Who is it for?

I’d like to think it’s for anybody interested in politics, and who wants to think about it in a different way. That really means three kinds of people: students, those who research and teach politics, and those who themselves do politics, in whatever context.

These aren’t mutually exclusive categories. Students ‘do’ degrees, which implies a set of activities such as reading, talking, researching, writing and presenting, in interaction with others. And they do a politics degree because they’re interested in the way the world is organised, in the way it’s changing and in how it might be changed, in issues and problems, in ideas and their implications. But they also do politics and other degrees because they themselves do politics: they join parties and groups, they campaign, they volunteer, they serve as interns, they hold offices of various kinds, they engage. They know from experience about the work of the activist, the public official and the elected representative. They know more about politics, in this very specific sense, than many of those who teach them.

I hesitate to distinguish teachers and researchers from students, and prefer to think of people I talk to and work with in universities. I’m thinking now of those who design courses and programmes, write and receive grants, publish books. This is a book like others, part of a common currency. But every book changes the game, if only a small way. A contribution to a discipline is also an intervention in a discipline, an attempt to define a field, identify its questions, and to suggest ways of thinking about them. It’s also an intervention in the discourse of that discipline: I guess it’s clear that the formal element of the book is as important to me as its substantive content, part of a developing conversation about how we should write and publish, not just about politics, but in the academy more generally. I don’t mean that all books should look like this, but they should look as though they’ve been thought about.

Of course I hope others might read it, those who do politics and have nothing to do with the academy. But who are they? Politicians, by which we usually mean parliamentarians and local councillors, as well as civil servants and administrators at local as much as national levels, but also party members, and volunteer members of campaign groups, school governors, everybody who went on a march last weekend. I don’t think I’m telling them anything they don’t know already, but perhaps just giving them something to think with, a way to ‘learn what they know’.

For any and all these readers, I’ve wanted to provide an account of politics in which they might recognise themselves and those around them, the situations they confront, and the activities they entail. I want readers to see themselves reflected in the doings and sayings described here, and to use them in turn as source of reflection. The reaction I’m looking for is ‘That’s fascinating’, or ‘That’s so true’, or ‘I never thought of it like that’. And then, in turn, to take up or take on my questions: how does politics happen? What is politics such that it consists in doing these things? How and why is politics realised or enacted in these ways? When we do politics, what are we doing?

In the end, though, I wrote also for reasons something like those some people have for doing politics:

We write first for ourselves, for a more secure sense of ourselves, so as to hold steady a bit more of experience, so as to feel less swayed all ways by the flow of experience. It is here that ‘the others’ come in, this time with more importance. Most of us would hate finally to feel alone. That, too, is part of the emptiness of experience. So it becomes part of the purpose of writing to close that emptiness a bit, to feel more securely — past simple assertions or crying down the wind — that we are not alone. We hope that this effort, this sort of exploring, will help us reach more convincing ways of speaking to each other. It is therefore true in the end to say that part of the purpose of writing is to reach others: not to sell them anything or persuade them, but to be quite simply in touch. It follows that we best speak to others when we forget them and concentrate on trying to be straight towards our experience, in the hope that honestly seen experience becomes exchangeable.

Richard Hoggart, ‘Talking to yourself’, Only Connect, BBC Reith Lectures 1971

Richard Hoggart, ‘Talking to yourself’, Only Connect, Reith Lectures, BBCR4, 23 November 1971