Beyond the Westminster Circus: Statecraft vs Politics

April 27, 2021  

The latest sleaze scandal shines a light on the rot within national politics. But a more serious, community powered model of democracy is emerging at a local level, writes Adam Lent.

As Westminster descends into unseemly chaos, the distinction between ‘statecraft’ and ‘politics’ is more relevant than ever. In the Politics of Social Ecology, Janet Biehl applies the former term to all the rituals, values and endless shenanigans of the nation state. Statecraft is elitist, hierarchical, ego-driven and, more often than not, undignified.

“Politics”, on the other hand, is “the direct management of community affairs by citizens through face-to-face democratic institutions”. What Biehl is channelling here is a notion of politics that predates the emergence of the nation-state. Politics not as the realm of elite politicians located in a national capital but as the practice of the polis – the public realm of the local community where all citizens are able to engage directly in the decisions that will affect their lives. Examples of which, Biehl argues, have cropped up throughout history from Ancient Greece through to the Sectionnaires of the French Revolution and beyond.

The topicality of the distinction arises not just from the fact that Westminster is proving, for the umpteenth time, how ridiculous and self-serving statecraft can be but also because of the early signs of the emergence of an alternative in the form of the ‘politics’ conceived by Biehl.

The Rise of ‘Politics’

This emergence can be seen, for example, in the increasing use of citizens assemblies and other forms of deliberative engagement. This is a worldwide phenomenon but has gained pace in Britain particularly as a way of addressing local concerns about climate change. More recently, it has taken a step into new territory with Newham Council establishing a permanent citizen’s assembly to allow residents of the east London borough to play an ongoing role in local decision-making. That will be an experiment keenly watched by other councils that understand the need to move beyond the statecraft model.

Biehl’s ‘politics’ is also behind something of a quiet but growing revolution in town councils. With its origins in a successful effort by a group of independent candidates to eject party-aligned candidates in Frome in 2011, this ‘flatpack democracy’ movement has now spread to fifteen or more councils. With a strong likelihood of further town councils falling to the movement in the May local elections, it may well be just a matter of time before ‘higher tier’ councils with bigger budgets and powers succumb to the open, participatory, consensual vision of these campaigners.

Most importantly though, Biehl’s ‘politics’ captures a vision of decision-making that is at the heart of the growing wave of community power inspiring both local activists and a reform of the local state.

At New Local we talk of the five routes to community power, one of which is the opening up of major strategic policy-making to direct participation by citizens. Given community power is essentially about the local state handing over responsibility and resource to communities, such sharing of decision-making power is unavoidable. As the community power spirit widens its influence in the wake of the pandemic, we will see those who have previously held onto power at the local level, increasingly open to reimagining ‘politics’ rather than mimicking the statecraft that is failing so regularly at the national level.

All of this is, of course, happening alongside or within the established practices of representative democracy which are so central to Biehl’s statecraft model. That is to be expected – Britain is not about to replace its centuries old practices with direct democracy overnight. 

Global Radical Practice

If we are to get a full sense of how different politics can be from statecraft, we need to look abroad. Places like Rojava in North East Syria, Chiapas in southern Mexico and Cheran in central Mexico. In all of these places, local people have thrown off murderous national regimes to establish new systems designed around face-to-face decision-making by the people affected by those decisions rather than delegating decisions to the already powerful. 

This is radical stuff that has completely reinvented the way politics is done in those areas – a way that is not only based on consensus and respect but is also proving effective at engaging with those so often ignored in statecraft – women, marginalised ethnicities and the poor. As the Zapatista movement that led the changes in Chiapas say, they are on a mission to replace ‘bad government’ with ‘good government’ – a distinction that maps neatly onto that proposed by Biehl.

Getting Serious

Perhaps the most striking thing about ‘politics’ is how much more serious it is than statecraft. The latter is shot through with a neediness and self-aggrandisement that is not so very different from the ludicrous world of show business celebrity. Ego, attention-seeking, point-scoring and calculated self-interest consistently get in the way of meaningful discourse and decision-taking on major challenges facing the country. 

By contrast, the examples given above are characterised by the willingness of ‘ordinary’ people to grapple unflinchingly and in a spirit of consensus with the challenges they face in their daily lives. Unlike statecraft, those involved in ‘politics’ want and need to get an issue right because it directly affects them. Their motives are not mediated by other irrelevant concerns such as what a columnist might happen to think of a decision, how it might play on the backbenches or whether it will affect the polls. Dissimulation, calculations about personal career or popularity on social media play no part. 

It’s the politics of grown-ups. And the more we see of the often childish behaviour of Westminster, the clearer it becomes how badly we need a larger dose of this ‘politics’ here.

New Local is developing a project on what a community-powered politics looks like. We want to understand how the current political decision-making needs to change to give local communities the agency and influence they currently lack. We’re particularly interested in how politicians themselves need to change their values and practices to allow community power to flourish. If you’re interested in supporting or getting involved with this project, contact Simon Kaye.

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