The (political) madness of art?

‘Poetry makes nothing happen,’ said the poet W. H. Auden. How wrong he was.

My essays, On Art and War and Terror, now available in paperback, are dedicated to the proposition that art matters, ethically and politically, emotionally and intellectually – that poetry makes something happen after all. Not only does it make us feel, or feel differently, it makes us think, and think again. We go beyond ourselves, as a philosopher said, by penetrating deeper into the work.

The credo and manifesto of the book is the affirmation of another poet, Seamus Heaney, that ‘the imaginative transformation of human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it.’ Whatever is given, he writes in his own idiom, ‘can always be reimagined, however four-square/ Plank-thick, hull-stupid and out of its time/ It happens to be.’ The words come from his ruminations on what he calls the redress of poetry: the notion that poetry – art – can function as a kind of moral spirit level, an agent of equilibration, ‘an upright, resistant, and self-bracing entity within the general flux and flex’.

That is an inspiring notion. Walt Whitman proclaimed something similar:

Of these States the poet is the equable man,
Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail
of their full returns,
Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither
more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,

For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,
For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,
The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.

The essays take seriously the idea of the artist as moralist – an unfashionable idea – or moral witness, in Avishai Margalit’s phrase, with a moral purpose and a sober hope. Hope for what? Hope that there is, or will be, an audience of sentient spectators, viewers, readers, absorbed in the work: a community, a moral community, for who it stands up and who will stand up for it. Art is the highest form of hope, as the painter Gerhard Richter has finely said.

The essays also take seriously Auden’s cautionary words: ‘The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to makes us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such awareness makes us more moral or more efficient: I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the state … have deeply mistrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.’

Armed with art, in other words, we are more alert and less deceived. My essays seek to investigate these claims. They put the imagination to work in the service of political, historical and ethical inquiry, as I have tried to explain in an interview for the American publishers, Columbia University Press.

Poetry outbids prescription. ‘We work in the dark,’ wrote Henry James, ‘we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.’

Have a care, gentle reader. Beware the madness of art.

Alex Danchev

Of politicians and pogosticks

Yesterday evening, Radio 4’s Four Thought – which you can listen to here – featured a lecture about a teenager from Hull who back in 2003 had taken to writing to politicians to ask them if they had ever been on a pogo stick or space hopper.

As I explained in the lecture, ‘Jason Whiley’ never really existed – him and his letter having been dreamt up one night in the pub.  But the replies he got from politicians were all genuine: his (appalling written and frankly moronic) enquiry produced more than 80, including from 27 Cabinet Ministers, four Prime Ministers, three Chancellors of the Exchequer and two European Commissioners, many of whom also enclosed pictures of themselves. ‘Jason’ used the replies to create a website, called Statesman or Skatesman, which back in 2003 attracted widespread coverage, from the BBC to the Stuttgarter Zeitung to the Times Education Supplement. ‘Occasionally’, as the TES put it, ‘a pupil comes along who has just a bit more spark than average’.

Part of the reason I agreed to give the lecture, and to ‘out’ Jason, was to make a (small) apology to all those who replied – many of whom were busy enough responding to real enquiries from constituents without having to deal with fictitious ones from imaginary teenagers.

But I also wanted to explore quite why so many did reply. Part of the explanation is simply that MPs are more ready to do this kind of thing than they used to be.  In an era when we talk a lot about the political class being increasingly remote and detached, it’s unfashionable to claim it, but all the evidence is that MPs today are much more in touch with their constituents than they were 40 or 50 years ago.

There is the famous story of the MP who arrived at his constituency in 1945 to be asked by the top-hatted stationmaster if that would always be the date of his annual visit. There are no MPs today who take such a detached view of constituency work – and any who tried would not last very long.

MPs are now increasingly likely to live in the constituency, to come from the constituency, to have offices in their constituency and to spend more and more of their time working in or for the constituency.  A study by the Hansard Society into the behaviour of the 2005 Commons intake found that constituency work was on average taking up more than half of the time of an MP.  Their central or primary role — or at least the main draw on their time and energies — was no longer at Westminster but in the constituency.

In other words, I suspect that any imaginary Jason Whiley who’d tried a similar exercise in 1953 would have got a much less enthusiastic response than the one in 2003 – simply because MPs then were not so used to replying to letters.

