More cafe and gauloises

Well not quite, but I did spend Tuesday in Lille as the guest of a futures workgroup on participative democracy hosted by the regional council of Nord pas de Calais.

I was there to give an English perspective and some examples of how local government has tried implement participative democracy over here.

In the end I’m not sure how much I was able to offer because one of the most striking elements of the conversations was how similar the questions were. Despite their very different system of local government (and the existence of an elected regional layer that we completely lack), they were werestling with exaclty the same issues we are: how does participation really work, how do you resource it, how do you reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’, what is the role of elected members and so on….

What was strikingly different was the style of the conversation. It’s may be a stereotype, but where conversations of this sort in England tend to have a notably pratical bent – “what can we actually do? How do we do it” – the conversation in France was unapolegitcally theoretical, even philosophical. What is a community?” they asked, “what sort of truth are we seeking?”, De Tocqueville, Habermas and others were all cited liberally.

It’s easy to sneer at this, “no theory please we’re British” and as someone who was fatally seduced by French theory at an impressionable age, I’m biased, but nonetheless I think they’re onto something. We don’t think about theory enough in this country. This means that there’s always a risk that our hard headed practical interventions remain limited and unconnected becaue we do not take the time to create a coherent conceptual framework to fit them into.

One example: part of the conversation on Tuesday involved a lengthy digression on the didtinction between ‘technical truth’ and ‘political truth’ even I thought this was maybe a little too abstract to be useful. But on the train on the way home I reflected that perhaps a failure to understand this distinction properly was precisely what lay at the heart of our current political crisis. For MPs the expenses question has been essentially about technical truth, have they acted within the rules, and if that doesn’t answer, do the rules need changing? For the public however, this is about a political truth: the relationship between the people and those who govern them and the nature of power and representation in the modern world. Understanding the different types of truth at play would have enabled a vastly more productive discussion.

All the cards are being shuffled right now. This more than ever is when we need big ideas and new ways of understanding how our democracy does or could work. So if now is not the time to philosophise when is? More theory please….!!!