General Election week two

I’m writing this week’s post from Leek, in Staffordshire, where I’m visiting my daughters and grandchildren. One of the first things I was asked by my youngest, on arrival, was: who do I vote for dad? Now I have done absolutely no research into this, but I got the strong impression talking to her that she was typical of her generation of 30 something parents with young families – that she wanted to make her vote count but, because she had no time to follow the intricacies of political debate or the various plots of our unfolding political drama, was genuinely confused. Like most of her friends she gets most of her news from social media, but, she told me, that does help. In the run up to the 2017 General Election, she said, there was a strong trend in favour of Labour, but now the trend is to be critical of them. She did not want to just follow the latest social media trend, she wanted some genuine guidance. The demands of my two grandchildren soon intervened and prevented any further conversation. I simply said: read my blog. So here goes.

I genuinely believe that part of the problem we face is that we humans are not as clever as we want to believe. We have created a very complex social world, one that is embedded in a very complex natural environment, but that we have little understanding of the extent of this complexity. Instead we crave simple, off the shelf answers to our problems. This is the paradox we humans face. We will always crave simple solutions because we haven’t evolved to cope with this complexity – but none of these simple solutions will solve our problems in the long term because…well, because they are too simple. So bearing all this in mind – here is my very simple guide: Vote for your Green Party candidate!

Why? Because the biggest threat to the future happiness and flourishing of your young son and daughter, my grandson and granddaughter, comes from the fast approaching collapse of our climate and environment. This collapse has been brought about by our greed, by our plundering of the Earth’s resources, by our belief that we are somehow separate from, and conquerors of, what Aldo Leopold has called the ‘land community’ – evolved life on this beautiful planet. To avoid this collapse we need to do so much more than most people realise. We need to change how we live, how we understand our relationship with our fellow human and non-human animals, and most importantly how we do business and run our economy. The Green Party has not got all the solutions to how we do this, but it is the only political movement that acknowledges that such a radical change is necessary.

Driving up to North Staffordshire on Friday I saw the extent of some of the flooding that has been hitting our news screens, particularly the River Avon in Worcestershire which had burst it banks. We need to accept that there is no hard causal link between these floods and our climate emergency, floods have always happened. But, and this is a very big but, there is overwhelming evidence that the rise in global temperatures is increasing both the severity and the frequency of extreme weather events, whether they are floods, droughts, or wild fires. We should be concerned, very concerned regarding the frequency of these events around the world. We really do need to take these changes to our climate seriously and accept our responsibility for bringing them about. Our future generations will not forgive us if we fail to act.

I return to West Dorset today to face an increasing full diary of engagements. Most importantly, this coming week sees the first of the General Election hustings events – this one at The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester. I have to confess to actually enjoying these public debates. Perhaps rather perversely, I enjoy being put on the spot and asked awkward questions. So please, if you are free, please do come along and meet me and my fellow candidates. The school event will not be open to the public, but those that are include:
• Bridport United Church on Tuesday 26th November at 7pm (organised by Transition Town Bridport
• Prince of Wales School in Poundbury on Wednesday 27th November at 7pm (organised by Dorset Parents SEND and focusing on inclusive education)
• St Mary’s Church, Maiden Newton on Monday 2nd December at 7pm
• Dorchester United Church on Wednesday 4th December at 7pm
• Corn Exchange, Dorchester on Monday 9th December at 7.30pm (organised by Sustainable Dorset)
• And a probable event organised by West Dorset for Europe on the evening of Tuesday 10th December at The Thomas Hardye School
What is noticeable about the events, in contrast to the 2017 General Election, is that four have been organised to focus on specific areas – one education, one Europe, and two climate.

General Election Diary: Week 1

Last week saw the dissolution of Parliament, the event that marks the formal start of the General Election campaign. So rather than focus on a particular topic, for the next six weeks this blog post will be in the form of a diary – the reflections of a parliamentary candidate on the week past.

