17 November 2006

They can't cope with freedom

Oh dear, oh dear. This freedom idea is quite a good one but it can go too far. I mean, if people are free to voice their views what will happen to the respect that they should have for their betters, a. k. a. politicians who want to ensure that we do not break out of those boundaries and who, needless to say, have our best interests at heart.

Such seems to be the opinion of Matthew Taylor, the Prime Minister’s outgoing chief adviser on political strategy. Mr Taylor (soon to be ennobled, perhaps?) has also been head of the left-wing think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research and is going on to become the chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (RSA).

He was delivering his speech (“speaking as a citizen not a government spokesman”) at a conference on e-democracy. The immediate problem is that the internet and its, as yet unpredictable, consequences are not to be pinned down in conferences attended by those who like attending conferences. (Yes, yes, I know. There is one coming up tomorrow and I am speaking at it but hey, you don’t have to attend it.)

So what does Mr Taylor think about the influence of the internet and the blogosphere on political life? Well, on the one hand it is, of course, a good thing but really, it seems to be contributing to the crisis in the relationship between the people and politicians. How so?

But it was too often used to encourage the "shrill discourse of demands" that dominated modern politics.

And, of course, all too often used to criticize politicians and advance ideas that are beyond that cosy consensus some politicians have built up with the dead-tree and drive-by media.

In fact, the real problem with the internet that it cannot be controlled and real democracy and real desire for freedom is expressed through it. And boy, does it hurt!

The end of deference, the rapid pace of social change and growing diversity were all good things, he argued, but they also meant governments found it increasingly difficult to govern.

"We have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government," Mr Taylor told the audience.

Excuse me? Mr Taylor has a very odd idea of the relationship between the people and the government. It would appear that he thinks the people are there to obey the government and to exist within the parameters defined by it. Whatever happened to “government of the people, by the people and for the people”?

Of course, Matthew Taylor is not Abraham Lincoln but even so, one would like to hear something substantial than this stuff:

At a time at which we need a richer relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had, to confront the shared challenges we face, arguably we have a more impoverished relationship between politicians and citizens than we have ever had.

It seems to me this is something which is worth calling a crisis.

Well, no, I wouldn’t call it a crisis except for the politicians, as their sins are catching up with them, not that they have understood it yet. In particular they find it hard to understand such matters in Britain where the internet and the blogosphere have not taken off in politics as they have done in the United States. Probably there is a great deal more deference on this side of the Pond than on the other.

The internet has immense potential but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands.

If you look at the way in which citizens are using technology and the way that is growing up, there are worrying signs that that is the case.

What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It's basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.

The internet is being used as a tool of mobilisation, which is fantastic, but it only adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government.

Or maybe it is making just one demand on the government: get out of our lives and stop trying to control us and our opinions. That is what they are afraid of and that is why there is a half-hearted attempt to harness the forces they do not understand by having online interviews with the Prime Minister, blogs by politicians and, most of all, a great deal of weeping and wailing about the uncontrollable nature of the internet.

So bad for people, all this freedom, all this anarchy, all this libertarianism. They should see that we are the people they should listen to. They should stop telling us that we should do less but do it better. All so chaotic. Boo-freakin-hoo, to quote yet again one of the best American bloggers.

So what is Matthew Taylor’s solution?

I want people to have more power, but I want them to have more power in the context of a more mature discourse about the responsibilities of government and the responsibilities of citizens.

You have to be part of changing that culture. It's important for people who understand technology, to move from that frame of mind, which is about attacking the establishment into one which is about problem-solving and social enterprise.

With that in mind, this blog solemnly promises to move on to a more mature discourse about the responsibilities of whoever Mr Taylor wants us to discuss. We shall refrain from attacking the establishment and go into problem-solving and social enterprise, whatever any of it might mean. Then we can all move happily forward into the glorious future where discourse takes place in the context defined by such people as the chief executive of the RSA, formerly chief policy adviser to the Prime Minister.

Then again, maybe not. Maybe we shall stay in that appalling frame of mind that still thinks the establishment has no particular rights not to be criticized for all its mishandling of important matters; that prefers the government to be accountable to the people rather than the other way round; that refuses to allow some jumped up quangoista to define in what context people can have liberty and power.