Apolitical animal? The rise of the single issue

Nick Spencer, July 2003

The Liberty and Livelihood march on 22 September 2002: The largest demonstration ever in the UK prior to the anti-war protests was a response to a wide range of grievances felt by rural communities

The Liberty and Livelihood march on 22 September 2002: The largest demonstration ever in the UK prior to the anti-war protests was a response to a wide range of grievances felt by rural communities

I was there. ‘Look’, I shall be able to say to my grand-children. ‘198th row, 632 from the left, next to that chap carrying the “Make Tea not War” placard’. I was one of the many who turned out for the largest demonstration in British political history.

On 15th February 2003 the crowds converged on Hyde Park to protest against the prospective war with Iraq . Two million people according to the organisers (one million according to the police) marched and shouted and stood and shivered to register their opposition to their government’s bellicose stance.

Five months earlier the capital had witnessed another mass demonstration when 400,000 people marched through London to protest about the government’s treatment of rural communities. In between the two there had been other marches, on university top up fees and on Iraq once again. The winter of 2002/03 seems to have laid to rest the myth that the British are politically disengaged.

Political disengagement

And yet, at the same time, the evidence for our political indifference appears pretty convincing. When William Hague stood up in the House of Commons on 20 th June 2001 following his election defeat he commented, ‘the blunt truth is that people increasingly see politics and Parliament as remote from their lives.’ They were not simply the words of an embittered loser.

Tony Blair secured his return to Downing Street with the lowest share of the eligible electorate of any Prime Minister for more than a century, with 17 million people out of a total of around 42 million not voting. [1] The following year, 35% of the eligible electorate voted in the local elections, a 4% increase on the previous round, and a return that remained roughly static in 2003.

At the same time, the returns in the recent Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections were little better. 38% of the electorate voted in Wales (8% less than in 1999) and 49% in Scotland, despite the fact that both systems incorporated proportional representation and permitted (and in Scotland achieved) the election of smaller, fringe parties and even independent candidates. As Professor Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit, said, ‘International evidence suggests that PR helps to increase turnout by between 3 and 12%’

The UK also consistently has the lowest turnout rates for elections to the European Parliament, returns falling from 37% in 1994 to 24% in 1999. Worldwide, Britain came 65th in a list of 163 countries ranked according to national election turnout between 1990 and 1997. [2]

Less official statistics concur. BBC research in February 2002 reported that nearly 40% of people said they thought politicians were ‘crooks’, ‘liars’, ‘out for themselves’, and ‘didn’t care about ordinary people.’ [3] A recent report by the Independent Television Commission showed that 70% of the public said they had little or no interest in the television coverage during the 2001 general election, compared with 56% at the 1997 election. Viewing figures show news audiences have been declining since 1993, with the number of viewers under the age of 44 dropping by a quarter. [4]

There are, of course, some serious mitigating circumstances. In 2001 the existing Labour majority of 179 seats acted as a specific disincentive to voting. Many of those who had voted Labour in 1997 thought voting in 2001 unnecessary and many opposition voters thought it pointless. The general tenor of Labour’s first term in power, exemplified in the courting of big business and the reduction in the base rate of income tax, blurred traditional political boundaries. Tony Blair’s inclusive ‘Big Tent’ politics served to smother distinctive positions still further and a notably weak opposition has had the effect of enervating debate in the House of Commons.

Yet the roots are deeper than the lie of the current party political landscape. The last decade or so has seen mainstream politics become tainted by sleaze and then spin. In spite of the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in October 1994, mud appears to have stuck. At the same time, politics has descended into a form of entertainment, with adversarial duelling, Jo Moore-like scandals and our soundbite culture generating ‘a soap opera attitude to government.’ As Tony Blair said of Prime Minister’s Question Time, ‘if we are all absolutely honest about it, it is 80% theatre.’

Such problems are not helped by the curiously contradictory attitude to politics and politicians that the electorate has developed over recent decades. On the one hand we confidently espouse the truism that politics doesn’t achieve much and that ‘if voting changed anything they’d abolish it.’ Yet on the other, we are determined to hold politicians to account for failing to deliver.

We are also increasingly inclined to apply a consumerist approach to our politics. So used are we to separating the world into suppliers and consumers that we invariably apply the same critique to our politicians. The distance between the public and any heavily centralised national or international political system naturally breeds a sense of powerlessness among voters and fosters the attitude that politicians are service providers, whom we fund and whom we expect to deliver the goods – the goods being a happy, secure, and wealthy society. The fact they cannot merely serves to exacerbate our disaffection.