The most significant news for me last week was the conclusion to the national negotiations between the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru regarding an election deal in key constituencies aimed at not splitting the ‘Remain’ vote. I have had pressure, from many directions, to stand down in West Dorset and to encourage Green Party supporters to vote for the Liberal Democrat candidate in the hope that we could prise the constituency out of the Conservative hands. However, as the final ‘Unite to Remain’ deal did not include West Dorset I have made it clear that despite this pressure I will be standing. My position has always been that I will follow the directions of the national party on this. If they asked me to stand down because by doing so a Liberal Democrat candidate stood down elsewhere, I would have been happy to do so. If they want me to stand, which they do, then I will do that.

On the local front, I was one of several councillors who attended a meeting with the management team of Bridport Community Hospital to discuss public concerns about the loss of beds. This is not the place to go into details of that meeting. But the nagging thought that I’m left with is: To what extend are the local managers, those who are effectively charged with defending the Dorset Health Care policy, fully aware of the background politics informing this policy. To what extent, for example, are they aware the influence that large American corporations like McKinsey and United Health have had on the development of their Integrated Care System? Are they aware that the new director of NHS England, Simon Stevens, in his previous role as CEO of United Health, had led corporate opposition to the introduction of Obamacare?

On a slightly lighter note, on Thursday I watched the National Theatre live screening of Hansard, the new play by Simon Woods. This was a brilliant two handed single act play set in 1988, and portrayed, during a single morning, the relationship between a junior member of Thatcher’s cabinet (Alex Jennings) and his long suffering wife (Lindsay Duncan). What struck me most about this play was the resonances to our current political situation, in particular to the arrogant lack of understanding and sense of privilege of the privately educated ‘elite’, and the sheer ineffectiveness of the opposition leader. I really do hope things change soon.

And on the following night I went along to a fundraiser for our local food bank, Cupboard Love. It is a damning inditement of our current political and economic system that not only do such charities exist, but that the number of people who rely on their support continues to grow. The atmosphere in the pub that put on this event, and the talent of the local artists that performed, was inspiring. But the very fact that such fundraisers are necessary should shame us all.

And to close the week on a sombre note, yesterday I attended Bridport’s Remembrance Sunday parade. I have to confess that, for a number of reasons, I don’t usually attend these. Whilst I am more than willing to acknowledge the huge sacrifice so many people have made in the numerous armed conflicts since the First World War, but particularly the obscene waste of life of the ironically named ‘Great War’, I react badly to both the infusion of the military and religion into such remembrances. However, I avoided most of the religion by, along with several others, not attending the church service and, instead, attending a secular period of reflection – made particularly poignant through the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine. I have to say, though, that I found the comments of one of the religious leaders, her thanking ‘God’ for our ‘victory’, most offensive.

A personal manifesto

In this week’s post I want to lay out my own personal manifesto for the upcoming General Election, an election in which I will be the Green Party candidate for West Dorset. In doing so I want to be absolutely clear – as far as I am concerned Brexit is not the main issue. It’s important, yes, but it is by no means the most important issue we face. That issue is our Climate Emergency. The breakdown of both our climate and ecological environment is an existential threat that needs to be given absolute priority. Our response to it should profoundly affect and direct all other areas of government policy.

Unlike the very considered approach being taken by Dorset Council in response to our Climate Emergency (an approach that is basically considering what is possible, what courses of action the Council can afford to take) we should first decide what actions are needed – and then worry about ‘the how’. This approach was very well expressed by Greta Thunberg speaking to the COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland: “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis. […] And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, maybe we should change the system itself.” In other words, if we are serious about responding to this crisis we need to forget considering what our political, economic and social structures can deliver; we should, instead, consider what needs to happen (for example the need to reduce global carbon emissions to net-zero by 2030) and then change those structures accordingly. We don’t have the luxury of contemplating our navels. We need to start acting now.

