Cynicism doesn't change the world; engagement does

Frustration with politics is understandable, but if we refuse to participate we end up - as Plato wrote - being governed by our inferiors, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

I have a friend of whom I'm very fond, but who I think can be a bit of a plank sometimes because of the rigidity of his views about politics. He refuses to vote on the basis that all politicians are greedy, self-aggrandising idiots, so what's the point? His justification for this view is that he's tried to engage before and it didn't go his way, so he's not going to bother again.

I do understand his frustration with politics and politicians. I was ranting myself just the other day about the proposal from the Labour shadow education minister, Tristram Hunt, to remove business rate relief from charitable public schools that don't help state schools. For a moment I thought that I'd woken up in a DeLorean with Michael J Fox and been transported back 10 years to the debates about public benefit.

It's clearly intended to have a populist appeal to part of the electorate - and will probably appeal to much of the voluntary sector too. But here again we have a politician in pursuit of a vote, apparently disregarding the potentially terrible unintended consequences of his proposal. Even if you agree that public schools are a problem, they are, nonetheless, charities in law; the idea that political parties can decide arbitrarily which charities are deserving of tax reliefs and which aren't sets a really dangerous precedent.

What if the Tories wanted to remove tax reliefs from charities that campaigned in a way they disliked? What if Ukip wanted to remove tax reliefs for charities supporting migrant workers and their families? Hypothetical cases, of course (so far), but you see my point.

And no, I don't like a great deal of what the Tories have done in relation to our sector, and frequently I have been critical of their approach. I was just as loudly critical about some of the policies and decisions of the last Labour government - not least the annexing of our lottery money. But I always hoped they understood charities. So this intervention by Mr Hunt puzzles me, because I don't understand what he's trying to achieve. Honestly, I'm confused about Labour's position, philosophy or plan for our sector. And before you report me to the Electoral Commission, I am not promoting any particular party or its agenda here. There are plenty of crap policies offered by all the political parties.

It's tempting to join in my friend's cynicism when faced with this. But I can't accept the apathy that implies. We can't just give up. In a vain attempt to convince my friend to change his mind, I was driven to root out my old copy of Plato's The Republic. He argues that if you refuse to participate in politics, you end up being "governed by your inferiors".

Plato had a point: if we don't engage in politics, we get what we deserve. Ultimately, positive change never happens when people just give up. My toddler niece fell down a lot when learning how to walk. She never said: "OK, Aunty Debs, I've tried the walking thing. Fell over. It's clearly not for me." She got up and kept going until she'd mastered it. It's the same with politics. We have to keep trying. Cynicism doesn't change the world; engagement does.

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