Leadership

I have had several conversations recently about leadership, which for me is a bit of an enigma. I have always regarded myself as a bit of rebel, as someone who not only resists being told what to do, but who has a strong imperative to challenge any imposed authority. But recently, and particularly in politics, I have found myself seriously thinking that some strong leadership is required, particularly in terms of an effective opposition to our current government, and on the world stage in relation to our climate and ecological breakdown. But I have no sooner had these thoughts than the warning bells start sounding. I remind myself that strong political leaders like Mussolini were initially welcomed onto the political stage as solutions to a political crisis. And we all know what happens next.

I am not even sure I know what I mean by leadership! Perhaps a certain quality or set of qualities / abilities that certain people seem to have? Something you can’t define in advance, but recognise when you encounter them? For example, Confucianism has described these qualities in terms of five virtues (intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and disciple) which a leader must not only have, but have in the correct balance. If this so, then how do you explain the popular appeal of politicians such as Johnson and Trump? They both seem deficient in most of these virtues. But perhaps that’s an unfair question. Perhaps it’s wrong to equate being popular with leadership, even though both of these clowns appear to have, from the perspective of their supporters, the charisma that Max Weber thought so essential to political leadership.

If a certain set of virtues is the way to understand good leadership, one missing from the above list is vision – that ability to not only possess a clear picture of what it is you want your group / community / nation to achieve with you as their leader, but to be able to communicate that picture to the group. And in many ways this vision (together with the other relevant virtues) must be context specific. Arguably Churchill was a very effective war-time leader, managing to utilise his persona and rhetorical skills to unite the nation at a time of extreme crisis, but a very poor leader of the following peace. What this country so desperately needs during our current constitutional crisis is an effective leader of the opposition – someone capable of presenting a clear alternative vision of the future that a significant number of the public could muster behind and support. Even more importantly, what we need both nationally and internationally is leadership capable of presenting a clear vision of a post climate and ecological crisis world.

A third approach to understanding leadership is perhaps to take a functional approach and argue that the role of a good and effective leader is to meet group needs. I could see the value of such an approach in certain contexts, but what if the group is unclear as to what their needs actually are? What if (as I think is the case at the moment) the needs which people think they have (to consume what they like, travel where they like, and accumulate as much wealth as they are able) are actually inconsistent with the vision the potential leader has. If the leader’s assessment of the future is accurate, yet, for the sake of acquiring power appeals the ‘needs’ of the group instead, they will surely fail. In which case, the real quality our great leader will require is the ability to change the group’s understanding of their perceived needs. Now there’s a challenge!

Facts, on their own, are not enough

I attended two meetings this last week that considered, at different levels of local government, how to respond to their respective declarations of a climate emergency. At one of these the command of Mr Gradgrind, the school board superintendent from Charles Dicken’s Hard Times, came charging into my consciousness: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Dickens was, of course, highly critical of what he considered to be the cold, utilitarian approach to education that was being promoted by various ‘progressive’ elements of Victorian society. He believed that facts, on their own, were not enough. Something else was needed to bring about social change.

The first part of this particular meeting was given over to a presentation by Extinction Rebellion, a campaign group who have my full support. They presented the meeting with, what I would consider to be, the main facts behind our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, the data that is supported by 97% of the scientific community. The main argument of this presentation was that too many people are in denial of these facts, and that consequently they need to told the truth. I largely disagree with this. Whilst much of the population may not be able to recite all the data, I am not convinced that people are simply in denial of the issues. More is at play here. More is required than endless facts. In my experience many people actually get turned off from important issues when presented with facts.

Following this presentation, the chair of the meeting informed us that having heard one perspective on the issue we now need to step back and consider the facts. The implication of this statement was two fold: that the ‘facts’ as just presented needed to be checked to ensure that they are genuine ‘facts’, and that other ‘facts’ may be available that would throw doubt on the status of these ‘facts’. From my perspective there was more than sufficient evidence to justify action, but the chair was obviously approaching from a different direction. So how do we make sense of such a conflict? It seems obvious that facts, on their own, are not enough. They need to be interpreted, they need to be made meaningful. But what is the missing ingredient here?