All other aspects of government then become subservient to this response. Brexit, in this regard, is being a disastrous distraction. All other things being equal we are in a much better position to respond to the climate challenge as part of the EU than outside it. It is not just the actions of our own government that are important, it’s the actions of other governments. Brazil, for example, needs to stop clearing the Amazon rain forest. The USA needs to honour the Paris agreement. Pressure needs to be put on governments like these to change their actions – pressure that is much more feasible from a block like the EU than from an isolated country like the UK. Having said that, we still need to accept the 2016 narrow vote to leave the EU. However, there was a substantial problem with this vote: whist the nature of our existing relationship with the EU was clear, the nature of a future relationship outside the EU was far from clear. So once we have a clear proposal as to what this new relationship could be it needs to be confirmed by a second referendum.

Our whole approach to economics also needs to change. Our endless pursuit of wealth, of profit, our excessive consumption, and our plundering of the Earth’s resources have led us to the brink of climate and ecological collapse. We need to change this approach to economics. We need to think in terms of human and environmental wellbeing rather growth as measures of economic success. We need to think of economics as the study of how to equitably manage our limited and precious resources rather than how to create wealth.

In this regard we need to adopt a Green New Deal. We need to start developing a whole new approach to creating jobs – green jobs. For example, the Navitus Bay wind farm project, had it gone ahead off the coast of Dorset, would not only have supplied 85% of Dorset’s electricity requirement (which, with the addition of solar would have delivered 100% renewable energy for Dorset) but would have created many new engineering jobs. I will be campaigning for this project to be resurrected. I will also be campaigning for the democratisation of our economy – for workers to be represented on all boards and for there to be a massive increase in workers cooperatives.

And with regard to housing, national planning guidance needs to change so that local planning authorities can require all new housing to have net-zero carbon emissions. Local authorities need to be encouraged to start building new council houses – houses built to the highest ecological standards and made available, as a priority, to people on their housing register. This is a policy I will be campaigning for Dorset Council to adopt. We need to start considering a warm, dry and safe home a basic human right that every government should ensure is available for all its citizens.

To my fellow candidates & voters in West Dorset

As I write this the morning news is alive with discussion about the date of a possible, even likely, General Election. Politicians and members of various political parties have been preparing, in one way or another, for this event for some time now, but, speaking as the Green Party Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for West Dorset, such talk raises my levels of excitement and anticipation no end. But before the actual political debates start, before I step onto various platforms with the candidates from the other parties, before I start canvassing in the streets or at front doors, I would like to make an open public request to these other candidates – indeed to all the good citizens of West Dorset: Could we please, please try and do this without insulting anyone, without using inflammatory language, and without causing any harm to our wonderful local communities!

As many of you may know, I run the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group. We don’t have many rules, but one of the few we do have, and which everyone follows because it has proved to be better for the group, is that we only criticise or challenge other people’s ideas, not them as person. We do our level best to not make our discussions personal. I have found that such an approach to debate actually facilitates people reviewing and possibly changing their own thinking to a far greater extent than personal attacks. If group members do not feel personally under attack they do not feel the need to defend themselves – and such freedom loosens the grip their ideas have on who they think they are. So, my fellow candidates, could we please try the same approach on the various hustings that we will find ourselves on together?

Could we also be very careful as to the language we use in general. A lot of anger has been stirred up and created since the EU referendum. We need to start calming things down before events get out of hand and mob violence breaks out. It has happened before (I am thinking particularly of the ‘Black Shirt’ rallies in the 1930’s) and could easily happen again. As candidates running for office we have a responsibility to behave and speak in such a way that shows respect for all potential voters, for all the inhabitants of West Dorset. One of the most chilling news stories that I have seen for some time has just been brought to my attention: The Daily Mirror is reporting that a crowdfunding page has been set up to pay for the murder of the business woman and Remain campaigner Gina Miller. Do we really want to live in a society where people’s lives are taken for simply having a different point of view, for having the audacity to believe in something different? Would this be any different from living under the fascist dictatorships of Mussolini or Hitler?