The public should be pleased by this, because surveys of voters show that they rank constituency work as the number one priority for MPs – looking after their constituents is exactly what the public think MPs should be doing.

Yet there must now be a real concern that MPs are so focused on the parochial they have no time for the national, let alone the international, picture.  One MP who responded to the Hansard survey spent 97% of their time working on the constituency, which suggests that they were not a terribly effective MP in the remaining 3%.  There is a real danger that MPs spend so long sorting out Mrs Miggins’ pension problems that they don’t spend long enough scrutinizing the Pension Bill – with the result that millions of future Mrs Miggins’ will suffer.  The problem MPs face is that voters want, and expect this relationship with them; and any MP in a marginal seat who decided to make a virtue of prioritising Westminster over the constituency would soon find that the voters had different priorities.

But it is possible simultaneously to value the constituency link – the link between representative and represented – and still think that this has grown out of all proportion.  Many MPs enjoy their constituency work – they find it satisfying, and a good way of keeping in touch – but some will privately admit that they think it has now got out of hand.

In other words, perhaps it would have been better if more MPs had simply dumped Jason’s letter in the bin.

Philip Cowley

Bastards or B’stards?

According to a 2009 Eurobarometer survey 62 per cent of Britons believed that ‘the giving and taking of bribes, and the abuse of positions of power for personal gain’ was ‘widespread’ amongst MPs. This view was obviously influenced by the Daily Telegraph’s revelations about expenses. But 44 per cent already thought corruption was rife in 2007 and since the 1980s big majorities have claimed to believe that MPs lie and put their selfish interests before those of the nation.

Much of this hostility is due to perception rather than personal knowledge. While a huge majority think our national politics is corrupt only 3 per cent claim to have first-hand experience of it.

So why do we perceive politicians so negatively? Political scientists have their explanations. The decline in social capital is the leading favourite: simply put, many argue that as society has become more individualised so we have stopped trusting each other, especially those in the public realm, in particular our leaders. Others believe that this is only part of the explanation. For, students of politics have hardly started finding out what politics means to citizens: they have not yet got inside people’s heads to find out why they imagine politics is corrupt when they don’t know that it is.

Something that influences how we imagine politics to be, is the way it is depicted on the screen, stage and page.

Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics held a conference on fiction and British politics in December 2009; and to coincide with that Steve Richards interviewed me for Radio 4’s The Week at Westminster. You can listen to the interview here:

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Parliamentary Affairs has now published some of the papers spawned by that conference. The special edition of the journal looks at many different aspects of the subject, from Shakespeare to The Thick of It (and the article on the latter is available as a free download).

One of the most novel aspects of the conference was the participation of some writers of  recent political dramas and comedies – and we transcribed their contributions. Unfortunately we did not record the last session of the conference.  This was when Lawrence Marks – co-writer of The New Statesman – talked about how his experience covering the 1978 Jeremy Thorpe trial for the Sunday Times changed his perception of politicians. While often seen as a critique of a certain kind of Conservative MP, Alan B’Stard (pictured above) was, it seems, the result of a wider and earlier disillusion with politics.

Marks’ example suggests that if politicians acted well then they would be depicted well and we would think better of them. Of course, reality plays its part in how we think of politicians – and even imagined politicians like Alan B’Stard are a distorted reflection of that reality. But sometimes fiction can also play a direct role in real politics: it can construct how we think about politics. Who, by the way, was the star of the recent No to AV campaign broadcast but none other than … Alan B’Stard!?

So, while many Britons firmly believe that their politicians lie and are corrupt, why do they imagine that they know this?

To properly answer this question, we need to develop the implications of the claim made by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, that: ‘The real is as imagined as the imaginary’. For, the stories we tell ourselves about politics have helped construct and reinforce an almost unremittingly hostile view of our politicians. Maybe that’s because we have such an awful, corrupt politics; but maybe not.

It’s time we took fiction more seriously.

Steven Fielding

Democracy Taiwanese style

Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on 19 April 2011 its decision to hold next years presidential and legislative elections concurrently for the first time.

Ostensibly made to save money and streamline the crowded electoral cycle, many see darker motives behind a move made at the behest of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT).

As a specialist in political communications in Greater China and a keen observer of Taiwanese elections and campaigns, I am keenly aware that Taiwan has long been a polity where political trust is at a premium. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters recall the KMT’s long rule during the pre-democratic era; KMT supporters are quick to speak of DPP ‘dirty tricks’.

