It’s not been a good week

To say that I am angry is a bit of an understatement. Councillor Maria Roe and myself submitted a motion to this coming Thursday’s full meeting of Dorset Council. This motion called upon the Council to support the Climate and Ecology Bill which is waiting for its Second Reading in Parliament, and (more importantly) to write to our local MPs asking them to support the Bill. This Bill would (amongst other things) require the Prime Minister to achieve certain climate and ecological objectives, give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives, and give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and strategy. This Bill is essential background legislation for the successful implementation of Dorset Council’s own Climate and Ecological Strategy.

However, Cllr Roe and myself have been informed that our motion is not considered suitable for debate. This is bad enough, but what has really angered me is that despite asking the Council’s Corporate Director for Legal and Democratic Services twice for an explanation as to why the motion is not considered suitable for debate I have had no reply. This places me in an awkward position because until I have been given such an explanation I cannot be certain how to respond. In the mean time the best I can do is simply repeat the words of Cllr Ray Bryan, the cabinet member responsible for the Council’s Climate and Ecological Strategy: “Dorset Council as an organisation is only responsible for 1% of the county’s carbon emissions and has limited powers to affect the remaining 99% without huge changes to national legislation by central government.” Because the success of our Dorset Strategy is so dependent upon the national strategy, it is surely essential for the citizens of Dorset that this Bill is supported by our MPs.

This assumes, of course, that I will be given an explanation as to why our motion is not considered suitable for debate. The nightmare situation is that no explanation is forthcoming. This would be such a serious threat to democracy that I really do not believe the silence would be allowed to continue. However, even if I do now receive an explanation (as of 10.00am Tuesday morning none has been received) it is too late to do anything about it in relation to Thursday’s meeting – which in itself could be considered an erosion of the democratic process.

Last week I attended a briefing for Dorset Councillors on the post-Covid recovery. At this briefing the Leader of the Council and other members of his cabinet went to great pains to express their view that such things are “non-political”. Really? There are two sides to this comment, both of which I disagree with. One is the implication that there are certain areas of community or social life where the desired outcome is beyond opinion – that this outcome is somehow objectively obvious to anyone who thinks clearly. The other is that politics is a superficial activity, some sort of past-time that whilst interesting is unnecessary when it comes to the really important issues. Any form of socio-economic recovery assumes an understanding of what the healthy or desired state of normal looks and feels like, and this understanding will vary greatly according the political views of the person holding them. A strong believer in the market economy will hold a different view of what we should be trying to achieve to someone like me who would like to see an end to the equalities that our market economy has created.

I have found the death of the Duke of Edinburgh very difficult to come to terms with. Not because it has deeply affected me, but because a great many assumptions are being made about how I feel and what I thought about the man. Whilst I wish no personal harm to members of the Royal Family, I feel no warmth or affection to any of them either. They are an archaic legacy from a past which should be just that – the past. Such privilege should have no place in a modern society. It was bad enough that the BBC changed the schedules of Radio 4 and both BBC1 and BBC2 to news coverage. Yes, both channels! Why both? And took BBC4 off air completely! Again, why? Surely all the viewers who wished to soak up the atmosphere would have been satisfied with just one channel devoted to news of the event. But even worse than this were the comments made by my MP, Chris Loder. In a letter to the queen, published on Twitter, he claimed that “the constant presence of Your Majesty” was a comfort to his constituents. Does he actually believe this? There may well be some residents of West Dorset who are so comforted, but by no means everyone – and by no means myself!

On the need for secular festivals and truth

It’s Easter Sunday. It’s therefore a very significant day for Christians across the world. But should it be a national holiday for the UK? It will be interesting to see how many of the population actually identify as Christians in the census we completed two weeks ago. Ten years ago, only 59.9% of our citizens said that they were Christians, down from 71.6% in 2001. If the 2021 census returns a figure of less than 50% should we continue to regard this country as Christian? Should there not be a complete divorce between the State and church? Any church? Any religion? These, surely, are legitimate questions to ask. If we genuinely believe in freedom, fairness and human rights it’s wrong to force a default Christian structure upon everyone, especially if it’s only relevant to a minority of the population. In a truly fair and open society we should all be free to practice any faith or none at all. No one should be made to feel socially excluded because their thinking finds it impossible to accept the myths being peddled by religion.