And lastly, could I please extend this plea to the people of West Dorset. I know that many of you are very frustrated with the state of politics in this country at the moment. I don’t blame you. I am deeply frustrated myself. But I genuinely believe that no politician intended it to be like this. I do not have the experience of many other politicians, but from my personal experience of working with politicians from other political parties, many of whom I passionately disagree with, I am convinced that the vast majority are acting for the very best of reasons. Whilst I am sure that the odd exception can be found to this, I really believe that the vast majority of people and politicians are not bad people, in fact quite the opposite. They may have a different understanding of what ‘the good’ is than I do, but they are sincere in their attempts to bring it about. The way forward is to have an open and honest debate about what ‘the good’ is that we want to create, not to threaten and intimidate anyone whose vision of that good differs from our own.

Resolving our twin crises

How did we get into this mess? Or more importantly, how are we going to get out of it? It seems to me that we face two crises, two crises that whilst not directly linked are intertwined in such a way that the overall threat level is potentially off the scale. I refer to the constitutional crisis we’ve created following the EU referendum, and the climate / environmental crisis we’ve created through our economic behaviour and the resultant changes taking place to the world’s climate. Of these, the latter is by far the most urgent (for the simple fact that the threat is ultimately an existential one), but we (in the UK, and possibly in the EU also) seem unable to focus our attention on it, or be in a position to take the necessary actions, until the former is resolved. Which leaves me in a dilemma.

I have always been, and will continue be, a passionate supporter of the EU project. I fully accept the traditional left wing critique that it simply supports the capitalist economic model, but I strongly believe that these issues are better off being tackled from the inside through co-operation with our Green / Socialist colleagues across Europe. More importantly, I believe that issues concerning climate, environment, human rights in general and workers’ rights in particular are best addressed through the unity and co-operation that membership of the EU brings. However, having said all that, there are now times when I find myself wishing that the debate would just end, for good or bad, so that we could move on and start addressing our climate and ecological emergency.

In response, I keep reminding myself that the forces unleashed by our referendum will not be calmed easily. People are angry. In fact, for reasons which I will not go into now, I believe this anger transcends the debate about Europe, and runs far, far deeper. And the social and political divisions created by this anger also run deep, and will not be resolved easily. Parliament, whatever it decides today, tomorrow, this week or even later regarding a deal or no deal, will not be capable of returning this particular genie to the bottle. So, on its own, whatever the outcome, I think that this anger will continue. In which case, I might just as well stick with my heart and continue my support for continued membership of the EU. But what then? How are we going to move on?

Well, a possible solution has occurred to me. Perhaps, if enough of us started to focus on the climate emergency instead, and managed to raise the issues to the necessary level of urgency, our response could start healing these divisions by creating a sense of unity and cooperation. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged governments across the world to respond as if facing a war situation. Anecdotally at least, Britain during WW2 was a united country. If we started to take the existential threat caused by our climate breakdown seriously, and responded with the level or urgency suggested by the IPCC, perhaps a great many of the issues we currently feel so angry about will start to feel relatively insignificant. Perhaps, if we stopped having half hearted debates about the financial costs of making our economy net-zero carbon by 2030, 2040 or 2050, perhaps if we simply decided instead what was necessary, and worry about how we can afford not to act (like the Government did during the war years), and managed to engender the necessary levels of threat into all we do and say (like the Government did during the war years), we would start to realise the importance of unity, cooperation and solidarity.

On not taking back control

As we enter what may turn out to be one of the most crucial weeks for the future direction and prosperity of the UK, I would like to ask a very important question: are we, or can we ever be, in control of our future? I ask for number of reasons. Primarily because in politics in particular, but in life generally, we try hard to avoid accepting what to me is a basic fact of life – that this life is inherently uncertain. Politicians very rarely stand on a platform to talk about their plans or their visions for the future in ways that acknowledges this uncertainty. Instead they want to appear to be strong and in control. Rather than be honest and talk about what they would like to achieve, together with a reasoned assessment of the chances and difficulties of bring it about, they feel the need to portray their potency whilst exposing the impotency of those that oppose them. And their audiences, we the voting pubic, are equally as culpable for wanting this control. Hence the very effective slogan devised by Dominic Cummings for the Vote Leave campaign: “taking back control”.

