough campaign ride in another of its heartlands left many of its stalwarts exhausted and queasy. Ed Miliband, the party leader, then thickened the Manchester gloom with another “here’s the thing” declamation which, for all its much-rehearsed spontaneity, avoided mention of several big policy areas, notably Britain’s huge debts. (Boris Johnson‘s crowd-pleasing panache won the ensuing mock-Ed prize: “The baggage handlers in his memory went on strike and refused to load the word ‘deficit’ on to the conveyor belt of his tongue!”)

The Conservatives’ emotion after Scotland was pure relief, unsullied by the fear of a local political price. (Reduced to a sturdy core vote of 15–20 per cent north of the border, the party feels the only way is up.) But another spectre instantly appeared at the Tories’ assembly, English nationalist rather than Scottish, in the guise of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP.

The bullish confidence of the Europhobic and anti-immigrant UKIP had been boosted in late August when a popular maverick, the Conservative parliamentarian Douglas Carswell, joined the party. But UKIP has always professed to be targeting both major parties – not just the Conservatives, who polls (as well as febrile emotions on both sides of this civil war on the right) suggest are most threatened by UKIP’s rise.

In the spirit of the boast, UKIP devised an artful kill-two-birds jape. Convening its own shindig in the working-class Yorkshire town of Doncaster (26–27 September) represented a raid into Labour’s backyard. (In 2005 a classic Labour fix won Ed Miliband a constituency for life there.) It then hatched a spoiler – the defection of a second Tory MP, Mark Reckless – to coincide with the launch of the Tories’ conference. Conservatives were stung, but also galvanised into a defiant unity that surprised even themselves. The mood of uplift continued through to the climax, a rousing leader’s speech from prime minister David Cameron.

The twilight zone event, the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow (4–8 October), leavened somnolence with deathless equanimity. Its poll ratings hammered in the four years since it joined the Tories in coalition, its leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg disliked by all bar loyalists, the party is rediscovering its base instinct: namely, resilience at the local level will guarantee survival, and the re-election of a good number of its fifty-seven MPs. This can be achieved only by winning street wars, mainly against the Tories, which explains the Lib Dems’ fervid criticism of their government partner. In fact, the tight limits on the party’s room for manoeuvre act as a sort of freedom. Unlike the Conservatives, who live for power, and Labour, which longs for control, the Liberal Democrats resemble Great War soldiers singing, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because...” wherever that happens to be.

The parties’ emotional gauges showed little change after the conferences were over. Labour kept its entrenched worries about its leader and capacity to win; the Tories their alarm over UKIP; the Lib Dems their inviolable Zen; UKIP its insufferable smugness. Neither did the conferences affect the polls, most of which still give Labour its modest lead. How much, after all, had the people – who, nominally, it was all for – noticed?

But, adding to the oddness, there was no time for inquests. The by-election caused by Douglas Carswell’s Tory-to-UKIP defection was held on 9 October and the incumbent won the seat – Clacton, a faded resort on the Essex coast, eighty miles east of London – in emphatic style, capturing 61 per cent of the vote on a 51 per cent turnout. Less expected was that in the safe Labour seat of Heywood and Middleton, eight miles north of Manchester, where the sitting MP had died, UKIP hauled 39 per cent, only two points behind Labour, on a 36 per cent turnout. The Labour shivers were palpable. UKIP’s next target is the by-election of 20 November in Rochester and Strood – once an important naval town, now largely a commuter area, in north Kent, thirty miles east of London – where Mark Reckless will fight to keep his seat under his new colours.

So UKIP’s end-of-the-pier act, featuring its permanently jaunty leader Nigel Farage with his trademark guffaw, wide smile and stentorian voice, is still packing them in, and now has the prospect of a serious West End transfer. The possibility of more MPs defecting is avidly talked up. UKIP is also benefiting from the broadcasting regulator Ofcom’s award of “major party” status, which means greater and more respectful media coverage. According to several projections, it has a good chance of winning fifteen or more seats in 2015, mainly in forlorn coastal towns in eastern and southern England. (Farage himself is standing in one such constituency, Thanet South.)

