Gandhi with textile workers in Lancashire: 'We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.'

Sam Fowles scorns the elitism and abstraction of contemporary political discourse

‘It’s not personal, it’s just politics,’ I recently heard in a heated debate. It seemed to highlight a common and slightly worrying flaw in our public discourse: because politics is fundamentally personal. When we claim that it isn’t it becomes merely a game – academic gymnastics, where commentators try so hard to write a clever argument they forget to ask themselves why they are taking that position in the first place. Worse, it becomes tribal. Activists defend their party’s stance to the last, not because they have carefully weighed the evidence and truly believe it to be correct, but because someone higher up the chain wrote it in a manifesto. This is not holding our leaders to account, it’s not particularly democratic and it’s not great debating.

Politics is personal. M.K. Gandhi said, ‘We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.’ The Mahatma’s point was that changes are made by ordinary people; to ignore this is a dereliction of responsibility. The actions of our leaders directly affect our lives and our actions affect the lives of others. Politics is personal for the 25% of young people who will not get a job this year, and it is intensely personal for those of us who will graduate into a recessing market already saddled with nearly £20 000 of debt – debt we accrued by trying to get the same education that those who piled that debt upon us were given for free.

But the politics of the personal can have positive influence all of its own. Barack Obama inspired a generation in 2008 because he made his politics personal. We followed his story from a kid in Chicago, to community organiser, to President. Whether or not you agree with his policies, at least we are giving them the time and attention they deserve. I, for one, would prefer to be represented or led by someone who does so because of their convictions, rather than for intellectual self-satisfaction.

When politics is treated as an abstract debate it becomes elitist and vacuous. Abstract concepts are for intellectuals, suggesting that only the elite can discuss or have a say in politics, that the rest of us just ‘don’t understand how the world works’. It also brings the standard of debate down because, rather than talking about real issues, we are reduced to intellectual self-aggrandisement.

The BSkyB debate is an excellent example of this. Those who defend the decision throw around words like ‘plurality’ and ‘due process’ and cite the fact that Sky News will be controlled by a trust, over which Murdoch will have absolutely no control (except, of course, through funding it). This all ignores the wider and more material issue that the government broke its own competition laws to sell off a frightening share of the media to a company that has no qualms about hacking the telephones of MPs, then offering the investigating police officer a highly paid job after he ‘dismissed’ the case (which has since been reopened under pressure from other newspapers). More academic justifications, which seem to boil down to ‘he still won’t own as much as Lord Northcliffe so it’s ok’, are equally spurious. When Northcliffe was allowed to dominate the British press, the government was also refusing women the right to vote, preventing democratically elected Labour MPs from speaking on the BBC, and shooting political opponents up against walls. It wasn’t a great time for ‘plurality’.

However, there is another side to the story. Across the Middle East, students just like us have made politics personal. They have forgone the academic debate and personally stood on the streets to demand change. In St Andrews too, political engagement is alive and well; just look out of your window and see the banners which adorn the three streets. Whether in an international, local or personal context, we may yet be the change we wish to see.


Sam Fowles