The festival or holiday that I have the biggest problem with is Christmas. I want to join in the festivities, I genuinely want to feel a part of what is being celebrated. But for that to happen I need to ‘but in’ to the idea behind it all, and my thinking will simply not accept the concept of God, let alone a God that can have a son through a virgin birth. However, there are very good reasons to have a social festival at the end of December. The winter solstice marks the genuine end of one year and the start of another. What better time to gather with friends and family and reflect on the year past and look forward to the year to come? And a spring festival at around the time of the equinox is a great occasion to stop work for a few days to reflect on the new life bursting forth from nature, from the natural environment all around us. What better time to reflect on our relationship with the rest of nature? If people with particular religious beliefs want to add their own interpretations to these festivals, that’s fine with me. But the festivals themselves could and should be made accessible to any rational person.

In saying all this, I do not wish to suggest that there are not good elements to religion. Whilst the metaphysics provided by the various religions has been totally superseded by science, and should be discarded by all rational beings, their ethics often captures some enduring human values. If we could all learn to love our fellow humans in the way Jesus of the Christian Bible taught his followers to love, we would all benefit no end. But this is not because a mythical god has instructed us to adopt certain values, it’s because over the course of human social evolution certain values have been found to be invaluable to maintaining social structure and coherence. But such an acceptance also comes with a serious health warning. Some of the social values and ethical behaviour taught and codified by religion is seriously out-of-date. In particular I’m thinking of various faiths’ attitudes to same sex relationships and their enforcement of gender roles and sexuality in general.

Now apart from loving your neighbour, another ethical value (as far as I’m aware) universally endorsed by religion is that of telling the truth. And it’s very easy to understand why. Telling the truth, being honest in your dealings with others, lies at the very core of any stable community or society. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how quickly social life would collapse without it. This has been a particularly dominant theme in my thinking the last few weeks, not least because I’ve just finished reading Peter Oborne’s The Assualt on Truth. This book is a damning indictment of our Prime Minister. It clearly documents the history of Boris Johnson’s distortion of the truth, his falsehoods, and his arrogant dismissal of personal accountability. But of even greater concern than Johnson’s disregard for the truth is how certain national newspapers (I don’t need to name them, you know the ones I mean) have completely failed to call him to account. Had Jeremy Corbyn lied even a fraction of the amount he would have been annihilated by these papers. As far as I’m aware, these papers have not even offered a review of this book. If, as a society, we hold so little regard for the truth, or are so partisan in how we apply it, what sort of future awaits us?

Another reason why ‘truth’ has been at the fore of my thinking is that I’ve been working on an introduction to the problems associated with the concept of ‘truth’ for both the next meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group, and the spring symposium of the national Philosophy in Pubs network. I will write this up for a blog post at the end of the month, but for now let me whet your thinking appetite by suggesting that when placed under close scrutiny ‘truth’, as Oscar Wilde observed, “is rarely pure and never simple”.

Questions, questions, questions

For me, one of the many losses of the last year is that of the free monthly magazine The Bridport Times. I say this in a very selfish way because its demise deprives me of the opportunity to write up and publish my reflections on the monthly meetings of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group that I organise. I know that I often refer to this group in my weekly posts, but I’ve decided that from now on I will devote the post immediately following these meetings to this task. Sorry, but there you go. It’s my blog, and if you don’t like philosophical reflection I can only respond by saying that you should!

How we operate, both virtually (at the moment) and actually (when we can all meet again in a pub), is that a member of the group proposes a topic that interests them and prepares a short introduction to provoke discussion. We then discuss. Simples. The topic for our meeting last Wednesday was: What is the link between language and thought? Having read and considered what the person introducing this topic had prepared, three questions came immediately to mind: 1. Do we need language in order to think? 2. What is thinking anyway? Having acquired a language(s), can we think outside of it/them?

