Mark Steel: It's people who bring about change

Wednesday 02 February 2011 01:00 GMT

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.

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