For Dickens it was sentiment, emotion. Whilst Dickens was a great campaigner for social change, as a novelist he is often criticised for being overly sentimental. But this, for him, was the missing ingredient. He recognised that for change to happen people not only needed the facts, they needed to genuinely feel something for the those at the lower end of the social hierarchy. To bring this point bang up-to-date simply look at the result of David Attenborough highlighting the effects of plastics entering our oceans in his documentary Blue Planet II. Campaigners had been banging on about this issue for ages, but as soon at this programme used some very emotive filming to show birds and sea life suffering it entered our national consciousness and things started to change. So yes, we need facts, but we also need to bring these facts to life with emotion. However, I have recently come to the opinion that a third element is also required.

Any radical change also needs to resonate with our ‘grand-narrative’, that all encompassing, but often background story that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. Our current ‘grand-narrative’ is based on the market economy – on individualism, competition, growth, wealth. It is from this narrative that we derive our sense of self and social status. It is from this narrative that we measure ‘success’. It was from this direction that I suspect the chair of the above meeting was approaching the problem. If we are asked, for very good reasons, to change our lifestyle, even if we are presented with overwhelming evidence about why we should do so, we will find these changes very difficult to bring about if they do not resonate with this narrative. In these circumstances most of us tend to acknowledge the need for change whilst carrying on as normal, often finding some small change that allows us to say that we are ‘doing our bit’. This isn’t denial. No amount of ‘facts’, on their own, will enlighten us. What’s needed is a new grand-narrative. I haven’t got the solution to the problem of bringing this about, but I’m convinced that all the time we hold onto our current narrative all the facts presented to us will be interpreted against it.

What is best for the country?

I don’t know whether it’s my age, or the pedantic philosopher lurking inside me, but certain commonly used phrases are really starting to bug me. Some, like ‘going forward’, whilst annoying and vacuous, are harmless. Some, however, are being used to justify, at best, lazy thinking, at worst, anger and aggression. The worst of these phrases at the moment is ‘what’s best for the country’ – though for ‘country’ you could easily substitute ‘Dorset’ or ‘Bridport’ depending upon circumstances. I was campaigning in Lyme Regis yesterday for a second People’s Vote to help us out of this Brexit mess, and was struck by how passionately the phrase was used, usually as an attack on particular politicians who were seen as acting in their own interests rather than the country’s.

This phrase seems to imply that there exists some objective set of conditions that constitute the best or ideal state the country should be in, and that this set of conditions is obvious to anyone who sets their own interests to one side. There are two fundamental problems with this viewpoint. First, and most importantly, no such set of conditions exist. The closest that you could come to such a set of conditions is to ask “what, for me, should be the goals this country pursues?”. And the answer to this question will vary according to your own values and political orientation. A passionate believer in free-market economics, for example, will cite a reduction in the amount of regulation governing markets and the further spread of market conditions into the public sector. On the other hand, many people on the left (including myself) would cite a reduction in inequality, particularly income inequality, and the spread of the public sector into areas which are currently dominated by the free market. These views are completely at odds with each other, yet supporters of each will consider their view to be ‘best for the country’!

Second, even if we could, to some degree, agree on a future vision for the country, on what goals we want to pursue, we would then start debating how to achieve them. Once again, agreement on this would be thwarted by the fact that no clear objective path to the achievement of any goal can be said to exist. Life, all life, and particularly human social and economic life, is inherently uncertain. For a whole host of reasons related to complexity science, it is impossible to predict with certainty the future state of any system. The most we can hope to achieve is a realistic assessment of various probabilities, but humans are notoriously unskilled in this type of assessment. Even economists, who claim to have turned this into a science, are constantly being brought up short.

