IT often seems that if we want to change of any kind there is nothing we can do. In our representative form of government we are encouraged not to bother ourselves with politics, except to put a cross on the ballot paper ever few years. After all, so they say, we elect people to do the thinking for us don’t we? Indeed, as Salisbury Democracy Alliance (SDA) continues to campaign for a Citizens’ Jury in the city, this a common refrain we have encountered.
But we also often forget that the so-called cradle of democracy in ancient Athens largely eschewed elections, which they feared would be nothing more than elected oligarchs, or cliques, much as we have now – although we shouldn’t forget that the Athenians also excluded women and slaves from the democratic decision-making process. Which is why, of course, modern day forms of Citizens’ Juries and Assemblies involve the random selection of people and ways of ensuring a cross-section of the community.
Even Tory Grandees are not averse to calling our form of government into question with Ken Clarke recently describing our current government as being close to an ‘elected dictatorship’, echoing the words of Lord Hailsham in the 1960s.
And even the founding fathers of the American republic did not regard the system of representative government as being democracy. Indeed, up until the end of the 18th century elective governments and the sort of direct government pioneered by the Athenians were thought to be incompatible. It is not clear how the word ‘democracy’ came to be attached to representative government, but one theory is that Maximillian Robespierre welded the two together when the French experiment in direct democracy after the French revolution went horribly wrong.
But whatever the cause, the unification of representative and democratic politics ensured that the campaigns for change tended to concentrate on extending the franchise. As Matthew Bolton writes in How to Resist: “The Chartists, the Suffragettes and others endured prison and faced death in their struggle for the chance to have a say in the governance of the country.” However, he also argues that it’s a mistake to assume that they were only ‘fighting for for the chance to put a cross in a box every few years’. Rather, they were, writes Bolton, fighting for power – to have more influence. Now we have the vote, however, we seem to be content to sit back and let others run things. We have ‘mistaken politics for Parliament and have come to see democracy as something to watch on television or follow on Twitter – or worse, to switch off from completely; losing trust in politicians, losing trust in the media, losing trust in the system’.
For Bolton, however, and, for that matter, SDA, democracy means ’embedding political action into our day-to-day lives, in our communities and work places’. His book is a rallying cry for a new kind of populism – that is the ‘mass participation of people in politics’ but not ‘populism as an approach by politicians to divide and rule, but populism as democracy, for the people by the people’.
What Bolton wants is for us to take back control from the ruling cliques (certainly NOT elites) who gain power both in politics and business on a comfortable conveyor belt private or grammar schools to a ‘decent university and a great career’, whatever the stripe of political party.
Bolton, who is deputy director of Citizens UK and lead organizer for London Citizens, believes that if you want change you need power. It is not that power in itself is corrupting – rather that it is so ‘unevenly distributed’.
And one of his main claims is that in order to change the mindset of powerlessness, we need to understand that, actually, everyone has some power and that those ‘with less power tend to have more than more than they think, or they do not use their power strategically enough’. He is not averse to using self-interest as a tool for effecting change, and he should know because he has used it with great success, including his Living Wage campaign. His book is punctuated with examples of how the seemingly powerless found their power and, while their campaigns may have started with self-interest, they also often turned into the common interest.
One of his key concepts is that protest needs to be turned into action. The difference, according to Bolton, is that protest is often simply reacting to power, as is resistance (which makes one wonder why he chose How to Resist as the title of his book); whereas action means having a plan. If you have a plan you are ‘initiating the changes and someone else is going to have to react’.
Bolton’s book, while it has some theory, is packed with practical advice on how to effect change and examples of success. As such it is a refreshing booster for anyone jaded by constantly being knocked back by the established order, or having their enthusiasm sucked out of them by energy vampires.
Perhaps the last word should go to Margaret Mead of the Mead Trust, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Hear, hear!