UKIP’s energetic operation, heavily funded by a few wealthy sponsors, is burrowing beyond its seam of older, white, “left behind” people in marginalised areas. The most complete study of the party so far, Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin’s Revolt on the Right, notes its lure among disaffected Labour voters, but Farage is also eager to harness the plight of neglected rural communities with sparse services and high insecurity. (“In terms of his public appeal,” writes YouGov’s Peter Kellner, “Farage looks less like a man leading a political party than a vigilante erecting a barricade.”)

Even more fundamentally, UKIP’s drumbeat themes (exit from the European Union, ending “mass immigration,” scorn for the “Westminster elite”) and clunking formulae (“We want our country back”) continue to evince widespread social longings. Its consuming negativity evidently strikes a potent cultural as well as political chord. The effect is crystallised in a focus-group tale (of disputed parentage, it has to be said) in which UKIP-leaning voters give a let’s-count-the-ways recital of the country’s awfulness. The moderator is moved to ask, “Is there anything you like about Britain?” Comes a chorus: “Yes – the past!”

For those seeking air, relief or perspective amid this miasma, it might be found in the combination of the seat of Clacton and its MP Douglas Carswell. A nationwide constituency mapping by Matthew Goodwin identified Clacton as “the most favourable seat for UKIP” in Britain. This singularity is matched by its well-liked MP, though in ways that disrupt as much as confirm UKIP’s image. For Carswell is very much a modernist by temperament; an unbending advocate of Britain pulling out of the European Union, yet a pro-immigrant marketeer with no evident culturalist baggage; a critic of political parties and the disciplines they impose; and a fluent advocate of small-unit government, transparency, click-democracy, and direct accountability, themes outlined in his breathless manifesto The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy, published in 2012.

Carswell’s convictions made for a reasonable if restless fit with the globalising winglet of the Conservative Party – restless, because Carswell is a tribune of the people, one of nature’s exacting backbenchers. But UKIP? Here, Sunder Katwala of the think tank British Future intriguingly offers Carswell’s anti-Europeanism as the key to his defection. Carswell shares Farage’s animating zeal to free Britain from the “prison” of the European Union. He believes UKIP can be the lever to achieve it. But he is worried that a campaign for British withdrawal could be lost unless it is fought in a different idiom. To realise the “Brexit” dream, UKIP must tender to the electorate a contract that is enticing, plugged-in, even – hold the handrail! – optimistic. That, Katwala implies, augurs a bumpy ride all round.

David Cameron, adapting to the erosion on his right flank, promises to “secure a new relationship for Britain in the EU” and ask for its endorsement via an in-or-out referendum in 2017. His ever-heightened rhetoric on the subject raises large expectations among the domestic audience he most wants to reach, and could prove counterproductive as a negotiating strategy in super-consensual Europe. The departing European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, speaking in London on 20 October, defended the core EU principle of free movement of citizens across borders – emerging as a pivotal issue in Cameron’s search for a sellable deal – but notably targeted his remarks at the abrasive tone and information-poor substance of the European debate in British politics and media, which can seem almost designed to burn bridges.

So, too, can the European Union itself. A demand from Eurostat, a Luxembourg-based office of the European commission, that Britain add an extra, one-off payment of £1.7billion (A$3.1 billion) to its contribution – thanks to new accounting rules and, this is what really grates, Britain’s better economic performance compared to its partners – has pushed the rhetoric up to eleven. Nigel Farage’s description of the European Union as “a thirsty vampire feasting on UK taxpayers’ blood” barely raises an eyebrow, far less a rebuttal. For UKIP, and a legion of Europhobes, the European Union is a gift that keeps on giving. For serious Euroreformers – those who want to stay in but not at any price – the union’s manacling of politics to process confounds.

