Matthew Flinders: Can festivals really rock the world of politics?
If you want to know how to achieve those things the politicians promise but never quite deliver — a ‘dynamic economy’, a ‘strong society’, ‘better quality of life’ — stop looking at think-tank reports and just head down to Worthy Farm in Somerset.
I’ve never personally been a festival person, and the only thing the images of Glastonbury in the past have taught me is never to go there, but the notion of festivals as the source of a new politics, of a new way of organizing society and for delivering and protecting collective goods without the ‘hard’ elements of the modern state (ie police, laws, prisons, etc.) keeps nagging at my mind.
After studying political science for nearly two decades, maybe I can no longer see the wood for the trees. Have I become so fixated on the formal institutions and procedures that I no longer recognise the emergence of ‘insurgent’ patterns of engagement?
At a pre-election debate at the University of Sheffield in April, the former Home Secretary David Blunkett and The Times columnist Matthew Parris both reflected on the growth and role of arts and culture festivals in terms of promoting public engagement in politics.
Parris suggested that “festivals are the new political arenas” adding that “conventional politics is out of favour and festivals have emerged to fill an important social function”.
There are limits to this argument. Indeed, it is only a short intellectual hop, skip and jump before one takes this logic and ends up with Nigel Farage and his cliché that ‘every pub is a parliament’ but there is something about the ethos and culture of festivals, especially the smaller and less professional music, literary or arts events, that does resonate with the broader anti-political climate.
Put slightly differently, in a climate dominated by ‘disaffected democrats’ is there something about how festivals ‘do’ small ‘p’ everyday politics that MPs might reflect upon during the summer recess?
What does the existing academic research tell us about the politics and political implications of festivals? Very little, if anything, at all. The existing research has been captured by an economic lens that generally attempts to measure the financial value of festivals to a town, village or community – in this regard it tells us a lot about the price of everything but absolutely nothing about the social value.
So what might make festivals potentially important in democratic terms? In reality it is unlikely to be just one issue and it is equally unlikely to be able to tangibly define, bottle or transfer this quality or essence to other forums but one crucial element seems to be letting the people govern.
‘Let the people govern!’ I hear our MPs cry in fear – as they pack their flip flops, sun cream and their already well-thumbed copy of Bernard Crick’s In Defence of Politics – but there is something about stepping-back, trusting the public and seeing what happens.
David Cameron’s former policy guru, Steve Hilton, gives the example of the Dutch town of Oudehaske where all traffic lights, road markings, speed limits and traffic signs were removed so road-users would be forced to consciously navigate the streets. “When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots,” said traffic engineer Hans Monderman, the project’s leader. “Who has the right of way? I don’t care. People here have to find their own way, negotiate for themselves, use their own brains.”
By removing external controls imposed by bureaucrats, the transport system was made more human. And everything improved: Fewer accidents, better traffic flow.
In the UK the thousands of people that can be seen doing the Park Run every Saturday morning provides a wonderful example of the power of one person to make a big difference. In 2004 Paul Sinton-Hewitt had the idea of people in local communities coming together for a regular run in their local parks.
Since then the Park Run initiative has emerged into a social movement. Run by volunteers on a rota basis there is no fee to take part, the internet and bar codes make registering easy and social media provides easy access to results and ‘nudges’ to come again. Over 40,000 volunteers marshall races and over a million people participate each year.
You might not think that running in the park is political – but it is. It is a perfect example of the ‘everyday politics’ that has a very real and direct impact on people’s lives. Its success leads us to think about the potential for unleashing similar participatory endeavours and to think about how such projects and opportunities can be opened-up to all sections of society.
Professor Matthew Flinders is director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.