Last night the students protests down Whitehall nearly made me late for an appearance on a panel discussing the Big Society at the RSA. The stress!
I say that with intentional irony. We were so civilised and reflective. Presumably so was the Royal Variety Performance with Kylie and Take That. It’s just that mayhem was going on at all-stations-in-between. I wonder what would have happened if it was Nick Clegg and David Cameron in the Rolls Royce instead of Their Royal Highnesses Charles and Camilla? I presume they would have been advised not to head up that particular street…
Putting aside any comment on the events in Whitehall (if you don’t mind) I can’t help thinking how important the role of student protests is to democracy. It’s the same the world over. There’s the democracy of ‘the streets’ and the democracy of ‘the chamber’. The former is pent up frustration trying to find influence; the latter is people of influence penting-down their discourse in order to stay ‘civilised’.
On the panel I was making the point that one my fears about the Big Society idea as it is emerging in practice is that it is predicated on a small authoritarian government on one side and a highly localised benevolent social activism at the other. I was saying that I thought that ‘all-stations-in-between’ were being stripped out (often in the name of cost-savings) which has to be dangerous to the sense of our shared ownership of society. My examples would be intermediary institutions such as the National Audit Office who give us some sense of whether citizens have it the same across the country. There is similarly a lot of talk of the importance of local government but not much of regional.
My all-stations-in-between point was really about how we monitor the ways we join up. If we’re not watching carefully we might lose the democratic connections that maintain the quality of our shared lives. I wonder if students have made those connections because they are one body who can grasp some of the conceptual principles and values that underlie strong democracies (not ‘Big Societies’) and so arrive united and ready to demonstrate their pent up frustrations? They already have a form of network and on this occasion their self-interest was propelling and in a few places out of order.
But meanwhile, at all-stations-in-between, during an unprecedented era of contiguous inequality in our country, a couple in a Rolls Royce, the figureheads of democracy, were making their way towards an angry and disillusioned mob…
I wonder who, between the localism of Westminster and the localism of the Royal Variety Performance, was monitoring all-stations-in-between?
PS Please join our Democratic Life Campaign to protect the future of citizenship education in England!!