This problem (and I really do think it is a problem) is related to what I term our existential paradox: life is, in a most fundamental way, devoid of any meaning and purpose. As Jean-Paul Sartre explained, certain things, things made by humans, are made with a purpose in mind. They are designed to fulfil a certain function. And this function, together with the idea of the creation of the object (its essence) exists prior to its actual creation (its existence). For humans at least, Sartre argued, it’s the other way round. We first of all exist, then we create our essence – our meaning and purpose. Pushing this a little further, I would add that the success of human evolution (so far), and possibly it’s most important aspect, has been our ability to create meaning and purpose. This has allowed us to impose a degree of order on the world, and to be able, to a reasonable degree, to be able to predict events. This meaning does not need to be true – it only needs to work more times than not to give us an advantage over other animals who do not possess this ability.

However, being somewhat arrogant about our relative position in the Earth’s ecosystem, we tend to think in terms of binary oppositions rather than subtleties. We veer towards believing that we are either in or out of control. This is a mistake. It is far too simplistic. In reality, and for reasons that I only have time to very briefly refer to, all life, all living systems, are in their most optimal and creative state when they are ‘on the edge of chaos’, when they have sufficient order to hold the various elements of that systems together (such that it is a recognisable system), but not so much order that it can’t respond to changes in its environment – for if there is one certainty in life it’s that a system’s environment will change. So, too much order prevents adaption to changing circumstance and leads to eventual system collapse, whilst too little order also leads to system collapse.

The problem that politicians face, if they have any desire to be effective decision makers, is to somehow find that optimal line between order and chaos. It’s a line that is impossible to predict in advance, it’s a line that is impossible to define, but it’s a line that I would like to think can be felt and discovered with training and practice. It’s a line that has possibly been best described as ‘going with the flow’, a line that requires both knowledge of how dynamic (social) systems work, and an acquired attunement to the various social and environmental forces at play. I am not even sure that such an attunement is possible in the political arena, but I really do think we should try. At the very least we should eradicate our desire to being in, or taking back, control.

A plea regarding public debate

Politically there is, unfortunately, much to fear at the moment. Apart from the socio-economic effects of our fast approaching climate and ecological breakdown, I am deeply concerned about the amount of not just anger being expressed regarding our ongoing political chaos, but the potential violence that could accompany it. Violent threats appear to be multiplying in every direction. Only this lunchtime I heard a report on Radio Four about closed Facebook groups in which members freely make extreme threats against people, but particularly politicians, who have the audacity to hold different opinions to themselves. The antidote, I suggest, is two-fold. We need to take some advice from Tony Benn, and we need to get rid of some myths about politicians.

Tony Benn once argued (I’m sorry, but I can’t remember where) that we should attack other people’s ideas, not them as a person. It’s ideas that should be challenged, and brought to account, not the people who express them. But doing this requires a degree of skill, skills which I fear as a society we are rapidly losing. These are skills of debate, of critical thinking; skills that enable us to analyse an argument that we do not like, understand not just what it is we do not like about it but why we do not like, and explain all this to other people. In return, we also need to be able listen to other people’s views, understand their argument (even if we don’t agree with it) and respond in a thoughtful way. But most of all, these skills involve us appreciating that there are no absolute right or wrong accounts of any situation, and that listening and understanding to other viewpoints may require us to either amend our own, or even abandon them altogether. In short, we seem to have lost the ability (if we ever truly had it) to have public debates.

There also seems to be a generally held view that politicians are ‘only in it for themselves’, and that as a result they are open game to abuse, even violence. I would like to offer a different view. Since being elected to Dorset Council I have been struck by both the sincerity and hard work of the vast majority of my fellow councillors. With the odd (very odd) example, I have to admit that even those councillors who politically and ideologically I strongly disagree with work with a profound sense of public service, and are definitely not involved in politics to improve their own wellbeing or wealth. And although I am not an MP, I have absolutely no reason to think otherwise of them. In fact, in recent months I have been deeply impressed by the integrity of most of them, and particularly my local MP, Oliver Letwin. I disagree with many of Sir Oliver’s opinions, but I struggle to fault him as a constituency MP. People will always be able to recite examples of corrupt politicians, and politicians whose motives are very questionable, but these are very much the minority and should not be allowed to tarnish the characters of the hardworking and sincere majority.

