Under the guise of 'controversy' we are offered wagon-loads of trash

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The Independent Online
LORD MACLEOD of Fuinary - the late, great, unmanageable George Macleod - used to say that the problem for the Church was not persecution. The problem was that it was no longer worth persecuting.

As a result, churchmen got away with talking drivel which nobody bothered to contradict. People shrugged. How long was it since the churches had said anything arresting or intelligent about human life?

The Macleod principle is operating all about us. It is easy to say that the British (or 'the Europeans') have declined from active citizens into mindless consumers. It is tempting to talk about political apathy, about indifference to parties and programmes, about a public robbed of all critical faculty by trivialised mass media. Both these dirges assume the same thing: that people are stupid. But they are not. They are shrewder and better informed than ever. The trouble is that they no longer find their rulers worth listening to, let alone persecuting.

This is a cheering, optimistic thought (unless you are a preacher or politician). The public at least show a sense of mental self-preservation. For if they really did take seriously the wagon-loads of trash that are daily offered to them in the guise of 'issue' or 'controversy', they would indeed lose their minds and critical faculties.

Last week produced a fine crop of insults to the intelligence. Poor Prince Charles unwisely opened his heart on television. But what he said was mostly sensible and unremarkable: that the monarchy's link with the Church of England was indefensible, that partners whose marriage has collapsed sometimes have affairs. This has been screeched up into a crisis of Church and State. But who believes it really is one, except for a few fish-footmen and superannuated choirboys?

The Monklands East by-election was turned by politicians and journalists into a mudbath of Green/Orange bigotry and jobbery. The wretched voters of Airdrie and Coatbridge are not idiots but - most of them - well-educated men and women. They carry a lot of political experience, not only in the shape of bad lungs and broken promises of employment but in their own hopes for change, often based on travelling or working abroad and drawing their own comparisons. Although they knew something was rotten in their local government, they had wider interests. But were they given a debate about how their part of Scotland could be regenerated within Europe, or about the best training strategies for the 21st century, or about how government can be brought closer to the citizens?

The hell they were] And all the hard-tried inhabitants of Britain were insulted last week by infantile versions of what has been going on between John Major and his European partners. It is not surprising that shameless nonsense was put about, making Jean-Luc Dehaene out to be a super-state emperor, or pretending that Mr Major spoke for gagged European millions yearning for a return to sovereign nation-states. It is not amazing that Tim Congdon writes in the Spectator that Britain would be more prosperous outside the European Union, and that Britain was deceived into joining back in 1973 on the assumption that the Community was about free trade, not political integration. What startles me is that people who say these things are scarcely persecuted.

After all, the truth is well enough known. Mr Major staged a sham version of lone Horatius defending the bridge to placate Tory Eurosceptics, aware that any other successful candidate to lead the Commission will be as 'federalist' as Mr Dehaene - and possibly more so. As for this novel history of 1973, it is hardly the fault of the French or the Germans if successive British prime ministers, knowing perfectly well what the Community's founders intended, told their voters that it was a purely economic arrangement whose political implications were just flowery Continental rhetoric. And yet, although they know better, people do not try to grab the microphone at meetings or - in the old Glasgow way - chalk the truth on pavements. They shrug, and get on with their lives. That does not mean that they have grown stupid, or anti-democratic. It means that their traditional response to insult is to ignore it.

It also means that when somebody dares to speak to the people at their own level, they will be heard. That level is not found in soundbites or Sun headlines, or in the noisy, scrambling, interrupting pseudo-contests which pass for political discussion on television or radio. It is reached when an honest voice begins to say: 'I do not know all the answers. But let me try to tell you how I see the mess we are in, and how we might find a way out of it.' It is reached when the people, in all their rich web of associations and interests which we call civil society, are asked not just for their votes or their consent as consumers but for their own ideas. Under that indifferent surface, there is growing a thirst for ideas, a hunger to be taken seriously.

The other day, I took part in an occasion, a fragile but moving occasion, which addressed that thirst. In the old Royal High School at Edinburgh, which will one day house a Scottish Parliament, there was a gathering of several hundred people to discuss the establishment of a 'Senate'. If this had been one more rallying of the devolutionists, that faithful old band which has been arguing for Scottish self-government for 20 years, it would not have been interesting. But it was different.

Few of those who came were politicians. There were no MPs. These were the activists of civil society, from churches and trade unions, from learning projects and business centres, from carers' groups and law centres, from cultural associations, pensioners' societies, black women's committees, mental health foundations, parent-teacher councils. These were the agenda-makers of Scotland. The job of the 'Senate' is to act as a clearing-house for ideas. All the separate agendas ('what we would like to see done') are to be brought forward, debated by this civil-society forum and sorted into a coherent programme for the improvement of one small country.

The problems are plain. There are glaring gaps, like the current absence of most business interests. And until a parliament exists, who would put this programme into legislation? But even at that preliminary meeting, the thirst for serious argument about big ideas was intense. Here, where almost everyone present was an expert, no one was taken for a fool.

It happened in Scotland. But the need this 'Senate' wants to meet is present throughout Britain. If we wait for the existing institutions to treat people like adults we shall wait for ever. George Macleod would have loved this scheme, with its enticing mixture of rebellion and responsibility. He might even have given the Scottish Senate his warmest accolade: 'something worth persecuting'.

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