When the DPP won the presidency in 2000, it was followed by two terms of poisonous inter-party relations that did neither side credit and set back the consolidation of democracy. Legislators became better known for pugilism than passing bills; the DPP-held presidency and KMT- controlled parliament were totally unable to work together. Public support for democracy and turnout in non-presidential elections declined alarmingly.

Things have calmed down since the KMT re-took the presidency in 2008, but mistrust remains high and conspiracy theories retain currency. Fed up with the ideological tenor of recent years, Taiwanese voters accepted KMT candidate Ma Yingjiu’s promise to improve both the economy and relations with China. In his three years as president, Ma has received many plaudits, mainly outside of Taiwan, for improving relations with Bejing. Ma’s policies have however failed to reinvigorate the economy and his approval ratings hover uncomfortably around 30%.

The DPP is historically the weaker of the two parties. Chairperson Tsai Ying-wen recently won the DPP’s nomination in a hard-fought primary. Taiwan’s first woman presidential candidate holds an LSE PhD, speaks fluent English and is seen as a moderate on China, with experience heading the Mainland Affairs Council. Opinion polls show Tsai and Ma currently neck and neck. With a coherent China policy to ensure recent gains are not lost (traditionally the DPP’s weak point) and a plan to fix the economy  Tsai is a serious contender. A lot can happen in nine months of course.

It was in this context that the CEC announced that the two elections would be combined. The decision, to some, smelled of conspiracy. If this was an important issue for the Ma administration why wait until now to push it through? The practical details looked fishy too. The combined elections will be held in mid-January 2012, a week before Chinese New Year, the major social event of the year. This will probably benefit the KMT. First, several hundred thousand business people based semi-permanently on the mainland returning for New Year will be able to vote. These voters favour stability in cross-Strait relations —a major advantage for the KMT. Second, voters must vote in person in the district of their household registration. Holding the election just before New Year will force (largely DPP-inclined) people who work in the capital Taipei, but are registered in the South , to make two trips in short succession. If they are going to sacrifice one arduous trip it is unlikely to be the one linked to the major holiday of the year.

If merging the elections is a KMT ploy, it is not however certain to succeed. The DPP has fewer financial resources than the KMT, but in a combined campaign the DPP could concentrate its finances. Furthermore, Tsai Ing-wen is a strong contender, and DPP legislative candidates might benefit from their association with her. The DPP has never been able to secure a majority in the Legislative Yuan, despite being favoured to do so on occasion. But after merging the two elections it is plausible that the DPP could win control of both. It is this scenario that gives rise to the biggest conspiracy theory of all.

The constitution dictates that the President’s inauguration take place on May 20th. In past elections this meant there was a 60-day handover period. In 2012, should Ma lose, he would be a lame duck for over four months. That worries the conspiracy theorists, who imagine much worse scenarios than the violence that accompanied previous KMT losses. Would the KMT provoke sufficient civil disturbance that China would intervene? Could the KMT be planning to sign a peace deal with the CCP, handing Taiwan back to the motherland? These questions are being asked, in all seriousness.

If such scenarios seem far-fetched, the outcome of the 2012 elections whatever it may be is likely to have a defining impact on the direction of cross-Strait relations. The impending campaign will therefore be of vital importance, not just to the Taiwnese but to the whole region.

Jonathan Sullivan

China and Europe: security before principles?

As it increases its influence in the developing world, China now faces the same kind of challenges as are confronted by Europe.

The ongoing conflict in Libya is such an example. Chinese and European workers have been forced to flee the country, leading to a huge loss of business. Such problems are likely to reoccur as the resource-rich regions of the Middle East and Africa are not exactly well known for their political stability.

However, if facing similar problems, China and Europe have vastly different foreign and security policy stances. This has also been exposed by the Libyan crisis, with China severely criticising NATO bombing missions.

In this commentary for the China Daily, I argue that China and Europe have a mutual interest in putting their differences aside and cooperating on international security issues.