So, in advance of the inevitable general election, I would like to make a public plea. Please could everyone, unless there is actual and relevant evidence to the contrary, respect the sincerity of all the politicians who will be campaigning for your support – even the ones you disagree with. And could we please try to listen to the arguments, and criticise (even attack) these and not the person expressing them. Once a climate of fear takes hold only the voice of the most violent will be heard – and that would be disastrous for us all.

The problem with ‘the will of the people’

What is ‘the will of the people’? Does it actually exist in any meaningful sense? This phrase has been much used in recent weeks and months to refer to not only the result of the 2016 EU referendum, but more significantly to the perceived lack of resultant parliamentary action. This failure to ‘deliver Brexit’ is being interpreted by some people as a rejection of the supposed ‘will of the people’, and, as a consequence (and of great concern to many) as an excuse to turn on ‘the establishment’. I want to suggest that this phrase is at best a gross simplification of an incredibly complex process, a convenient metaphor that blinds us to what actually needs to happen to resolve our constitution crisis, but in reality is a phrase devoid of any useful meaning.

What do we mean by ‘will’? Traditionally the will has been understood to be a psychological faculty responsible for acts of volition, that aspect of the human mind which makes decisions and initiates motion or action. Let’s put to one side any discussion of the actual psychological processes that take place in the human brain / mind and accept that decisions are made and actions are initiated, and that we refer to this process as ‘the will’. There are two very important aspects of this process that get ignored when scaled up to a supposed aggregated ‘will of the people’: that ‘will’ is a psychological process that requires a mind, an actual brain; and that this act isn’t complete once a decision has bee made, but continues, and is modified, throughout the process of enactment.

A decision to do something requires a brain / mind, an entity that ‘the people’ as a body of people do not possess. There only exist individual minds. When a mind makes a decision it does so either out of habit, because that is what it usually decides to do in a given situation so why waste valuable mental energy contemplating alternatives, or (as I would hope happened when asked to caste a vote in the referendum) the various alternatives are contemplated, all the various arguments are weighed, and a decision is reached. When this decision is finally reached, and action (voting) takes place the complexity of the internal psychological debate is reduced down to a simple decision. The problem comes when an attempt is made to aggregate these simple decisions into a one off collective decision. When an individual mind makes a decision it tends to rationalise the process that brought it about and, in effect, bring all the dissenting aspects of the thought process into line. It constructs an internal narrative that makes sense, and gives meaning to the decision. As ‘the people’ do not have a collective mind, this process cannot occur. The dissenting voices remain. The supposed ‘will of the people’ remains, at best, an aggregate decision of 52% of those people who voted. It ignores the 48% who voted ‘remain’, those who did not vote, and those who were too young to vote.

There is, however, an even more important aspect to this attempted aggregation of individual wills into a collective ‘will of the people’ that is ignored. In most situations, for individual minds, making a decision to act is only the start of the process. To make this decision meaningful it needs to result in action. But when we attempt to enact a decision we often come face to face with reality. We often find that what we thought was a straight forward desire to bring something about, say, for example, to learn to play the piano or learn a foreign language, in reality proves to be far from straight forward. We may find that learning the finger movements required for the piano or grasping the grammar of a particular language either too difficult, or (more often), requires more time devoted to it than we have available. As a consequence of this experience we modify our original decision; we either choose a different instrument or language, chose a different course of action to fill our perceived need, or we abandon the project all together. Whatever the outcome of the mental process, it will result in our amending our original narrative (that made sense of our original decision) such that the whole process now make sense and our subsequent changes of mind, brought about by the discovery of the reality of the situation, are coherent. This is totally normal. We do it all the time. Decision making is an ongoing, and often highly complex process. But it can only happen in individual mind, not in the mind of the ‘will of the people’ which, after all, does not exist!

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.