When people use the phrase ‘what’s best for the country’, not only do they imply the existence of some ideal future state, they also imply that the vision of this state is clear to anyone who can stop their own self interest obscuring what is obvious to ‘common sense’ – a common sense view that they obviously have and that politicians lack. I suspect that what they really mean is that politicians should simply agree with them and do what they think is best. In my limited experience of politics, my perception is that most politicians are acting and thinking according to their own best judgements of what they consider to be best for the country. Whilst there are obvious exceptions, most politicians are not acting out of self-interest. However, what people in all honesty consider to be in the best interests of the country is both subjective and highly contested.

Democracy

There seems to be no end of new twists to our ongoing political story. As this week’s chapter ends the dramatic tension has been raised to new heights by democracy itself, that most treasured and emotive of characters, being brought under threat of attack. But what do we know about this character? Before we start next week’s chapter I think it may be worth trying to examine Democracy a little closer.

Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is often used to describe what we mean by democracy, even though he didn’t actually refer to democracy as such. But it’s a good starting point anyway. Democracy literally means government or rule making (…cracy) by the people (demos). Any group of people living and working as some form of collective, or having some degree of unity, require decisions to be made at a group level – decisions need to be made that affect the whole group. These decisions could be made by a single person who holds power by force or through some form of inherited right, but under a democracy these decisions are made by group members themselves.

There are a number of obvious advantages to such a system. First, because everyone (or nearly everyone) is involved in the decision making process the welfare of the population as a whole is improved, as opposed to just the welfare of a select few. Second, it is claimed that democratic participation enhances autonomy – that when an individual group member knows or realises that their opinion counts they are more likely to actually have an opinion of their own. And third, because democracy is the best form of government for enhancing equality. This last point is crucial. There is a very strong correlation between the wellbeing and flourishing of human life and the degree of equality the group lives under. So great. Democracy is undoubtedly the good guy and deserves the accolade of hero. Yes?

Well, not necessarily. There are also a number of problems associated with democracy that tend to go unmentioned. A dark hinterland, if you like, that makes Democracy’s character altogether more complex. For now, let’s focus on just two related issues that have been revealed by economists, and a third drawn from philosophy. First, individual preferences do not generally aggregate into orderly collective preferences. When an individual makes a decision or expresses a preference they usually do so for a multiplicity of reasons, reasons that come together in a single mind (their own). This single mind operates almost like a dictator over these multiple reasons. But his process cannot be scaled up to the level of the collective, for the simple reason that individual minds will not be silenced – well, not in a democracy anyway. Second, even if it was possible to produce well defined collective preferences, many, if not most individual motivations for action will always be incompatible with that preference.

A third problem relates to what is sometimes termed ‘the fallacy of collective intentionality’. Intentionality in this respect does not refer to a person’s intention of performing a certain action, but to the relationship of their thoughts and feelings to the objects of these thoughts and feelings. So, for example, I might say that I like red wine or that I consider myself to be European. Both of these are intentional relationships. But to do this at a collective level, to say that ‘we’ like British ale or that ‘we’ consider ourselves to be British, like is so often done, is erroneous. A collective mind does not exist to form such a relationship. All three of these related problems are well illustrated by the political consequences of the 2016 EU referendum, particularly the uttering of phrases like ‘the will of the people’. There is no collective will. All utterances of this and similar phrases are useful metaphors, not statements of facts.

These problems can, to some extent, be overcome by the type of democracy in operation. Referenda are examples of a direct democracy, the type of democracy that emerged (with limited suffrage) in ancient Athens. Because of the reasons outlined above, this type of democracy becomes more and more problematic as the size of the collective increases. It was problematic in Athens (with, say, a total population of 100,000), but by the time populations reach the level of modern states it becomes close to impossible.