Miwa Hirono

Politics and the iPad 2.0

I recently upgraded from acetate overheads and marker pens in my lectures to the wonders of Powerpoint presentations. Feeling smug whipping out my laptop and beaming the slides through the digital projector, I was greeted by knowing smiles from my young audience as they retrieved their iPads from their bags. ‘Always behind the curve’ I thought, so this time I resolved to lead the charge, and ordered the iPad 2.0 in advance of its UK launch date of 25th March.

Looking at the slim iPad it’s easy to see what science fiction writer William Gibson meant when he said that the future is already here. Admittedly, much of the stuff envisaged two or three decades ago is now in place and seems terribly mundane. We don’t whizz off to faraway galaxies like Captain Kirk in the Enterprise, but then travelling faster than light was always a bit of a fantasy. And, as Woody Allen reminded us, terribly inconvenient as one’s hat keeps blowing off.

But the smooth integration of personal communications and information processing is happening, and it is proving to be much more powerful than virtually anyone conceived. Of course, when you see a teenager swapping texts on a phone, or posting to social networking sites from her android, it’s much less impressive than seeing Charlton Heston talking into a wrist radio in 1968. But, if we focus on the substance, the power of information processing (which, basically, is what creates distinctively human civilisation) has increased by orders of magnitude in the last half-century. The iPad is arguably another leap forward in this rapid transformation, bringing a new generation of inputs and outputs; changing how we work and live.

The future might already be here, but Gibson continues: ‘… it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’ This has ramifications beyond its intended humour. If we take it seriously, then it raises issues of fairness or justice. The new information and communications technologies are different to many other technologies. They create a new space in which, and about which, political questions can and should be raised. Lack of access to these technologies is a matter for worry in any society that claims fairness or justice as a value, or which looks for economic prosperity in austere times. Some are in danger of getting left behind, if they aren’t already.

Just a few years ago I published inequality.com (along with Kieron O’Hara). Our suggestions are still, I think, entirely relevant, and the new iPad prompted me to reconsider them.

First, we should not go too overboard with fantasies of a Brave New World. The Internet, for example, hasn’t transformed human life and society beyond recognition, as some early commentators would have us believe. The old offline political problems of distribution, freedom, and the relation between the individual and society are all mirrored online. As such, the old political resources, and the political sages (from Marx to Smith), remain as relevant as they ever were.

But, the Internet and its associated technologies have altered many of our offline assumptions. In particular – and this is a big one – it changes the assumption that information is hard to get hold of and hard to read. Whilst the nature of power hasn’t been changed, if knowledge is power, what it has done is change the distribution of power. Consequently, it is an instrument that is simultaneously both democratic and Big Brotherish.

This is something elaborated recently in Evgeny Morozov’s sobering book The Net Delusion. The new political space bears a strong family resemblance to other more traditional political spaces, but the resemblance is more marked in some respects than others. The Internet hasn’t changed politics any more than it has changed economics or commerce; but within the traditional paradigm it has thrown up new problems and new issues that policy-makers should be alive to –  issues of privacy, freedom of information, security, freedom of speech, and so forth. For instance, there are several websites now that bring together various official registers of information. The recent crime statistics released in the UK is one such example. Registers of sex offenders in the US is another. One can call up a map of one’s home town, or enter a postcode, and the location of registered sex offenders (along with photos) will be indicated, or crime statistics will be listed. None of the information used has been created anew by these websites, it is simply the amalgamation of the data from various databanks that creates the speed and power of the search. Similarly, Twitter has been instrumental in the organisation of grass-roots political action in the recent events of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.

Second, the new technologies are so central to the conduct of democratic politics in countries such as the UK that distributional questions cannot be left to the market alone. The sheer quantities of information available are (usually) a boon for democratic decision-making. A better informed citizenry makes for better decisions, and a more robust calling to account of officials. Nevertheless, any regulation needs to be light in order that the industry’s astonishing innovatory capacity remains untouched. We should be wary about going in the opposite direction of insisting on closing the digital divide completely by heavily redistributive schemes because of its crushing effects on innovation.

And finally, the information and communications technology industry is a fascinating one, and the effects on all of us, particularly the Internet, has been as dramatic as any event in the last fifty years. It is important that as few people as possible are left behind, compared both to their fellow citizens, and worldwide.

The temptation to muse on the possibilities and the difficulties of ICT’s effect on society is naturally very strong in the political field. But what our study indicated is the importance of understanding how the technology works, what its properties really are, and what the relation is between the science fiction hype and the actual implemented machinery. A pinch of salt needs to be taken with some of the wilder claims, but equally patience has to be shown to some systems of promise. This is as true now (if not truer) than when we penned the book.

