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Into the arena: Defending politics at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

The world famous Edinburgh International Festival has kicked off, beginning three weeks of the best the arts world has to offer. The Fringe Festival has countless alternative, weird, and wacky events happening all over the city, and the Edinburgh International Book Festival is underway. Throughout the Book Festival we’ll be bringing you sneak peeks of our authors’ talks and backstage debriefs so that, even if you can’t make it to Edinburgh this year, you won’t miss out on all the action.

Matthew Flinders and Sir Menzies Campbell

“It is not the critic who counts,” Theodore Roosevelt famously argued, “not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who spends himself in a worthy cause.” The arena in question was The Guardian’s ‘Rethinking Democracy’ debate at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and my ‘worthy cause’ was an attempt to defend democratic politics (and therefore politicians) from the anti-political environment in which it finds itself today.

With Sir Menzies Campbell at my side, I drew upon Bernard Crick’s classic In Defence of Politics to suggest that although politics is — like life — inevitably messy, it remains an innately civilizing activity that deliver far more than many ‘disaffected democrats’ appear to recognize. Too be honest I went too far; I dared to suggest that some sections of society had become ‘democratically decadent’ in the sense that they took their democratic rights and the fruits of collective engagement for granted. If politics is failing, could it be that the public is demanding too much and contributing too little?

Many people disagreed. (Indeed, I would have been disappointed if they had not and the subsequent debate would have been far less enjoyable!) And yet what was arguably more interesting was the degree of general agreement about the need to rethink the boundaries and limits of politics. Boundaries in the sense of how we recruit and what we expect from our politicians; the capacity of the nation state in an increasingly globalised and inter-dependent world; the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and population growth; and the general public’s willingness and capacity to engage in policy-making and debate. Beyond boundaries and limits, however, The Guardian’s ‘Rethinking Democracy’ debate underlined the simple fact that the public do not ‘hate’ politics. It is closer to the truth to suggest that what is needed are deeper and more energetic ways of revitalizing democracy. We need brave politicians and journalists who reject the belief that ‘only bad news sells’; and we need to reject the faux democracy offered by the brave new ‘on-line digital democracy.’ Democratic politics is hard and its tiresome. It revolves around squeezing collective decisions out of a range of competing and irreconcilable demands. It grates and it grinds and is, to some extent, always destined to disappoint. And yet it remains a quite beautiful social activity.

So… to the woman who said I’d made her so angry she wanted to “punch me on the nose,” I can only apologize and smile in equal measure; to the man who bemoaned the rise of career politicians I can only sympathize and agree; and to the young woman who asked me about whether she might pursue a career in politics I can only say that we need more people like her with the courage and conviction to ‘step into the arena.’

In case you missed the debate: in this video, Matthew Flinders takes the fight to those who say politics is broken.

Logo courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival

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