Mark Steel: It's people who bring about change

Share
Related Topics

All those scenes from Cairo of mass demonstrations look like the perfect expression of the big society. So we can only assume David Cameron wants us to try something similar here. It would certainly encourage more people to take an interest in politics. Instead of complaining that kids show no interest in the political process when they are asked to study details of local government boundary changes, teachers could say: "Today we're going to find out how new governments are formed" and get the class to stand on a tank in Trafalgar Square.

Because what makes politics seem "boring" to most people is that it is presented as being all about politicians. It's the bits of newspapers that go: "A source close to the Liberal Democrats' agriculture spokesman confirmed to me yesterday that the Minister for Furniture could be moved sideways to the Department of Insects, in a move that would strengthen the section of the party grouped around ex-leader the late Mr Gladstone." This is why successful documentaries about great political events tend to be those about Martin Luther King or Gandhi, rather than the unexpected midterm reshuffle under Harold Wilson.

The problem of convincing people there is a reason to take an interest in politicians is greater now than ever, because they themselves don't know what they stand for. So they make speeches where they say: "The reason I joined this party is because I believe in people", as if a different party would say: "Well we disagree because we prefer ocelots."

And the differences are even harder to explain now because they all seem to stand for the same ideas, with tiny differences, so Labour will say the programme of cuts is outrageous because while they would have done much the same themselves, they would have started them on a Wednesday. To get teenagers to take an interest in elections you have to say: "You should care because, for example on the issue of tuition fees, one party says they should be trebled, whereas this party here says they should be scrapped and will then change their mind after the election and THEN say they should be trebled. So it's your life that is affected."

But from time to time, a vast group becomes aware it can influence events if it connects with a popular cause. So most of the great changes in recent years have happened as a result of the actions of people outside formal politics. For example, people who suggest protest doesn't change anything presumably think that apartheid was ended because Nelson Mandela wrote a particularly well-drafted piece of legislation, which he presented to a select committee, and it was so persuasive that the old prime minister ran out of the room and the Afrikaaner leaders screamed: "It's such wonderful prose" and shot themselves.

When protest becomes revolution, the process can become historic. So in any mass revolt against a bullying regime, huge numbers who have given little indication that they have any interest in "politics" are transformed. Pamphlets written by those involved are read by hundreds of thousands and their speeches listened to by millions. Meetings are attended by hundreds, eager to add their voices because now it matters what they say, and what they decide.

And that terrifies many rulers, which is why so many are screaming that the result of Egypt's current revolt could be "an Islamic state", although no one involved is calling for that. But this is the stock argument now against almost every popular movement, and soon every time a group of residents in a village hold a protest against the closure of a library, Cameron will say: "It's all very well signing their petition, but there's a good deal of evidence that if they get their way Diddlecock Green could be turned into an Islamic state."

In fact, the Big Society taking place in Egypt means for a moment that the place has become the most democratic country on the planet.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
“I just wanted some chicken wings,” Tan Shen told the assembled media. “But once I got in there ... I decided I needed time to think.”  

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015