Oh, and then I spotted the price tag of £659 and cancelled the order. I think I’ll wait until the iPad drops in price a bit. Always behind the curve…

David Stevens

European lessons in coalition politics

Analysis of the elections held on May 5th demonstrates that those politicians and journalists living in the Westminster village still have a lot to learn from Europe about coalition politics.

Many commentators were surprised by the stark differences between the electoral fortunes of the two coalition partners. However, had they looked beyond their own borders – which most journalists covering British politics are loathe to do – they would have noticed that such disparities are, in fact, very common in European countries governed by coalitions. It is rare for the fortunes of all coalition partners to move upwards or downwards in tandem.

There is not a single reason for these differences, just as little as there is not a single reason for the electoral losses or gains that parties experience when governing by themselves. It may have to do with policies, with personnel, with communication skills (or lack thereof), with political styles, and so on. What makes these differences interesting is that they show that what voters continue to look at is not so much ‘the government’ in an undifferentiated way, but individual parties.

Yet, had the British press reported the recent round of elections in the same fashion as they do when covering elections in other European countries, their headlines would have emphasised an electoral rebuke for ‘the government’ as a whole. After all, compared to both the general election of May 2010 and the local elections of May 2006, the combined vote share of the coalition parties fell significantly. For good reasons, however, reporting about what the elections might tell us about British voters’ opinions was more nuanced. If only that same sophistication could be applied when elections in places like Germany, Italy, the Netherlands or Sweden next generate similarly divided verdicts.

The aftermath of the May elections has led to a lot of soul searching, particularly amongst Liberal Democrats, about their role in the coalition, and the need to promote a profile distinct from that of the Conservatives. This may be chalked up as one of the ‘lessons learnt’ as it points to the naiveté with which the coalition was originally put together. In countries where governments are habitually formed of more than one party, politicians know that coalition building is a tricky business and needs to take longer than the few days given to it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg last May.

There are good reasons why politicians should take their time – although Belgium demonstrates that you can take too long. The ‘contractual’ nature of any coalition agreement makes it virtually impossible to amend or rewrite it at a later stage. Therefore, it pays to be as specific as possible about intended policies to avoid contractory interpretations at the time of implementation. Liberal Democrats in the  Lords could for example refer to a vague ‘checks and balances’ clause in the May 2010 Coalition Agreement as justification for their recent rejection of the government’s proposal for elected police commissioners.

Politicians elsewhere in Europe (and, for that matter, in Northern Ireland) already know that a sketchy accord is a recipe for disagreement later, and that it is better to hammer out the details at the start, rather than to assume that mutual goodwill will resolve matters.

Another reason for taking time to build a coalition is that the rank and file of the parties involved must be brought along to accept the compromising away of some of their most cherished policies. The more hastily a coalition is put together, the greater is the likelihood that some will later feel that their leaders did not arrive at an optimal deal. But if such feelings emerge at a later stage – particularly after new electoral verdicts such as that delivered on May 5th – it will be almost impossible to ameliorate them.

All of this could, in principle, have been known by Cameron and Clegg a year ago. It is after all common knowledge amongst politicians elsewhere in Europe – and in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and those English towns, cities and counties governed by coalitions. Such experiences have also been written about at length, not the least by myself.

Instead the leaders of the Westminster coalition are gradually and painfully learning by doing, and trying to make the best of the mistakes they made in May 2010.

Many of the underlying factors that contributed to the emergence of a hung parliament in 2010 have not disappeared. On the contrary, they look likely to remain. As a consequence, British politicians had better understand fast what it takes to be successful in coalition politics. They need to learn new habits, routines, expectations and modes of behaviour. They have to appreciate how to share power and how to profit from that. British journalists also need to learn how to report on coalition politics in a more informed manner.

Rather than learning through trial and error, British politicians could do worse than turn to the experience of other European democracies where successful coalition government has long been the rule.

After all, and despite what many in Westminster think, politics does not end at Dover.

Cees van der Eijk

Politics of Diversity Special Edition

According to Ipsos MORI 75% of Britons believe that immigration is a ‘problem’ while Islamophobia appears to be on the rise.