Cameron’s preferred sequence depends on his retaining power in 2015, though pressure for a referendum will not abate even if he loses. After Scotland’s vote on independence, Europe will be the United Kingdom’s next huge constitutional convulsion. The UKIP wave, and Britain’s much-vaunted “identity crisis” have some way to go.

Scotland’s decision to stay in the United Kingdom means that it will remain bound into this crisis for the foreseeable future. That might become crucial in a 2017 referendum, when the extent of the Scots’ broadly more favourable attitude to European Union membership will be measured. Before then, there will be another test: over the formal commitment to more self-governing powers in Scotland, shared across the British as well as Scottish spectrum. It was enshrined in many statements during the campaign, with greatest fanfare in a joint “vow” by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband days before the vote. The good news ends there: for when the threat of independence was lifted, so was any pretence that the “no” coalition was other than a coincidence of self-interests.

The more immediate contention, however, is over England, whose lack of voice and representation in the post-1997 devolution process has long been a source of resentment, if without any consensus over how precisely this might be remedied. Cameron and his team decided to use the aftermath of the Scottish vote to push an option which, of all those available, best combines economy, practicality, a plausible story of “fairness,” and maximum advantage for the Conservatives. This is a guarantee of “English votes for English laws” – EVEL is the cuddly acronym – which would rectify the anomaly that allows non-English MPs to vote in Westminster on legislation that refers only to England (including matters such as health and education now devolved to, and therefore subject to the oversight of, the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly).

EVEL has more traction at the moment than other ideas, which include an English parliament and regional assemblies, though the “city-regions” model is already making good progress on the ground in Manchester and elsewhere. The various options are not forever mutually exclusive, and a lot depends on what the English want, and how much. A YouGov/Prospect poll, published on 20 October, shows that popular demand in England for change can be shallow as well as wide. In context, this can be accounted an asset for Cameron’s plan, for it would face complex intra-parliament adjustments but no expensive institution-building. The English are at present not in the mood for that.

Moreover, EVEL also handily endorses the conclusion of a report published in March 2013, produced by a commission led by William (Lord) McKay, a former clerk of the House of Commons, with representatives from all four nations. This recommends a fundamental principle “on which to base proposals for modifying the procedures of the House of Commons to mitigate the unfairness felt by people in England” following the “asymmetric devolution settlements,” namely that “decisions at the United Kingdom level with a separate and distinct effect for England should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England.”

Labour is desperate to avoid such a measure, which would undercut the power of its plurality of Scottish MPs and its future ability to force through legislation in London. It wants to delay any movement over England until after the election, when it hopes to be in government and do what it likes (which may well turn out to be nothing). It is boycotting the new cabinet committee on devolution and – via the granite rhetoric of Gordon Brown in particular – proclaiming that EVEL would “split the United Kingdom apart.” Weeks after a 45 per cent vote for Scottish independence that the stoic English had no part in, that sounds piquant.

A group of academics and reformers has advised a “citizen-led constitutional convention” as “the only way to answer questions about the future of the United Kingdom in a way which commands legitimacy and ensures a sustainable settlement.” Its going-through-the-motions letter says nothing about England in particular, though, or the politics of nationhood in general. It is very late in the day for that.

At the same time as the initiative in England, the five parties represented in the Edinburgh parliament are part of a new commission, under Robert (Lord) Smith, charged with unifying detailed proposals for the next tranche of Scottish devolution. The timetable for progress is tight: an agreement is sought by 30 November, a draft legislative agenda by 25 January. A UK government “command paper” published on 13 October contains the three pro-union parties’ reheated submissions, which differ substantially in areas such as tax and spending. Labour’s are strikingly more conservative than the Conservatives’. The proposals of the Scottish National Party, or SNP – and thus of the current Scottish government – are published separately, and are more radical than either. There are squalls coming here too.