However, modern states usually operate some form of representative democracy. Under this form of democracy the people vote to elect a person or persons to represent them at local and national government level. However, if just one person is elected to represent a large group of people (as is the current practice in the UK) then, for all the reasons outlined above, it is impossible for them to directly represent the views of all the people that elected them. Instead, based on their perceived political beliefs and character, that person is effectively elected to make decisions on behalf of the people, and then answer for their decisions at the next election. This problem could be mitigated by a more proportional voting system, one in which it becomes more realist for people to be elected to represent particular ways of thinking.

Winston Churchill famously described democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” It is fraught with problems that largely get ignored – mostly because they are complex and hard to visualise. Instead it is easier to resort to metaphors. In this sense, Democracy may still be the hero of our political story, but its character is no where near adequately understood. And whilst not understanding the character of the hero may make for good drama, it seriously problematizes the making of good decisions.

A human comedy

My last couple of posts have referred to the need for a positive narrative to not only give meaning and purpose to our lives, but to guide us through the climate and ecological emergencies that we face; a narrative that acknowledges the dire situation that we are in, but which offers hope and inspiration for our future. However, as someone has pointed out to me during the course of this last week, I haven’t really said what this narrative should be. So here it is in outline. It’s the story of how at a critical point in its evolution humanity woke-up and realised that we are a single human society living as an integrated and interdependent part of the Earth’s eco-system; that they key to survival and a positive future is the reversal of our separation from both the natural environment and ourselves.

In a sense this is no more that what Aldo Leopold wrote in The Land Ethic seventy years ago. A land ethic, he wrote, “changes to role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for its fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” In other words, it’s a complete reversal of the biblical notion of domination, of God’s command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish in the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” This was a ‘command’ that itself came to dominate all other ancient understandings of our relationship with non-human life, a command that gave rise to the industrial revolution, a command that gave rise to the dominant human attitude to nature and the planet that Naomi Klein termed extractivism: “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking.”

In The Natural Contract, the French philosopher Michel Serres points out that human history, and particularly western history, has been dominated by our focus on some form of social contract, some form of understanding of how humans should organise their cities and states, what their relations with each other should be, who should have power and who should be subordinate. The consequence of this focus has been the ignoring of our relationship with the planet and all other the living systems that we share it with. Echoing Leopold he describes this dominant relationship as parasitic, and calls instead for it to become symbiotic. He calls for us to develop a natural contact to sit beside our social contract, one that recognises our interdependent relationship with planetary systems and non-human life. Such a contract would not only reverse our separation from nature, but would allow us to fully understand just how dependant our flourishing is on this relationship.

But this reversal of our separation needs to extend beyond that of our relationship with wider nature. It needs to include global humanity. In A Convenient Truth, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett point to what I consider to be an inspiring phenomenon: “our species, which originally emerged from Africa and diversified as it spread across the world, is now coming together again. Through international travel, migration and intermarriage, we are seeing a process which amounts to nothing less that the reunification of the human race.” I fully accept that purely for administrative and organisational reasons we will need to organise ourselves into semi-independent states, but we need to move on from considering any of these states superior to and in competition with other states. We need to move on from any form of nationalism and all forms of separate racial identity. We can fully accept the various, and often shameful historical paths that have led us to our current situation, but our new human story will tell how we realised that our future flourishing required a shared narrative, a new global grand-narrative of co-operation, solidarity and empathy.

We are at that critical point in our evolution. At one level we can understand our ecological relationship with our planet and non-human life, and we can understand how we evolved out of Africa, continued evolving in relative isolation, and now, due to various technologies, are coming together again. But these understandings seem to lie outside of those narratives that effectively control our day-to-day lives, particularly the dominant neo-liberal narrative of competition, consumption and wealth creation. Our new narrative will tell how we woke from our dream of separation, and realised that to flourish into the future we needed to create both a natural contract, and a global social contract; that our future survival depended upon both our reunification with nature and our reunification with our wider human family. Future generations will tell the story of how this was the crucial scene in the drama of human life, and that thanks to the resolution of the conflict that came to a head in the early decades of the 21st Century, the drama became a comedy not a tragedy.