The rise of the single issue

These complex and entangled roots feed our sense of disaffection and have bred the burgeoning single interest movement. Membership of political parties may have been in decline for decades but the number of people who can boast about their presence on a political march or their membership of a single issue group has done the opposite. The single issue has become the antidote to political apathy.

It is easy to see why. A post-modern society is wary of ‘meta-narratives’. People today are reluctant to sign up to any organisation or institution which offers a comprehensive agenda based on a ‘big picture’ approach. Instead we prefer to choose causes and campaigns which fit with our own personal agenda. We like our allegiances to be modelled in our own image rather than the other way round.

In any case, choice has become mandatory for every aspect of life today. Political parties, founded over a century ago and based on modernist approaches which offer a complete explanation for and solution to the nation’s ills, implicitly do the choosing for us. If people can choose any one of 6,800 coffee combinations when they visit Starbucks every day, they are unlikely to be satisfied with ‘A or B or C’ in General Elections twice a decade.

Single issue groups also enhance one’s sense of power. Individuals who feel that government is too distant, unwieldy, complex, or bureaucratic can move outside the mainstream and embrace causes which afford a greater opportunity for direct action and encourage the sense that my contribution really does make a difference. Even within mainstream politics, single issues have had a direct impact, with independent candidates winning seats in the 2001 General and 2003 Scottish parliament elections specifically and solely on a ‘local hospital and healthcare’ platform. In all these respects, the popularity of the single issue campaign is to be welcomed and encouraged as an important catalyst for future political models.

Single issue limitations

Single issue politics is no panacea, however. Particular causes may unite individuals but by their very nature they are limited and specific. Even when they combine, as the disparate groups that comprised the Countryside Alliance march did, they still fail to encompass the breadth of big political issues such as law and order or economic security.

Single issue groups can also disunite just as easily as unite a cause. When the then Czech president, Vaclav Havel, invited anti-globalisation protestors to debate with IMF officials during the Prague summit in 2000, he realised that thousands of single issue campaigns can produce thousands of mutually contradictory ‘solutions’ none of which is remotely as powerful as the forces they confront.

More worryingly, most issues are too incidental for effective single issue campaigns. A decision to curtail local bus services or withdraw County Council funding is rarely exciting enough to attract media attention, yet can affect those dependent on local services enormously, not least the elderly, immobile or isolated.

Perhaps the most convincing reason for more mainstream political engagement is to counter the consumerisation of politics. Single issue campaigns excite the individual’s interest which is, of course, what politics should do. But it is short step from this model to the implicit assumption that we need not be too bothered about other people’s single issues. Ideologies cut across the boundaries erected by self-interest or pragmatism and from a Christian point of view, the obsessively other-person centredness of so much of biblical teaching all but insists that single issue politics will, at the end of the day, be inadequate.

A biblical perspective on political engagement

What, then, might biblical teaching have to offer on the thorny, modern matter of political engagement?

Any examination of the issues will have to begin with certain caveats, the first being the outright rejection of the Enlightenment separation of religion from politics. Anti-religious critics tend to trawl up Jesus’ ‘Render unto Caesar…’ whenever they want to banish religion from the public sphere and shut it away it a harmless, little box (where they can criticise it for being too self-interested). The truth is that no such division would have made sense to any biblical character and indeed, as many theologians have pointed out, it is almost impossible to understand the Gospels without reading them ‘politically’.

There is an equally important second caveat, however, which warns Christians from the other extreme. To read the Bible as a modern political or constitutional textbook is equally wrong and even more dangerous. As Oliver O’Donovan has written, ‘political theologians… must not plunder the Old Testament as though it were raw material to be consumed, in any order or in any variety of proportions, in the manufacture of their own theological artefact.’ We are dealing, he continues, ‘with a disclosure that took form in a succession of political developments, each one of which has to be weighed and interpreted in the light of what preceded and followed it.’ [5]

Any use of scripture demands a careful process of de- and re-contextualisation and this will inevitably make conclusions debatable. Nevertheless, it seems that biblical teaching offers guidelines for thinking about political engagement in three particular areas: structure, safeguards and values.

Structure

Israel ‘s political structure varied enormously throughout its history, largely depending on the nation’s autonomy and stability. The Torah can, however, lay claim to being Israel ‘s normative model and gives quite a full picture of the nation’s political constitution.

This envisaged a power structure which was multipolar, encompassing six independent sources of authority, each with its own geographic jurisdiction. These were the individual, the family, the community, the Levites, the tribe or region, and the nation, and between them they formed a network of concurrent authorities each instituted by God and protected, limited and empowered by the national constitution.

