Asking nicely

Obviously the children themselves top the list, but another strong contender for the Best Bit of Parenthood so far has been the discovery of CBBC’s Horrible Histories. CBeebies is wonderful, but after five or so years of relentless, primary-coloured positivity, I almost cried for joy when we stumbled across HH.

All three of our children love it. The youngest, because his Viking heritage runs deep, and the chance to see “battling” is one to be taken whenever it arises. The other two, because they have excellent taste (naturally), but mostly because it gives them full liberty to snort at grown ups making jokes about wees and poos.

One of their favourite sketches features the unenviable role of Henry VIII’s Groom of the Stool. They are enchanted and disgusted in equal measures with the concept of a grown man too important to wipe his own behind. Actually, they are enchanted and disgusted in equal measures with the concept of tyrannical kings and queens (and emperors, and worldwide despots generally – Horrible Histories having, as it does, an impressively catholic approach to the past). We watch it because we like it, and because, if I can tear myself away, it offers a rare chance of Doing Stuff while all 3 are happily occupied, but it has also led to some interesting discussions about the development of democracy, and the move away from would-be omnipotent rulers (as well as in-depth interrogations on the most gruesome of ways in which they did away with those who disagreed).

Bear with me here. It’s a folksy way of getting to something I’ve wanted to write about for ages, but which I am acutely conscious that I lack the requisite political/historical/academic/whatever knowledge to really address properly. I have no doubt that this is also the subject of learned specialist analysis, and I can’t do that; I can only come at it from the perspective of someone who has spent most of the last decade breeding and brooding, and who sees the world in ways possibly not much more sophisticated than those CBeebies segments.

In explaining to the children how we moved away from the days when wealth and might were the only real sources of clout, and when even those who had them were subject to the whims of those who were really in charge, I see in my mind the image of courts lined with desperate folk, dressed in their finest, queuing and bribing their way to the front of the line, hoping that their cause might be heard and dealt with favourably. Petitioners, who were without any other way of influencing power, let alone sharing it. It’s helped me think (comparatively) more clearly about the reasons why I feel uncomfortable in some ways with the proliferation of online petitions and campaigns asking for my signature.

Those which feel most “right” are those which simply publicise a situation which someone has found unsatisfactory, and which are targeted at an organisation or company with a practicable request for change. They bypass the consumer complaint process, allow people to register their concern and brings commercial pressure to bear where it is most likely to have an impact. They feel like a good case of people power, and where they register sufficiently strong public feeling, have wrought some significant change.

In other cases, I think my issue is that a “petition”, or request, is actually the wrong format for the subject in question. They are those which are actually asking me to add my name to a list of people deploring a situation, or wishing to register displeasure or anger against a particular person or body. That they are petitions is probably more a reflection of the fact that there isn’t an alternative means to canvass and communicate opinions and statements which works as well as the big petition sites than of a real demand for change.

And then, finally, there are those aimed at politicians or Government, both on the HM e-petitions site and elsewhere. I must have signed dozens; forwarded links, retweeted details, watched – and celebrated – as the numbers ticked over the magic thresholds required to prompt some degree of parliamentary reaction. Increasingly, though, I wonder what role they play within what is supposed to be a representative democracy.

The act of petitioning seems to acknowledge that the power is all in the hands of the other. It feels uncomfortably close to begging for a favour, rather than an exercise of right as a citizen (or subject, if we’re being pedantic). In a country where the majority of those in the highest offices come from a background of privilege and affluence; in a context of a coalition which seems driven largely by one party which failed to win an overall majority, and which is ploughing through with policies which weren’t in its manifesto anyway; against a backdrop of disengagement with politics and the whole business of voting, it worries me.

On one hand, it feels like a positive step: a way of bringing the concerns of the public directly to those who legislate. But this is illusory; petitions aren’t mini plebiscites, they don’t guarantee any substantive action, and at worst they confer a sense of influence and involvement which turns people even further away from the boring, grubby murk of electing and holding accountable our MPs. Perhaps petitions do give us, the little people, a voice, but even then it’s only those of us with the time, resources or knowledge to ignite and spread a campaign online, or with the luck to catch the eye of someone famous who spreads the word. It feels like it gives people a voice, but I’m not convinced that anyone powerful is actually listening.

None of this is a criticism of those organising the petitions; dedicated, committed people putting their energy into trying to make things better. Nor is it a call to action: there’s no link at the end to a petition asking for an end to all petitions. It’s more of a musing, in short-syllabled thoughts, about where all this is leading.

Petitions, after all, don’t feel very far removed from catching the eye of a favoured courtier. I wouldn’t have wanted to be a Groom of the Stool, but at least he was hands-on involved with the whole messy business.

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