I joined Involve in the week that the Government triggered Article 50. So, almost exactly as I was signing my contract as a Project Officer, Theresa May was signing the letter that began the process of the UK extricating itself from the European Union.
While I doubt that these two signings will carry the same historical weight, it is a strikingly humanising moment. Our interactions with governments and decision makers can often seem diffuse; tied up in complicated systems that shield both the manner of, and the basis upon which, decisions are made on our behalf. The simple act of the Prime Minister signing a letter provides us with a window through which we can relate to an otherwise opaque and difficult to understand process.
It was my academic background in Politics and Economics which first informed my interest in democracy and public engagement. Reading political theory whilst also trying to engage the student population in a campaign I set up to encourage the University to pay the Living Wage taught me much, but it’s the rights and freedoms which underpin democracy which I come back to. John Rawls’s ‘A Theory of Justice’ asks what form of society people would design if they started from behind a ‘Veil of Ignorance’ that hide from them the characteristics which could form the basis of societal bias. While we don’t have the luxury of either the Veil of Ignorance, nor the opportunity to redesign society from first principles, the compelling part of Rawls’s work is that it starts from a belief that individuals can and should make choices about the form society takes, and that this is the basis of a functioning political system. How then, can people best be given the opportunity to make, or at least be a part of, the decisions that affect their lives?
One thing that has been clear to me in my professional life to-date is that we have not yet, as a society, answered this question. My work as a community organiser in London exposed me to the anger and frustration of those who feel like they do not have a stake in the decisions that affect their lives, but it also gave me an experience of the joy and value of bringing together decision-makers and individuals. My most recent role working at The London Community Foundation gave me an experience of the diversity of local projects which give people power over parts of their lives; from community gardens, to carers’ peer-support. Throughout, my work has been typified by people choosing to come together to create and take responsibility for part of their social world. These localised moments, however, can’t redress on their own the palpable need for greater engagement in our collective public life.
It’s this which I have joined Involve to try and tackle; I believe that our democracy, and our society, are made stronger when individuals are involved in the decisions that affect their lives. This new personal challenge seems especially pertinent as it arrives at a time when, over the next two years, a great many historic documents will be signed into law. Our collective challenge is to ensure that the window through which we can interact with these decisions gets ever larger.
Image credit: Signature by Sebastien Wiertz (Creative Commons)