On our need to create an inspiring narrative

Last week I talked about the need to start writing (and speaking about) a new ‘grand-narrative’, a new story that gives structure, meaning and purpose to human life on this planet. One significant dimension to this new grand-narrative is obviously the future. Here Grace Blakeley, writing in this week’s New Statesman, is spot on when she calls for a “new narrative, one that can translate ideas about political economy into uplifting visions of a securer, more equal future”. This is particularly relevant when responding to our current climate crisis. It’s all well and good talking about our imminent climate and ecological breakdown, as I often do, but does this actually help create such a future? I know the idea is to scare people into action, but scaring people often causes them to freeze and / or look for more pleasant distractions. Should we start talking instead about the alternative, positive and altogether more attractive future we could create if we took this crisis as a wake up call?

The future has been particularly on my mind this week. Not necessarily my future, but the future of my daughters, and particularly my grandchildren, who I have been visiting. What sort of world are we creating for them? My usual response would be to note that the two degree rise in global temperatures that we well on course for will cause unimaginable problems for my grandchildren when they are in the prime of their lives in fifty years time. All the indications are that, in addition to it obviously being much warmer, many parts of the world will become uninhabitable due to the heat, and sea levels will rise by anything up to a metre above current levels due to the melting of glaciers. The result will be less habitable land for humans to live on, less land capable of supplying food, mass migration in search of both, together with a massive increase in global conflict as people try to protect what little they have and obtain what they need to survive.

But what’s your response to such a scenario? How do you react to being cast as a character in some science fiction future, being asked to imagine a world that is totally alien to everything you currently experience? Most of us I suggest would rather not think about it in too much detail. Science fiction films are good entertainment, and can make us think, but we can leave the cinema and return to our ‘normal’ world anytime we like. Many of us accept that such a future is likely, and will try and ‘do our bit’ to prevent it happening, and a few of us (and I’m particularly thinking here of Extinction Rebellion) will actively try and prevent the story unfolding, but I suspect that most of us would rather avoid the reality altogether. We seek pleasure not pain. Why think about such a depressing narrative when we can immerse ourselves in the ‘reality’ of Love Island or Premiership football?

So how different would it be if we started to tell a different story? A story where after thousands of years of evolutionary self-obsession, humanity suddenly woke up to the fact that they are actually part of nature? That they are are just one living system amongst many? And that many, if not most of our problems start diminishing if we can live with nature not against it? How having evolved out of Africa, after having spread across the Earth and settled into relative isolation, global humanity came together again to form a single community? How learning to co-operate with each other, non-human animals and our Earth systems, rather than seeking power, status and domination, humanity discovered that they could actually flourish and be happy? That equality and respect were more effective than inequality and domination in achieving human needs?

But this new story will also need to be about the past. The future we create for our children and grandchildren will be understood and interpreted by them, in part at least, by their memories – in short by what they hear and experience as they grow up. What we say to them, how we behave as they grow up, whether we direct these actions at them or not, will be absorbed by them and will influence how they interpret the world they inherit from us. And my growing fear is that if they grow up surrounded by fear and negative talk, rather than optimism and positive talk, they too will absorb these characteristics. That they will grow into fearful and negative people.

If humanity is to survive and flourish (and that’s a big ‘if’) we will need to become creative and positive – we will need to develop an uplifting narrative to act as our guide to the future. This narrative will need to inspire future generations, and it will need to show how previous generations (us) woke up the reality of their place in nature and started to care about the world they were leaving as their inheritance.

