Greenbelt at 40: A politics free zone?

GB at 40As the Greenbelt Festival reaches middle age (40 to you and me), is it showing its age?  Has it lost a bit of its radical youth  – and become a politics free zone?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Greenbelt.  Its a fantastic creative space to explore faith, arts and justice, a place of inspiration, energy and inclusion – organised on a shoestring.  What other Christian festival would kick of with a ‘Big Gay Friday Night Fabulous at Forty Quiz’?

But looking through an advance copy of the daily diary, amidst the plethora of music, worship, drama, talks, panels, films (and much more) there is a gaping hole.  Where is the politics? 

Where are the speakers or debates about the pressing political issues we are facing as a country – amidst the worst economic crisis, the biggest squeeze on household incomes, and the biggest cuts in public spending and welfare in living memory?  Where are the panels about immigration, the economy, europe, the future of our childrens’ education, health, housing, fracking or even the future of the nation state itself?

Scouring the programme, I’ve managed to find just one politician – Lord Maurice Glasman.  I’m glad he’s coming.  In fact, I’m delighted to be sharing a panel with him (‘Whats the Point of the Welfare State’ – 7pm Monday in Hebron if you’re interested).  But no sign of any elected politicians, of political parties, in fact no sign that we have a Government (or a democracy) in the UK at all.

Its as if Greenbelt has reached its middle age, put on its slippers, said to itself ‘do you know, I’m just a bit bored with this politics business’ and poured itself a pint of Redemption ale.

To be sure, I’m not seeking to blame Greenbelt – but it does raise some sharp questions about what does interest us as contemporary Christians (and Greenbelters) – and for that matter, for what passes for political debate in the UK.

Do Greenbelters actually not care about the burning political issues of the day?  Is no one worried about the rise of xenophobia and UKIP?  Are no Greenbelters affected by benefit cuts, cuts to public services or having to turn to food banks?  Is no one upset that global corporations are still getting away without paying their fair share of tax?  Have we nothing to say about or learn from anyone else about the UK’s future place in Europe (or even the future of Scotland in the UK?)?  I very much doubt it.

Does the way political debate take place in this country make people feel like their views and voices don’t count?  Are we bored with the same old politicians, platitudes and party politics? In fact has ‘politics’ become an observer sport, played out on our TV screens rather than something we have any right to (or interest) in taking part in?  Well, maybe?

But if all this has just become a bit too boring for Greenbelt at 40, where are the next generation of politically engaged Christians going to cut their teeth, be given permission to get passionate about the real political issues affecting all our lives, an inspired to challenge  injustice – at home as well as abroad?

Come on. Let’s put the passion and politics back into Greenbelt!



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8 Responses to Greenbelt at 40: A politics free zone?

  1. Sue Morgan says:

    Hi Niall, I don’t know about Greenbelt but I do know there is a general apathy amongst British youth involving politics. I work with homeless, asylum seekers, destitute people, refugees, and I am VERY political, but within indigenous youth there is an ignorance of the policies of the political parties, an apathy about how these new laws are affecting the poorest people and no-one speaking up for those who are unable to speak up for themselves. Tragic!

  2. Tim Watkins-Idle says:

    I hope to get to your session on Monday- but might not make it- that’s what happens when you go with kids. Meanwhile, I I’m sure Christian Aid will be talking about tax and politics, the Childrens Society have “Destitution for Dummies” and “a theology of poverty” and I imagine Jim Wallis will touch on politics, so it’s not all bad.
    I need to fish out some old programmes to do a “Compare-and-Contrast”- we may be looking back at the younger Greenbelt with rose-tinted spectacles………..

  3. Greg Smith says:

    It probably reflects the fact that politicians no longer do politics.. they just do management and and occasional popularity contest that’s about image not substance and only targets the middle England vote…

  4. agewait says:

    Greenbelt has always been or appears to be for those least impacted by such issues like ‘real’ life and community impacting politics. It has always appeared, to me, has a jolly jaunt for the middle-classes who need to get their fill of the latest ‘new thing’. Clamouring to be ‘hip’ but safely within their ‘norms and values’ Of course I could simple be an inverted snob who spent more time with the classified “Unchurched” rather than with the self-chosen “Churched”.
    Greenbelt was bread and circuses for the disengaged who fancied a little flirt with ‘danger’ without having to be immersed in the ‘loving your neighbour thing’. Nice little tasters, but nothing life-changing. With the added bonus of being with people like themselves.

    Adrian Wait.
    Former Community Worker,
    Now one of many ‘Invisibles’
    Thanks be to God.

  5. ianchisnall says:

    I have recently been discussing political engagement with a few people recently on the basis that our Political Parties are no longer sufficient to contain or shape our debate on many of the issues that Niall has identified. Indeed in some cases the parties themselves are via their donors complicit in some of the problems. The ideas are based on The Levellers who emphasised popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality and religious tolerance. I wonder if it would be possible to establish a network of politically motivated activists of all ages including young people, free from party political ideology who will use new technology to promote religious freedom, inspire Christian civic involvement and catalyse party political reform? I appreciate the ideas are too late for Greenbelt 2013 but I would be interested in discussing the ideas with anyone who is up for it. I have created @NewLevellers for this very purpose.

  6. Philip Nott says:

    I think to accuse a festival with such an obvious stance on issues as Israel/Palestine, world debt, green issues etc. of being a politics free zone is being too narrow in your definition. What is perhaps less obvious is domestic politics, we had those who engaged in the 80’s whether it be Simon Hughes, Bruce Kent or John Selwyn Gummer. In the 90’s was I alone in being swept along by New Labour, we saw lots of the Christian Socialist Movement around gb in those days. Then came the Iraq War and the realisation that things can’t only “get better” under a Labour government.
    What we are facing now is a political consensus around austerity that unsettles those of us who believe in such things as universal welfare, and a church that is being seen as a provider of welfare (Foodbanks) to a scale unseen since the birth of the welfare state in the middle of the last century.
    When the political wind is not blowing in our direction, do we trim sails to do what we can with it, or work and pray until the wind changes?

    • niallcooper says:

      Our task, as Jim Wallis would say, is to change the wind… To my mind this does involve confronting the difficult (domestic) political issues of the day. If we want to change the wind, we have to understand which way it is blowing – and why!

      • agewait says:

        The Holy Bible – God Breathed/Inspired.
        Bias to the Poor – David Sheppard

        Faith in the City – C of E (Despite what the critics said… it is not Marxist and I am still waiting for the wider church grasp the importance of the report, specifically Chapter 12)

        Bridging the Gap – John Harvey “Has the Church Failed the Poor”
        Faith in Community Development – University of Manchester

        All a little dated now… but all inspirational ‘Wind-Changers’

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