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March 16, 2007 4:30 pm

Go on, do it yourself

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We have seen quite a bit of citizens' activism in the past month. The burghers of Brighton mobilised to protest the council's decision to set postcode-based catchment areas for schools and, where the schools are oversubscribed, to allocate places by lottery.

The protest came from the grassroots, attracted almost 4,000 signatures on a petition and saw many hundreds attend meetings to brand the measures - proposed in the name of fairness - unfair.

A little before, Peter Roberts of Telford collected more than one million signatures to protest against road pricing - on a petition posted on the Downing Street website. Like the citizens of Brighton, his objection was that it was unfair - in this case, to the poor, who would be priced out of motoring, to those who lived apart from their families, and to many who did not like the increase in surveillance that the scheme would demand.

In both these cases, the authorities were acting in the name of the common good - fairer allocation of school places in Brighton in the first case, and stopping, or at least slowing, congestion in the second. The citizens demurred on both: their activism was, as much activism is, aimed at protecting what they have, or could expect to have.

Activism, in a society often described as supine or transfixed by entertainment, is generally seen as a civic good. In these cases, we can be sure the politicians in charge saw it as bad. And it points to a dilemma for politics, one that becomes sharper by the year.

Politicians are overburdened: they try too hard to fill every hole, deal with every complaint, stay ahead of every trend. In large part, this is the consequence of a more demanding and wealthier society.

The sheer complexity of conflicting demands exacts a price on the time of politicians and officials. There is a remedy: politicians must tell the people that they must do more for themselves.

But there is a proviso: if they act only or largely to protect themselves and their privileges, they then cede the burden of acting in the common good to the politicians - whom they revile.

The list of civic ills that politicians are supposed to solve lengthens - and as they become more acute, the more they are left only to politicians to solve. Public engagement, as well as private activity, is required, but of a different kind to that which came so naturally to the Brighton parents and the motorists.

In an essay - “Anti-Social Britain” - the former Labour MP Peter Bradley argues that we have come to believe that “it is the government's job to protect us from [the loss of community]. By and large, politicians have accepted that it is. But they are wrong to do so. A successful democracy is the responsibility of all its citizens, not just those they delegate to govern.”

What to do about expectations for a lifestyle ultimately beyond the capacity of an advanced state to deliver in a world of burgeoning low-cost competition? Nothing - except that which comes from citizens willing to work harder, or more intelligently, or accept being poorer. Rudi Bogni, the former chief executive of UBS, wrote recently that we are suffering from “an unusually long period of extreme liquidity” - one effect of which is “to buffer one's country's voters from the natural effects that working less should entitle them to: a lesser share of global goods and services... politicians are shying away from telling [that] truth to their voters, and a vicious circle of self indulgence and self-deceit is being buttressed by excessive liquidity”.

How can we cope with an ageing population which will be more and more dependent on middle-aged and younger generations, who will be squeezed for more and more tax? We can't - unless the ageing work longer and pay more of their own ageing costs.

“Many,” writes the economist Nick Bosanquet, “will have good health into their eighties. It is reasonable to expect them to contribute through co-payment... Coming decades will require a much more realistic view of the opportunities and resources for older people and should ensure that the whole service burden is not shifted to low- and middle-income tax payers in younger age groups.”

How do we reduce road congestion or allocate school places fairly?

In each area, the antidote is more activism, or at least activity. But not any kind: not the kind that demands solutions to problems that exact no cost - of if they do, a cost someone else should bear.

The kind that is needed is a mixture of civic responsibility and enlightened self- and group-interest. Yet most politicians are shy about turning to their electorates and saying: we tried our best, but now it's up to you. The new era will be a while coming.

But come it might. In an interview earlier this year on a Labour website, www.progressonline.org.uk, the probable future prime minister Gordon Brown invoked a “new politics”, describing it as one in which “you cannot rely on top-down solutions, on pulling levers, on simply carrots and sticks, as we used to talk about incentives and commands. You have got - and rightly so - to involve people far more closely... People themselves must be involved in making the change.”

For involve, read do. Act. Provide. Plan. Ask not what your state must do for you, but what you must do to maintain the state you're in. For government and society are reaching all kinds of limits.

john.lloyd@ft.com

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