The SNP, despite losing the referendum, is far ahead in surfing the slipstream. Its impressive second-in-command since 2007, Nicola Sturgeon, will succeed Alex Salmond as leader, and Scotland’s first minister, when he steps aside on 14 November at the party’s conference. The party has received a surge of new members, who more than doubled its size (to around 80,000) in the fortnight after the vote. This makes it Britain’s third-biggest party after Labour (190,000) and the Conservatives (134,000), and twice as large as both the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. There is no sense, including among the wider pro-independence movement, of being bowed by the referendum result, and much talk of taking UK parliamentary seats from Labour in 2015 as part of a renewed long march.

The resolute Sturgeon, a popular figure with a Glasgow political base, is well placed for that job. Her accession will mean that six of the nine parties represented in the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly are headed by women (if the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens, Maggie Chapman, is included). The record may last only a month, for the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont resigned on 24 October and, though there are strong potential women candidates in the Edinburgh parliament such as Kezia Dugdale and Jenny Marra, the troubled party is likely to revert when it elects Lamont’s replacement on 13 December.

Lamont’s parting shot was a bullseye at Ed Miliband’s control freakery that reflected both the tensions of the referendum campaign and the dysfunction of Labour’s anachronistic, one-size-fits-all mindset. “Labour must recognise that the Scottish party has to be autonomous and not just a branch office of a party based in London,” she wrote in her letter of resignation. Torcuil Crichton, the journalist who broke the story in the Labour-leaning Scottish tabloid the Daily Record, pungently summed up what is now at stake: “Scotland is existential for the Labour Party. If they lose Scotland, they lose the UK for ever.”

Both the English and Scottish “questions” thus continue. Wales is trying to articulate its own; Northern Ireland is paralysed by local politics. The many tributaries of the United Kingdom’s constitutional argument, its endless search for impossible clarity, its paucity of cross-party assent all reinforce Benjamin Disraeli‘s remark that England is governed not by logic but by parliament. In this country, constitutional answers arrive, if at all, on a political train.

The pliable Anglo-British constitution celebrates the 800th anniversary of its sacred text, the Magna Carta, in June 2015. A full-on commemoration is planned, yet another self-congratulatory pageant drained, it seems – apart from a lecture by Linda Colley – of critical self-reflection. Whoever is prime minister a month after the general election, the speech on the glorious evolution of British democracy will write itself.

Taking all these topical political events into account, however, the signal description of their democracy given by most people in Britain today is that it is far less than glorious – even barely in minimal health. Their dominant tone, as widely expressed and reported, is unrelieved in its bleakness. Politics, its institutions and personnel alike, is in deep disfavour, and much of the public discourse around it is characterised by dismay, scorn and rejection.

A Telegraph editorial on 20 October is one of thousands of columns, posts and phone-ins making the same case, often in far more fervent terms than the conservative newspaper: “One of the greatest problems that Westminster faces is the collapse of trust in politics, and politicians. Party leaders, MPs, ordinary voters – all agree that the bond between rulers and ruled has been stretched almost to breaking point.”

The immediate context of this collapse is the insecurity and hardship among millions affected by the financial crisis of 2008 and since. Their sharp effects, felt everywhere, include a rising awareness of social and regional inequalities, and explosions of disgust at high-end institutions discredited by deep ethical and professional failures: bankers above all, but also tax-evading corporations, corrupt police, creepy BBC figures and phone-hacking newspapers. It was inevitable that politicians, the most exposed of all such groups, would also be in the firing line.

Their own culpability, as it is most often cited, might be divided into “behavioural” and “attitudinal” aspects. The gap between what politicians promise and what they deliver (as over Iraq), their greed and self-indulgence (the expenses scandal of 2009 – a Telegraph scoop – had a huge impact here), the enormous sums wasted in official projects (especially IT ones), their links to corporate lobbyists and Russian plutocrats, the policy choices that favour privileged groups and ignore majority wishes, the parties’ reliance for funding on rich friends and cronies, and their promotion of the latter to lucrative positions or official honours. But also politicians’ obfuscatory language, point-scoring mode of argument, lack of accountability and transparency, condescension, distance from and lack of understanding of “real life,” and hypocrisy wherever it can be found.