Our existential paradox and our need for a new grand-narrative

I tweeted yesterday about what I considered to be, against a lot of competition, the most depressing news story of the week. An article in The Guardian was reporting that “astrology is having a cultural moment” with a “surge in enthusiasm for astrology apps”. This disturbing loss of rationality and good sense was summed up by the comments of one of the interviewees: “I think anything that feels real is real in a way. And if I find the answers to questions I want through astrology and horoscopes, that makes it real.” My concern, however, is of a more fundamental nature than my rather glib tweet implied. What this person seems to be seeking is some narrative structure that helps make sense of, provide structure to, life’s events – a structure that seems to falling away before our eyes at the moment.

For me, one of the defining features of being human is what I term the existential paradox. We humans have an existential need for meaning and purpose in our life, both individually and collectively. But when examined, when critically challenged, any such meaning and purpose is exposed as being a myth of our own creation, is shown to be devoid of any solid ground. This problem was most famously brought to our attention by Jean-Paul Sartre. To explain what he meant by ‘existentialism’ he coined the phrase that for humans ‘existence precedes essence’. What he meant is best understood by first of all considering any item made by humans – say, for example, this laptop I’m writing on. This, like any other artefact that we have produced, was first thought about, considered or designed, and then actually produced or brought about. Its essence (it’s meaning and purpose) preceded its existence. But for at least one being (the human being) it’s the other way around. Sartre was an atheist, and in the absence of a designer / creator he argued that humans first of all exist, and then create meaning and purpose to their lives.

This meaning and purpose may only be of our own creation, but it has provided us with a profound survival advantage. Creating myths that explain both the origins of a tribe or hunter-gatherer community and its destiny, that provides a reason why it exists and what its purpose is, allows that tribe or community to work together as a community. Working co-operatively on a large scale allows that community to achieve far, far more than could be achieved by the sum of its parts, by individual members working as individuals. It has allowed communities to come together to create powerful nations, and has allowed us to develop technology of devastating power. In short, our myths and grand-narratives (to use Jean-François Lyotard’s phrase) have brought us to planetary domination. But in so doing they have been shown to be the charlatans they always were. Like some huge erotic tease, they have brought us to the brink…and then deserted us.

Such is the paradox of human existence. Our survival has been assured through the creation of myths, stories, grand-narratives that provide meaning and purpose to our existence, that, through encouraging us to work co-operatively, have allowed us (so far) to overcome all obstacles. But none of these narratives have, in any profound sense, been true. They have all been of our own creation, and, being fictions, are destined to come up against reality and be shown to be impotent. This is happening now – on a big scale. Capitalism, and particularly its latest incarnation, neoliberalism, has not only reached the limits of what it can ‘achieve’, but is now creating a negative response from those whose personal stories are grossly at odds with what its grand-narrative has led them to expect. But of even greater concern is the myth of omnipotence, the one that makes us feel special and all powerful, the one that makes us believe we have the right to dominance over all life on our planet, the right to extract as much of its resources as we are able, and the right to dump as much of our waste wherever we want to dump it. That one is now starting to bite us back big-time.

So what is the solution to this paradox? Well, in a sense, it’s to do what those people who are turning to astrology are doing. Except of course, that astrology is just an attempt to bury our heads in the sand – to pull the covers over our heads and return to dreamland. No, we do need a new grand-narrative, one that fully acknowledges both the fast approaching existential crisis and the existential paradox expressed by grand-narratives. Who wants to help me write it?

Some thoughts ‘going forward’!

So, what speech habits annoy you the most? Well, starting a statement, especially an answer to a question, with “so”, obviously. But the one that is really getting to me at the moment is “going forward”. For example, a government minister who was on the radio yesterday morning said, in relation to some issue that had been raised, that “that will need to be part of our thinking going forward”. What does that phrase add to his meaning? What does the addition of those two words add to the meaning of “that will need to be part of our thinking”? But apart from being superfluous to the meaning of what is said, the most annoying thing about the phrase is the ubiquity of its use amongst politicians and local government officers. Nearly all the presentations that I’ve sat through recently have included this phrase. Often. Very often.

