Despite being in the middle of a crazed election season, if you believe some of the commentary, politics is dead. Russell Brand, expenses scandals and Westminster elitism have conspired to put politics out of its misery. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to assume that it is true.
I remember watching footage of old newsreels where it was proclaimed: “The King is dead – long live the King (or Queen)”. The irony is that if people are on the streets proclaiming that politics is dead, they may be struggling to know how to finish that sentence – long live… what exactly?
Churchill famously said of democracy that it “is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” In 2008, I had the privilege of standing in a by-election for Lambeth council. The ward in which I was standing, Vassall stole a place in my heart. Sitting between Brixton and Camberwell, Vassall contained about 15,000 people, and had some serious problems.
It boasted more CCTV cameras than the whole of Edinburgh and 36 per cent of the residents had no qualifications of any description. So there weren’t a lot of books in the houses and flats we visited, and you can imagine the subterranean levels of aspiration. People here were not being dealt a head start in life.
As I wandered around the estates, knocking on doors, I started to realise something else. There weren’t too many other people knocking on these peoples’ doors. These folks didn’t get too many opportunities to tell their stories and feel connected to the big picture. As I listened to tales of their incredible struggles and impressive effort on behalf of their families, I was suddenly very humbled. The honest reality was that someone like me would probably not be knocking those doors unless I was looking for their vote. At that time I didn’t live on an estate. In a ‘eureka’ moment, I experienced the imperfect beauty of democracy, acting like a magnet to bring society at least a little closer together. Before I deigned to represent this area I had to experience to some extent what life was like there. Many people report similar experiences of campaigning. Having at first dreaded the thought of knocking on a stranger’s door, they are now energised by these life-giving connections. There aren’t too many contexts in modern life where you just meet people as they are.
It was inspiring to work with local councillors to help folks get simple things like guttering, bins, heating or playgrounds sorted. I also experienced how thankless the role of a local councillor can be. No thanks for the things you get done, but lots of abuse for the things that you haven’t managed to get to – in a role that you are performing in your spare time. It struck me that much of what I saw going on was incredibly Christ-like in its humble service.
In recent years, the cry has at times been: “Politics is dead. Long live the people.” This sounds plausible. It sounds good to give more ‘power to the people’. But that phrase fundamentally misunderstands what politics is, and in fact what the word ‘politics’ itself means. Behind the idea is the Greek word polis, which referred to the idea of citizenship and the actual body of citizens of the Greek city states. By definition, politics is about people. It is people representing themselves in contrast to being dominated by a self-appointed dictator. It provides us with opportunities to represent ourselves, but we rarely take them, preferring the easier task of blaming others.
Politics is simply the practice and theory of influencing other people on an individual, civic or global level. So each of us practise politics everyday as we subtly – or sometimes unsubtly – influence one another in conversation in the playground, in the pub or in the living room. To say that we are not into politics is to misrepresent the word. The truth is that we are all into politics, but sometimes only up to a certain arbitrary line which we have drawn somewhere between the individual and civic levels.
Politics simply describes how we order society and people. Throughout the whole of scripture God shows that He particularly passionate about how we organise ourselves as a society. In the book of the SHOW UP campaign, called Those who show up there is a whistle-stop tour through all 66 books of the Bible, illustrating exactly how much God cares. We know He cares about the state of our hearts, but He also cares about the heart of our state.
This is not the same thing as saying there is nothing to critique about how we do politics in the modern world. I can write you that essay better than most. What I want to encourage is not throwing the political baby out with the at-times objectionable bathwater. Politics is necessary and it is God-ordained. It is not just a functional necessary evil. God rejoices in good governance. It shapes culture, transforming how we think and act. It is not the only factor that does this, but a significant one.
So not surprisingly, in social experiments when political leadership has been removed from situations, or people have had to make up the rules of a society from scratch – think of desert island scenarios – it is amazing how something looking suspiciously like politics emerges. People vote. Councils are formed. Leaders are empowered. It would appear that if we shout: “Politics is dead”, we may soon be shouting: “Long live politics”. Maybe it’s time for us to be part of the resurrection.
The book of the SHOW UP campaign (watch the video here) has just been released, including a foreword by Archbishop Justin Welby. The book will be read in Parliament Square from 4pm on Thursday 19 March, culminating in a time of prayer for the election from 6-7pm. Details of the event are here.