You can't just stroll in and out of politics

4th April 2003 at 01:00
he last time that schoolchildren became politically active and organised strikes and demonstrations - as they have recently over war in Iraq - I got the blame for it. It was December 1968, the year of the Paris students'

uprising and of sit-ins at the London School of Economics and Hornsey College of Art.

Sir Patrick Wall, a Tory MP who, if he were alive now would make Donald Rumsfeld look like the wettest of Guardian-reading liberals, warned that "militant revolutionaries" had their eyes on schools. I eventually tracked down embryonic children's unions in south London, Manchester and Swansea.

One had already organised a walk-out during a school prize-giving.

The story made a page lead in the Observer and several headteachers subsequently berated me for irresponsibility. Young people were highly impressionable, I was told; I shouldn't encourage them and, instead, should report the more significant trend for pupils to visit lonely old folk and take tea with them.

The Schools Action Union later became a minor force and, by 1972, was organising strikes in London. Children fought police on the streets of Marylebone and marched to deliver "demands" to the Inner London Education Authority.

As late as 1976, when such activities had largely faded away, some heads were still denouncing me to my employers as an unwholesome influence.

For myself, I saw no great harm in them, and saw little in the recent wave of demonstrations. But they do not excite me to hail a revival of youthful political consciousness. On the contrary, I see them as further evidence of a decline in true understanding of what politics is about. I suspect that these banner-waving children think that political change should come about as easily as they can order a model essay on the internet.

I have little patience with those who complain that politics is too dull, and then expect the Government to defer to their opinions as soon as they can be bothered to take an interest. Politics should not be some branch of the entertainment industry, which compels Tony Blair to compete for attention with David Beckham and Kylie Minogue. You do not become "political" by taking a Saturday afternoon stroll in the sunshine to Hyde Park. Informing yourself of the issues, winning arguments and influencing events are hard work: as Oscar Wilde remarked, politics interferes with one's evenings.

For minimal engagement, you get minimal influence: a vote once every few years. For slightly more engagement - joining a political party - you get to vote for a party leader. For spasmodic engagement - going on a demonstration - you may influence politicians at the margin. But for more than that - for sustained influence over decisions - you have to attend meetings, write letters, lick envelopes, deliver leaflets, get yourself on to committees, and so on. I know that Labour Party members are resigning because they feel that their views on the war and other matters are ignored. I sympathise, but I do not think that early trade unionists, South African opponents of apartheid or east European opponents of communism would be impressed with how easily they give up.

Adults do a disservice both to children and to democratic politics if they encourage the belief that much can be achieved by walking out of class and waving banners outside Parliament. If we were really determined to stop this and future wars, we would join political parties, trade unions or campaigning groups and dedicate ourselves to getting our voices heard where they would count. And we would teach our children how to do the same.

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