Perhaps it’s meant as some kind of assurance that we are not going backwards, that we are not returning to some vague period in the past when things were even worse than they are now. Perhaps it’s meant to imply progress. But progress towards what? Some inevitable (predetermined) future? Towards some undefined situation where ‘things’ are better than they are now? But what ‘things’? And in what way ‘better’? I think its this implied, yet vague and unspecified sense of a positive future that I find so annoying. At the mundane level the phrase is just superfluous. Time only moves in one direction. There is only one direction of travel. But at another level it tries to deceive us that things are getting better, but without stating how.

It would help, I think, if we all had a generally agreed sense of what we are trying to achieve. Aristotle famously pointed out that everything we do we do in order to achieve some end, some good. We go to work, for example, partly (or solely) to earn money, but perhaps (ideally) because we believe that our work is doing some good. But even if we only work for the money, that is a good for us in as much as it allows us to pay the rent and put food on the table. Aristotle went on to argue that these ends were, in their turn, means to some further end or good, and that this chain of reasoning could continue until you reach a final end, the greatest good. Aristotle thought this greatest good to be eudaimonia, an ancient Greek word often translated as happiness, but more accurately translated as flourishing. Human flourishing, in both its personal and social contexts.

My point is not that we should all become students of Aristotle. My point is that what is missing from our collective life together is some sense of where we are heading, what we are trying to achieve, some vision of our greatest good. I don’t expect us all to agree, and I certainly don’t want to be presented with some corporate long term plan complete with ‘smart’ targets or key performance indicators. But some open public discussion and debate about the type of future we are trying to create for our children and grandchildren would be a good start. Perhaps then the phrase “going forward” will start to mean something.

The season to be silly? Or start preparing for a general election?

We have entered that period of the political season that is often referred to as the silly season. Silly because in the absence of hard political news from Westminster the papers often resort to other news to fill their pages, news that is often less than serious – and occasionally outright daft. Yes, after all the excitement of the installation of a new Head Boy the school term has ended and all the boys and girls have returned to their constituencies to pack their bags and go on their holidays. Or are they? As several political commentators have pointed out, the antics of our new Head Boy appear to be very much like those you would expect to see at the start of a general election campaign. So, despite the denials, should we expect one in the Autumn?

I ask this because, as the Green Party prospective parliamentary candidate for West Dorset, this will affect me directly. I will, for example, become very busy for several weeks, and will need to have answers prepared on a whole range of policy issues – some of which are impossible to answer without greatly offending someone. I have caught myself starting to construct considered responses to questions being asked of other politicians in the media. Psychologically, I think I’m starting to prepare myself.

I also expect some heated debate about the possibility of our local ‘progressive parties’ working together to defeat the Tory candidate (whoever that may be) and oppose our leaving the EU. In 2017, there was pressure on me to stand aside in favour of the Lib Dem candidate. Most of it, it must be said, from that candidate himself. In principle I’m against this, and for a number of reasons. Green Party supporters deserve to have a candidate of their own to vote for. We have been working hard locally to build our profile and support base. Not standing gives the impression that we are not serious, whilst standing gives us a great opportunity to further extend our message. Additionally, not standing, particularly if repeated in a number of constituencies, distorts the measurement of our national level of support, measurement that is then used against us.

However, I would be prepared to stand down provided this was formally agreed at the national level. This would require any party entering into such an agreement to commit, if in power, to a second referendum (and campaigning to remain) and to introducing some form of proportional representation. It would also require each party to agree in which constituencies they would stand down to provide a clear path for a ‘progressive candidate’ with a good chance of winning. I would expect this agreement to take a balanced approach; that if, for example, it was agreed that a number of Green Party candidates stood down in favour of Lib Dem candidates, that reciprocal arrangements were agreed elsewhere.