The three main parties have sought, in their different ways, to address these issues but most of the running has been made by parties beyond the mainstream, on the far-right. Since its disappointing performance in the 2010 general election the BNP has  however gone through a difficult period of internal upheaval and others, possibly UKIP, look likely to benefit.

Reflecting the importance of these issues Ballots and Bullets has published a number of posts that have looked at their different manifestations.

Matthew Goodwin and his co-authors look at how far UKIP and BNP voters overlap.

Lauren McLaren questions whether David Cameron’s much heralded speech on curbing immigration will calm many people’s fears.

Nick Johnson asks how best the Labour party should respond to the challenge of the far-right.

Finally, Matthew Goodwin helps us better understand Islamophobia.

Readers who want to look into some of these issues in more detail might not yet know that Matthew Goodwin has a new book out on the BNP.

No future? Why dystopias matter

Some people might say that politics contains enough fantasy without further confusing the situation by combining the study of politics with that of fiction. Yet, more than ever fiction can shape how we see the world, which is why at Nottingham we refer to a lot of imaginary sources in our teaching and research, some of the most important of which are dystopias.

Dystopias are fictional depictions of how the world could go badly wrong. They begin from a critical perspective on the present and identify key themes, trends or issues, which they exaggerate and stretch to extremes. These themes are therefore extrapolated from the present and placed into an imaginary future, or alternative present. Dystopias, then, interrogate the present and offer warnings and sometimes prophecies about the future.

Dystopias matter because they make us think. They raise political issues in a popular format and sometimes – as in the case of George Orwell’s 1984 – they can have a major influence on how we think about real politics. They tell us what’s wrong with the now and they imagine how things could (easily) become much worse. They raise questions about human nature and the nature of change. They, finally, take men (and women) as we are and the future as it might be, if we don’t act now to prevent it.

As part of my research I have spent a lot of time reading twenty-first century climate change catastrophe literature. As you might expect, this was a pretty grim experience.

My reading included the recent spate of post-apocalyptic ‘teen fiction’ (such as Patrick Cave’s Sharp North and Blown Away, Leslie Howarth’s Ultraviolet, Marcus Sedgwick’s Floodland, Julie Bertgana’s Exodus and Zenith). These books imagine, from the perspective of young people, a future in which massive climate change has occurred. They are the stories of future generations who experience the consequences of our actions today and commonly depict hierarchical and exploitative future societies characterized by mass selfishness, egoism, greed and consumerism. Such novels depict worlds without the ‘essentials’ of modern societies (communication networks, electricity, oil, banks, currency, ‘politics’, nations and states). The worlds they imagine are very insecure, frightening and dangerous. And, importantly, they look back at our time as an age of mass civic irresponsibility and a collective stupidity which renders ‘the people’ blind to the consequences of their actions. They are, in other words, modern-day morality tales. Despite the bleakness however these dystopias often contain glimmers of hope, often stemming from the actions of a lone (sometimes heroic) figure, who is a saviour or catalyst, a trigger for change.

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this reading. I’m too old to appreciate teen fiction and the cumulative affect of reading back-to-back stories about catastrophe was not uplifting. I also have reservations about the message imparted by these stories. On the one hand, they tell us that individuals matter and that each person’s actions can make a difference. That could be an enabling and empowering message. On the other hand, they depict a ‘politics of saviours’, in which we just have to sit and wait for the Chosen One, (a gifted child perhaps and/or an inspirational leader). This is not, I suggest, politically useful. But they do perform a didactic function and they might raise the consciousness of their young readers. This is, I believe, good and if every person’s actions make a difference, then a generation of young readers with a fear of climate change could perhaps make a difference. But they can’t do it alone and they are not the people who hold the reins of political or economic power.

Even though these particular dystopias do not, (I think), contain all the answers, they do raise some important problems. They suggest that there is something very wrong with civic culture and contemporary politics while analysing the politics of climate change through accessible and popular genres that raise political questions about its causes and possible consequences. They suggest that climate change is everyone’s responsibility – and that we can do something about it.

Whatever their weaknesses these novels suggest to readers that it is their responsibility to act. At a time when apathy and cynicism define popular reactions to politics  – and when young people are seen as politically inert – this surely cannot be a bad thing?

Lucy Sargisson was a plenary speaker at the 2011 ‘No Future’ Conference.