Freddie Mercury and Queen might not be the first thing that pops into your head when you think about the BBC’s Democracy Day but for some reason Matt Flinders, our deputy director can’t get the song ‘I want to break free’ out of his head. Here he argues that real democratic energy is building-up in the United Kingdom, but the existing system doesn’t seem able to vent or channel this demand for fresh thinking about how we live our lives.
Sometimes it’s not the big things in politics, like violent protests or changes of government, that tell you most about where power lies or the likelihood of reform. It’s the little things. Small and apparently insignificant decisions and events can tell you far more about the nature of a political system or the attitudes of its ruling class.
We had one of those small but significant events last week when the Administration Committee of the House of Commons rejected a proposal from the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee to project an image onto Big Ben of a vote going into a ballot box to promote National Voter Registration Day on February 15. Why was this recommendation rejected? The committee did not provide an explanation.
This might seem a small issue but given the extent of political disengagement and voter apathy the British political system arguably needs to show a little vim and vigor in how it promotes engagement. Phrased in this matter the projection of an image onto Big Ben (or more specifically onto St Stephens Tower) is hardly radical but even this was judged a step too far.
It’s not as if Big Ben hasn’t formed the backdrop for significant social statements in the past. In 2009 the campaign group ‘Vote for a Change’ engaged in some brilliant guerilla projection activities and beamed a huge job advert on the side of Big Ben that announced ‘Part-Time Jobs: Apply Within’. In 2010 the General Election results were projected live onto Big Ben as they came in and more recently an image of falling poppies was projected onto the building to commemorate the century of World War 1. And of course there was Gail Porter’s naked image… but, and getting to the bottom of the issue, a significant number of MPs don’t seem to realize the scale of the problem when it comes to political disengagement. They don’t realize that democratic inequality in the UK is growing in the twenty-first century.
In Parliament we have an eighteenth or nineteenth century institution – in terms of its architecture, rituals and working methods – trying to govern in the twenty-first century and as a result the gap between the governors and the governed is widening. Two things make this situation worse. The first is that the public purse is about to spend at least two billion pounds – that’s an eye watering two thousand million pounds – on refurbishing the Palace of Westminster. Designing for democracy seems to have been set aside in favour of rebuilding Hogwarts-on-Thames. Yes, I know traditionalists will criticize me for raising such inconvenient matters but, to return to my classic ’80s earworm, ‘we have to break free’. The second and possibly more frightening fact is that so many MPs seem unable to understand, acknowledge or react to the extent of public ill feeling. As a senior journalist said to me last week, ‘They just don’t get it!’
But they need to ‘get it’ if we are to breathe new life into politics. I’m not anti-politics, anti-politician or even anti-the Palace of Westminster (I just think it would work better as a museum than as a parliament) and I spend my life trying to promote engaged citizenship. My last book was called Defending Politics so I am no Russell Brand when it comes to criticizing politics. But if Democracy Day is going to mean anything more than National Sausage Day or National Tartan Toothpaste Day then we need our MPs to – as the Americans might say ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. Maybe this is why I keep thinking of Freddie Mercury and his song. How did it go? ‘…You’re so self satisfied, I don’t need you. I want to break free. God knows I want to break free…’
Matthew Flinders is Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom and is Visiting Distinguished Professor of Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University in Western Australia. There is no such thing as National Tartan Toothpaste Day…yet!
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog email our deputy director, Matt Wood.