How active citizens become activists

The solidarity of midwives with vegans on new picket lines has astonish ed the Establishment

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When is an active citizen an activist? And why does the political domain love one and loathe the other?

Active citizens, according to stereotype, wear permanent pleats and Barbours, are law-abiding, respectable and paranoid. They are the scourge of the enemy within.

Activists wear dreadlocks and army-surplus gear: they are the enemy within. All of our parliamentary political parties operate with these stereotypes. The cult of the active citizen and contempt for the activist have become so embedded that the parliamentary system has a seizure when one becomes the other.

And so symbiotic is the relationship between political commentators and politicians that the media's response to the renaissance of activism, exemplified by the animal rights movement, motorway protestors and now school governors, has been positively scornful - an attitude that used to be reserved for shop stewards, students and Greenham Common peace-campers.

What vexes the media most is the solidarity of retired midwives with thin young vegans, and the great and the good behaving like the ratecap rebels of the Eighties. But the political system is still working with concepts of citizenship that are blind to the cultural mobility, rowdiness and readiness to challenge that has produced the picket lines of the Nineties.

Perhaps we should not be surprised. The public is less concerned with the political domain - now the most conservative and cauterised estate in the land - than with civil society.

But civil society is not the halcyon pasture that political commentators would have us think. It is the place where strangers congregate and solidarities are shaped. It is where people sort things out. The great political parties have retreated from civil society into hibernation in the House of Commons: that is why Parliament is so bewildered by mutinous school governors and unruly Tory animal lovers.

The public's commitment to challenging the status quo is only surprising if we still believe that politicians are the owners of political debates, and if we still labour with an economistic view of identities and interests. But some people have been surprised - astonished, indeed - that the middle class is excited by anything other than tax cuts, and that a working-class postman can feel empathy for a new-born calf.

The great coalitions of the past decade - against the anti-gay Clause 28, bus deregulation, the poll tax, motorways and the Criminal Justice Bill - were always bigger than a single issue. They revealed both the fragility of party affiliation and the density of single-issue campaigns. Concerns about freedom of movement and freedom of thought excited these coalitions no less than environmental well-being or economic power. These campaigns are about the processes of politics itself.

Despite the reduction of room for manoeuvre within the political system and the Government's censorship of dissent within the great institutions, these movements exemplify the expansion of political discourse - they are not just marginal flotsam on the edge of the "real issues".

And yet it is commonplace among politicians and commentators to dismiss such movements as daft or dodgy, because they appear not to address the ancient question of economic power, because they appear to be exiled from the institutions, and because the outcome of their campaigns can only be determined by Parliament itself.

But school governors and animal activists show the irrelevance of that critique. However far the school governors pursue their protest, they will have taught the political system a lesson.

The Tories assumed that by handing greater control to school governors, they would pacify the politics of schooling - by transferring power away from the professionals to parents.

Parent power, the Tories presumed, would mean rednecks rather than hairy libertarians. But that shift freed the governors from a dead weight: the constitutional decorum of local government and Her Majesty's opposition.

Labour is no more equipped to embrace the governors' movement than the Tories - it was Labour's fear of the activist that produced the inertia and impasses of the late Eighties. The Labour Party has, to all intents and purposes, abandoned the art of opposition. The "loony Left" was purged not only by the Tories' attack on local democracy, but by Labourism's dread of autonomous activism.

That opposition vacuum was never filled: the Liberals were too bound up with Town Hall ambitions and rivalry with Labour to yield any independent energy.

The animal rights movement attracts a carnivorous scorn, as if it were an infantile disorder. Animals don't have rights because they cannot exercise responsibility, say the critics. Would they say the same about children?

Fish have no feelings, they say. But that is to misread that movement's challenge to our concept of what it means to be human, and its rejection of a Faustian format for modernism, which has humans occupying the planet by conquest rather than cohabiting with the flora and fauna.

At the same time, the location of the clashes over the veal trade - mainly in small towns - ruffles a narcissistic tendency in the metropolis to see the great cities as the sole source of political ingenuity. The bush telegraph has mobilised astonishing numbers against the traders. In small neighbourhoodsactivists not only have easy access to each other but also to their enemies - they know their drinking habits, the company the keep and what they do.

The campaign against the veal trade has a history that ought to have alerted us to its deep roots in British society, even into the distant archipelago of the rural middle class. Tony Banks, Labour's animal rights aficionado in Parliament, reminds us that it has been going on for 20 years.

It was the very success of the movement's write-in campaign, supported by squire Alan Clark, that persuaded ferry companies to abandon the trade. Alternative export routes were organised; the failure of Parliament or a political party to become an instrument or a filter for the campaign became evident. That was the start of direct action.

The isolation of the political parties from the campaign was one of its strengths. It was left unpatrolled and unpoliced, freed up for the direct action that embarrasses all parliamentary parties. And it was when the picket lines, staged by the stalwarts- the kind of prudent women the Tory party relies on - were confronted by riot police that active citizens became activists and animal rights became civil rights.

Just as the animal rights movement has expanded the very vocabulary of political discourse and our sense of what it is to be human, so the incipient revolt of the school governors represents the expansion of political space just when it seemed to have shrunk.

Yet, the genesis of these movements lies in the chaos of civil society. Freed from policing by political parties, active citizens become activists, and challenge the ennui and estrangement of politics itself.

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