6.1.1 The Definition of ‘Political’

This definition of political is the process of appointing, and continuously negotiating with, people who are given authority to make decisions

Michael Oakeshott’s inaugural lecture as Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics was published as Political Education, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.  In it, he defined politics as:

“the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a set of people whom chance or choice have brought together.  In this sense, families, clubs, and learned societies have their ‘politics’.” [p. 112]

The term politics is also used dismissively, as described in Tony Wright’s article The problem of politics as a game:

“People perceive politicians to be playing a game in pursuit of political advantage rather than work earnestly to solve the issue of the day. The corrosive consequence of the game of politics is that everything that a politician says, or does, is treated with suspicion because of negative assumptions about why it is being said or done. Minimising the game-playing and aspiring to do politics in a more grown-up way would be good for politicians—as well as for us”.

Many of the games that politicians play are related to their attempts to gain and hold power, which often don’t coincide with what would be best for the population that they serve.  This aspect of politics appears repeatedly in this chapter.

Oakeshott’s definition of political encompasses the multi-level and diverse nature of what this book refers to as the Political Dimension of governance.  It consists of:

●  the processes by which people are appointed to take decisions on behalf of others;

●  their organisation and performance when exercising their authority;

●  and the mechanisms with which the population interacts with those who hold positions of authority.

A political system can be thought of as providing a means of continuous negotiation between the people and the politicians to whom they entrust many governance decisions, whose role is described next (6.1.2).


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/611a.htm.