On Saturday, Paula and I went to the Fabian Society‘s New Year Conference. The subject was Politics: Alive or Dead and was attended by about 700 people. The day was split into four main events: the keynote speech, morning ‘mini-conferences’, afternoon ‘workshops’ and a final ‘question time’ session. The keynote speech was from Robin Cook (Leader of the Commons) in which he made clear his views about reform of the Lords. (This speech was reported in some depth on Radio 4 the following day). I’ve heard Robin Cook speak before and have been generally impressed with his ability to convey his interest in, and passion about, politics. My real problem is that after listening to Dead Ringers it’s hard to hear him without sniggering.
My main interest was in the role of the media in the future life of politics. As such I went to the morning mini-conference about ‘The Media and the Democratic Process’. In reality, most of this event was spent discussing whether politicians or the media are to blame for the lack of democratic participation in our society today. It was good to see a lot of journalists there, but I was disappointed with the level of debate. I would have hoped for a more positive, solution-seeking debate, instead of quite a lot of defensiveness. It didn’t help that the chair didn’t appear very interested and that Jon Snow, who was due to take part, couldn’t make it. I’m glad I went, though.
In the afternoon, I didn’t go to the session about New Media that I had planned to, but instead attended a workshop about teaching Citizenship in the National Curriculum. This was alternately boring and terrifying. Boring for the long-winded speakers who failed to get to the point and argued with each other despite agreeing over most points. And terrifying for the same reason. These are people involved in educating our children and they displayed some of the fuzziest thinking and pettiest squabbling I’ve come across in a long time. In defense of the group, however, there were some teachers who obviously cared passionately about the subject, and who were thinking seriously about how best to instill a feeling of citizenship. One of the most interesting points raised was about the contradiction of teaching democracy in an environment where it isn’t practiced. To me, however, it seemed clear that once the emphasis on democracy was shifted to an emphasis on citizenship then the restrictions of the school environment would soon be seen to be similar to the restrictions of living in society today. Not everything is democratic and not everything is fair. Some children attended the session and one of them asked about the problem of practising democracy in a school, where a class representative may not carry out his or her duties as well as the class may like. I thought this sounded remarkably like the democracy that exists at higher levels and perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that kids get used to the good and bad points of democracy at an early age.
The final ‘question time’ was chaired by Polly Toynbee and included on the panel David Lammy, who’s the UK’s youngest MP, Richard Burge from the Countryside Alliance, Hilary Wainwright from Red Pepper and Peter Tatchell from Outrage. All these controversial people were good value for money and generally not quite as predictable as might be feared. My favourite bit was around a question about fox hunting and the Countryside Alliance. Polly Toynbee nicely put Peter Tatchell and Hilary Wainwright on the spot when they argued against fox hunting using many of the arguments (public opinion mostly) that are used against the things that they campaign for. ’twas fun.
On a lighter note, I’ve just bought a new album by Robert Earl Keen called Gravitational Forces. It’s got a lovely version of ‘Snowin’ on Raton’ by Townes Van Zandt on it and only a couple of weak tracks. Recommended to country / americana fans.