An extra dash is the sense that politicians constitute a remote caste whose well-rewarded positions allow access to a lifestyle and its perks, from accommodation to travel to overseas junkets, that contrast increasingly with the stressful, pinched, debt-laden, work-and-life-juggling lives of the people who elected them. With viral suddenness, the word “Westminster” – deployed with various types of lexical garnish by, for example, Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond and Douglas Carswell (the latter talks of “that cosy, complacent clique in Westminster”) – has acquired a sheen of automatic, ritualistic contempt.

A detailed scrutiny of both the individual charges and the wholesale picture would be valuable, not least one that takes into account the rich history of British people’s disdain for their leaders and concern for the quality of democracy (not quite the same thing, of course). The very fact that many of these criticisms have been expressed in previous eras is relevant, as are the findings of long-term opinion poll surveys and the work of projects such as Democratic Audit.

The very consistency and force of the denunciation also highlight the fact that a story is being told – one that, like all stories of the traditional kind, finds coherence in a disturbing world in order to point to a moral. This is not to say that the now-dominant portrayal of politics and its practitioners is groundless – on the contrary, much of it is observable fact – but rather that the strength of its appeal is imaginative and self-confirming rather than rational and explanatory.

This sour depiction of politics is often threaded into a doctrine of all-round social disconnection – between elite and people, London and everywhere else, the nations of the United Kingdom, northern and southern England, rich and poor (and many in between), old and young, employers and workers (and different categories of workers), natives and immigrants. Many streams of detailed research, often excellent and useful in their own right, flow into the dystopian river. But the overall narrative feeds off and recycles the ideology of “declinism” that is very powerful on both right and left in Britain. (This is a close relative of the “miserabilism” skewered by Janan Ganesh in his essential Financial Times column.) So powerful, indeed, that the two sides are unaware of how much they share in common.

The fascinating thing in the current context is that quite another tale could be told about recent British politics, even within a quite narrow definition. For many of its current features might be cited as evidence of Britain’s democratic health. Close party competition. Tight polling figures. Genuine uncertainty about the shape of the next government. Fresh entrants on the stage – the Greens as well as UKIP and the SNP – which could make the next election a contest between five parties (in parts of England) and six (in Scotland).

There’s more. A plebiscite that motivated huge numbers of citizens and provided a peaceful opportunity to truncate an old polity and create a new one. Another vote in prospect where the people will decide the state’s orientation for decades. Passionate public argument about many policy areas, from economics and welfare to environment and immigration. Intense daily scrutiny of the political class, facilitated by round-the-clock media and technology that facilitates the voice and participation of everyday citizens. Campaigners that are more confident, bold, informed and networked than ever. Citizen initiatives such as They Work For You, whose rich data enhance democratic accountability.

Consider, too, the now oft-quoted statistics mapping the slow decline of the share of the vote held by the two major parties across the decades. In 1951, the combined Conservative and Labour vote was 97 per cent, in 1979 it was 81 per cent, in 1997 it was 74 per cent, and in 2010 it reached 65 per cent. The fall in turnout across these six decades, from 83 per cent to 65 per cent, is also substantial. But the figures are invariably used to lament the disappearance of a model where two immense tribes filled the entire political space. They can equally be said to display the capacity of a society transformed by new generations, interests, ideas and aspirations to match such changes in the growing diversity of its voting preferences.

The representative system, with all its deficiencies, has also proved able to respond to people’s discontents. A coalition government came to power in 2010 (albeit partly as a product of the vagaries of the first-past-the-post electoral system) and has survived often bitter internal disagreements for over four years – thus answering a once-frequent criticism, that politicians of different parties “can’t work together.” It then mandated a five-year period between elections, thus addressing complaints that an incumbent prime minister could manipulate the political cycle and that governments were too near-sighted. It also organised a referendum on a change to an alternative vote, or AV, system for general elections – thus reflecting a generation’s advocacy. The lack of single-party control of parliament has encouraged backbench rebellion on an unprecedented scale (according to Philip Cowley of Nottingham University, doyen of the topic) and made the House of Commons a less predictable place, thus meeting concerns – widely expressed during the Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair years – that one-party rule made for bad government.