The different authority units reflected the need to operate on a variety of levels but the division was also non-hierarchical. Individual or family authority was not automatically compliant to the edicts of larger state units. Marriage took precedence over military service for a year. [6] The king was subject to the law, as preserved and taught by the Levites. [7]The family’s criminal justice right to exact blood vengeance was mitigated by a national system of ‘vengeance free zones’ known as cities of refuge, and also by the sphere of Levitical authority, which would grant sanctuary to the criminal who grasped the horns of the altar. [8]

Such an overlapping structure, combined with an emphasis on government as an immediate and concrete fact of life, based on the natural ties of locality, community and family, particularly when compared with the pyramidal structures of Israel ‘s neighbours, countered political alienation and was intended to give a positive incentive to involvement with the mechanics of state.

Safeguards

The reality did not live up to the ideal, however, and the constitution was accordingly hedged about with safeguards from the start. The most fundamental of these was the fact that ‘politics’ was a resolutely two-way, or covenantal process. The Israelites recognised their responsibility to build a secure and healthy society and were told in no uncertain terms that their leasehold agreement for the land was linked to their behaviour. [9] They were responsible for their society’s health and, in due course, this cost them their nationhood.

Just as the king did not bear absolute responsibility for the state of the nation, nor did he have absolute rights. Deuteronomy records how the Israelites were told that any king they might elect over them must be answerable to the Law – an astonishing demand given the age in which it was written and the near ubiquitous belief in the divine right (or even the divinity) of kings. The same passage insists that ‘the king… must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or… take many wives… [or] accumulate large amounts of silver and gold,’ [10] another safeguard against the dangers of over centralisation.

The prophets were the ultimate answer to this potential for corruption.   Their role was to criticise both the monarchy and the people for deviating from God’s way and to prevent God’s edicts from being hijacked for human ends. They were necessarily answerable to God rather than the existing political orthodoxies and suffered for it. Sometimes we are too familiar with scripture to recognise quite how much of the Old Testament is given over to Israel ‘s self-criticism. The nation’s safeguards came not simply from its constitution but from the divinely anointed thorns in the king’s and the nation’s side.

Values

Both structure and safeguards were underpinned by a fundamental understanding of how power should be exercised. Ultimate power belonged to God, a fact which was intended to ‘de-legitimise [and] relativise all human power.’ [11] Exercise of human authority was to remain accountable, humble and cautious.

More pointedly, the biblical vision of power was not that of human power, which seeks to impose will, but of the divine power to serve, forgive, love, and wait. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the teachings of Jesus: ‘The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them,’ Jesus tells his disciples. ‘Not so with you.’ [12]

The tense and puzzled exchange between Pilate and Jesus as recorded in John 19 embodies this tension between the power of this world and the power of God. Pilate, frustrated by Jesus’ silence, asks, with what sounds like astonishment, ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’ It is enough to provoke an answer from Jesus: ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.’ [13] Like the Psalmist, Jesus recognises and acknowledges the tension between all power and authority coming from God and God allowing man to use that power and authority for his own ends of torture and death. It a tension which crucifies him but which, if we have the courage, should still instruct our attitude to the exercise of power today.

Engaging today

Applying such lessons to today, even those as decontextualised as structure, safeguard and values, is a difficult and complex task, and one which demands continual critique and reassessment, rather than simplistic, uniform implementation. Biblical teaching cannot convincingly dictate a complete modern political strategy but can be used to guide our attempts to foster political engagement. Suggestions are made tentatively.

The Biblical emphasis appears to be on localism. Distant authority alienates people and removes from them responsibility for their own lives. Heavily centralised power is easily corrupted. Subsidiarity, the principle that a central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more local level, appears to be a thoroughly scriptural principle.

This emphasis on localism also suggests we might profitably expand our definition of politics and recognise that PTAs, PCCs, residents’ associations, neighbourhood watch schemes, and even where we shop each has a ‘political’ aspect. The poison-chaliced position of Transport Secretary is, ultimately, linked directly to when and where we choose to walk, drive, or take the train or bus.

The stress on covenant is an important antidote to consumer politics. The prevalent consumerist mindset divides the world into consumers and providers and subtly encourages us to see politics as a matter for ‘them’ and the political process as what ‘they’ can do for ‘us’. A covenant principle, instead, recognises, indeed demands the two-way flow of responsibility and loyalty and holds individuals to account for national problems just as much as governments.

No single source offers an easy or definitive solution to the problem of political disengagement and that applies to biblical teaching just as much as any other. However, by carefully reading the designs and failures of Israel throughout her long and troubled biblical history, we can derive guidelines for our thinking and show that Aristotle was indeed right: man is a political animal.

Nick Spencer’s booklet Apolitical Animal?: A Biblical Perspective on Engaging with Politics in Britain today is available from the report section of our website.

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Category: News and Reviews

July, 2003

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