I have also suggested the idea of an ‘open primary’ for West Dorset. This would allow each of the ‘progressive parties’ to put forward their own candidate well in advance of an election. These candidates would then appear at a number of public debates across the constituency followed by a local election to select the one that would stand as the opposition candidate. Voters who want to take part in this process could register in advance and pay a small fee that would cover the administration costs of the primary. I accept that there are many fine details that need to be worked through to make this work, but I do think it worth some serious consideration.

So, just as my diary starts to ease of Dorset Council meetings and training sessions, just as I finally have time to do some reading (and perhaps even go away for a few days), I find myself starting to mentally prepare for a general election. Or should I just allow the silly season to wash over me?

Some reflections on political strategy, anarchism and responsibility

Dorset Council have started to create a number of Executive Advisory Panels focusing on specific areas of strategic development. These cross-party groups of about eight to ten elected members will listen to reports and assess the evidence from relevant council officers and other experts, and then advise the Cabinet on ways forward. Even accepting that these panels are only advisory, i.e. that the Cabinet is free to ignore their advice, I think that they are positive development – in principle at least. However, in some areas, and the Council’s response to the climate emergency in particular, I am fearful that this process will be overly cautious and too respectful of received opinion. Rather than research and consider what is possible on existing evidence, we need to commit to the necessary radical action and then work out how to bring these commitments about. Our response to the impending climate and environmental breakdown needs to be bold and brave, not considered and measured!

I am sitting on three of these panels. Apart from the one considering the climate emergency, I am also sitting on one looking at economic development – and this poses its own dilemma. It’s probably fair to say that my own understanding of the economy and the strategy we should be developing is somewhat at odds with other members of the panel. I would, for example, fully endorse Paul Mason’s comment in this week’s New Statesman that “Few people are yet prepared to accept that, to save the planet, we have to end capitalism – and on a timescale that even an ardent Leninist might find optimistic.” Which leaves me with a problem. If I simply express such an opinion I am more than likely to be simply side-lined by other panel members, regarded as some radical pest who’s intent on disrupting the process, and not even given a chance to explain my reasoning. However, if the need for change is as urgent as I believe it to be how can I simply sit back patiently waiting for the tide to turn? Any advice on this would be gratefully received.

Talking of the climate crisis (as I inevitably am), Richard Walton, of Policy Exchange, was interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme earlier in the week, claiming that Extinction Rebellion were planning an anarchist revolution. In case you are not familiarwith Policy Exchange, it’s a right-wing think-tank that supports free-market solutions to political issues. I suppose that I should thank him. Apart from giving me a good laugh, he made me aware of a potential paradox regarding anarchism. Anarchists are usually regarded as being somewhat left of centre in the political spectrum, and whilst its proponents vary quite widely in what they actually believe they generally affirm the importance of individual freedom as a basic principle, view the state as being inconsistent with individual freedom, and propose various ways of building a better society without the state (description lifted from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy). Now, if I removed the reference to anarchists and being left of centre, to what extent would that description apply to neo-liberalism?

And talking of neo-liberalism (you have to admire the sequencing here, don’t you?), a comment by Will Storr, in his book Selfie, has sent my thinking about ‘responsibility’ (the discussion topic of this week’s Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group) into a state of confusion. I have generally approached this topic from the direction of Sartre’s ‘atheistic existentialism’ which declares “that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence”. The upshot of this is that humanity is first thrown into the world, and only attempts to define itself afterwards; that there is no human nature; that “Man [sic] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” As there is no predetermined right action there is a great responsibility on individual human beings to consider what to do in any given situation – the responsibility for acting is theirs and theirs alone. To be honest, I have never given a huge amount of time to thinking through ‘responsibility’ in this context, but I have long since regarded myself as an ‘existentialist’. However, as Storr points out in relation to neo-liberalism, the ‘gig economy’ and ‘zero-hour contracts are “arrangements in which the responsibility of the employer is minimised, and that of the individual maximised”, and that there is a general sense in which workers are taking on personal responsibility for becoming better employees and better persons. I suspect that Sartre would not have approved of such an analysis, but I wonder how he would have responded?