Dr Jack Harrington: “People lose faith with representative democracies”

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Pawel Rogalinski, dr Jack HarringtonDr Jack Harrington, a British historian and political scientist is talking to Pawel Rogalinski about  the relation of civil society and political manipulation.

Pawel Rogalinski: – Do you think there is still place for civil society in the world of political manipulation?

Dr Jack Harrington: – Yes, obviously, more and more so. I think the problem is that civil society actors feel a bit unsupported by politicians, but not by normal people. I think civil society organisations will always play an important role regardless of whether they are ignored by politicians.

– And why politicians do so? Is it simply easier to maintain power and popularity without cooperation with civil society actors?

– Few politicians would deny the importance of civil society. Yet pledging general support is different to making it easier for organisations of any size to know their rights, get themselves heard and have access to resources that can help them. Equally, may issues will fail to attract the widespread political support, particularly when mainstream politicians try to compete with more extreme parties. We can see this with the lack of support for immigrants rights or LGBT rights in much of Europe.

– Where has the civil society been developed in the biggest extent in the Huntington’s Western Civilization’s world? In which country?

– I wouldn’t pick one, because civil society has come about completely different places. In some places it is more about local community, religious groups… Particularly in America this is the case. In other areas, like Europe, civil society has been more about collective actions, collective identities, dealing with trade union movements and so on.

– Like “Solidarity” trade union in Poland?

– Significant movements like “Solidarity” are an important part of a shared European history of activism. That said,  Europe is made up of many different  political traditions.  You have British tradition of civil society, you have French tradition of civil society, and so on. They are all very different from one another and a challenge is to make them work together.  So maybe, hopefully, European Union citizenship will be the sight of the most innovative civil society, because it benefits from all these different traditions altogether.

– And what about political manipulation in these countries? Do you think there is a rule that the more civil society the less manipulation, or maybe there is no such correlation?

– That sounds like a great rule! I wish that was true in more cases. Often people become involved in civil society not because of a sense of duty or because they come from a well established culture of civil society. Instead, main civil society actors get involved precisely because they feel let down by their governments, by political parties or by the state, by what you call ‘political manipulation’.

– So what do think about Machiavellian attitude towards politics? Is it right that the end justifies the means? Do you agree that there are some moments when politicians, in order to achieve some important goals for the country, have to manipulate their electorate and ignore civil society at that particular moment?

– I think one of the reasons why people lose faith with representative democracies is that they assume this is the case that politicians must lie about how they feel, that politicians say what is easy to understand rather than what is best and I think it is a shame. I think we should assume that it is possible to have a representative system where politicians do what they say they will and want to serve the people, so I would like to think it is possible that politicians can be politicians without manipulating system.

– Can you give some examples of English-speaking politicians, (e.g. from the USA, the UK, Australia, Ireland, New Zeland) who treat or treated civil society very seriously? And the opposite – can you think of several politicians that were or have been very manipulative?

– It is difficult to generalise. All of the countries you mention have strong traditions of civil society. What differs in each is the role that the state is expected to play. Many of the services provided by charities in the US for example, might be provided by the state in the UK. In many ways I think it is a shame that English-speaking countries compare themselves with each other more than with their neighbours. Certainly, I think greater comparison between the UK and its fellow EU member states would be beneficial.

– Thank you very much for the conversation.

Interview by Pawel Rogalinski
Seimas, Vilnius 13.12.2013

Dr Jack Harrington has graduated from the University of Edinburgh and has received funding awards from the Carnegie Trust and the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. His doctoral thesis was published in 2010 by Palgrave Macmillan. Dr Jack Harrington has taught at the universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh and The Open University. He is a trustee of the University of the Creative Arts’ Student Union. His main interests are: civil society, human rights, historiography and politics.

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