A more capricious House of Commons, anxious to overcome the stigma of the parliamentary expenses scandal – which produced a reformed payments system – has also allowed scrutiny committees to seize more airtime, power and prestige, to the discomfort of many prominent examinees (including Rupert and James Murdoch). The Commons speaker, John Bercow, has promoted new and backbench members, made parliament much more accessible, and convened a Commission on Digital Democracy, due to report in January 2015.

This list of responsive innovations could be extended. Some are already covered in blowback. The current parliament has nothing left to do; five years is at least a year too long. The failed AV referendum is classed by hardcore reformers as a bad dream. Many party grandees long for a clear party majority once more. Some MPs loathe the new expenses model. Several committee chairs and members are grandstanding egomaniacs. But the elements of an alternative and plausible tale of politics in Britain over the last five years are there – a tale, moreover that sees the people’s own wishes as playing a central role.

To see why this might matter, let’s retrieve that thought about the unlovability of routine politics vis-à-vis all the other attractions a rich, modern society offers. The snoozathon party conferences seem to confirm it. But both ends – the International Conference Centre, Birmingham, and the Pyramid Stage, Glastonbury, it could be said – are not so distant from each other as they might seem.

The parties, after all, have remade their annual event into a showcase of their own old favourites and rising stars. Their back-office tasks – constituency mapping, recruiting, candidate selection, campaigning, targeting seats, funding, advertising, research, rapid rebuttal, line-to-take – now demand as sophisticated tools and applications as any Glasto can boast. Politics is business is music is marketing is media is technology is data is people. The walls have come tumbling down, and continue to fall.

On its side, the Glastonbury orbit intersects with the political. The festival is a dream venue for engaged strummers, comedians, advertisers and brand-aware MPs; the year’s high spot for Britain’s most heavily politicised charities and NGOs; and a haven for the folky red–green left (which in 2014 honoured its departed hero, Tony Benn). Corporate, celebrified, bland and monochrome, treated by the BBC as a quasi-state occasion, Glastonbury shares more with the insipid versions of politics than its denizens would admit. But through brilliant leadership and skilful adaptation it continues to stay afloat in Britain’s ever-changing social order.

The Glastonbury twinge with which I began was at first a lesson in the unimportance of politics to most people, most of the time. It then morphed into a different one. Politics in Britain has had to change to keep what relevance it has; being hauled from its pedestal and obliged to sing for its supper (to the point of hoarseness) has made it more answerable than ever it was. But losing its former elevated status creates new challenges. Foremost among them may be how democracy and citizenship are fostered when politics is without walls.

This “reduction” of politics – which, other things being equal, was surely inevitable – accounts for at least some of the current hullaballoo in Britain about the chasm of mistrust, the crisis of democracy, the threat of populism, and the rise of “anti-politics” (a slippery notion to which Anthony Painter and the political scientists Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker have begun to give careful attention). One implication is that to understand what is happening to politics, and ascendant views of it, it’s necessary to take into account what has happened in many other areas of life, including people’s continuing social self-transformation. If politics seems smaller, it’s also because the world has got so much larger.

That’s not to gainsay Britain’s many political or other problems. It’s right to worry about the quality of its democracy and try ceaselessly to improve it. But as the leaves crunch underfoot, while “gathering swallows twitter in the skies” (and John Keats, who wrote the line in his ode “To Autumn,” never even saw a party conference), it’s worth recalling that the loudest voices and most sweeping rebukes can be a poor guide to the landscape. •

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One of our own: Julia Gillard on Sydney’s Triple M during the 2007 election campaign. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image

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