In asking the first question I mean language in the widest sense of the term and want to include sign language, music and art in addition to the spoken (and written) word. Which, for me, immediately raises the further question: What do we mean by language in the first place? For present purposes let’s assume that a language is any system of expression and communication where there is some link between a signifier (a word, symbol or note) and that signified (something that can be experienced by our senses). Is a baby crying for milk using language? Is it using its cry (signifier) in order to ask for its mother’s milk (signified)? Or is it simply responding to a sensation of hunger in an automatic way that requires no thought? Is thinking present right from the start of a baby’s life, before it has developed any language? Or is it something that develops as a consequence of interactions with its parents / family / community?

Which brings me to the second question: What actually is thinking? I think it highly likely that all animals have, to some degree and in a variety of different ways, some type of cognitive map that allows them to navigate and interact with their environment. But does having such a map constitute thinking? For me, thinking involves the both ability to ask questions of this map and to imagine alternative maps – maps of an environment that ‘the thinker’ is not actually in at the present. John Dewey, the American pragmatist philosopher, considered “thinking as a means to the end of dispelling doubt, doubt being a mental state that creates visceral pain that people will do anything to eliminate.” Could it therefore be the case that for humans, and other animals to some degree, experience has proved these maps to not always be reliable, and that in order to survive we have had to acquire the ability to question them and to develop means for raising their degrees of certainty?

And finally, can we step outside of language in order to examine it more objectively? Or are we condemned to being trapped within language and being forced to examine it from the inside? And perhaps more fundamentally, if our thinking is always trapped within language will we ever be able to fully understand language? Can we understand what thinking is by thinking about it? Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later work, saw language as a game. Language games, he argued, were rule governed, but these rules were not fixed and differed from language to language and over time. But more importantly, he argued that there was no ‘meta-game’, no game of games, no point of view outside of our language games from where we could stand back and appraise the relationship between language and reality.

Personally I warm to Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, but am forced to admit that I can answer none of the questions I asked above with anything approaching certainty. In fact I would probably go further and say that none of the questions raised within our Philosophy in Pubs group can be answered with certainty. However, that by no means devalues their asking. I think more can be gained by the asking of questions than can be by the supplying of answers. If you think like this, if you value a well-formed question more than a clever answer perhaps you could consider either joining our group, or one of the many others scattered across the country. If you would like more details, contact me.

Beware the ides of March

My initial plan for this week’s blog was to raise the question of political leadership. What makes a good political leader? This question has been lurking around in my thinking for some time but was brought out of the shadows by The Guardian reporting that Boris Johnson’s “personal approval rating has surpassed that of Keir Starmer for the first time since last May”. I have no idea how accurately this poll reflects actual public opinion, but I think it very obvious, and deeply frustrating, that Starmer is failing to expose, and bring to the public’s attention, the not insignificant shortcomings of both the incumbent Prime Minister and his government. Surely this cannot be too difficult a task for someone with Starmer’s skills, a barrister with experience of clinically exposing the flaws in other people’s arguments?

That was my plan. But on reading this morning’s news a number of other items have emerged which I find even more disturbing. One is the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ that started its passage through Parliament yesterday. This bill is obviously aimed at groups like Extinction Rebellion. Under its many powers, if passed, police will be able to stop a protest if the noise of this protest will “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or “on persons in the vicinity”. Really? Can you think of any major protest, a protest that has helped bring about major changes to civil rights or equal opportunities legislation for example, that has not had these results? What exactly is the point of a protest that does not? This is a potentially very serious erosion of a citizens’ right to protest in a democratic state, and must be opposed.

Another was the Metropolitan Police’s reaction to vigils that took place to highlight the violence so frequently perpetrated on women by men, vigils that were a reaction to the sad death of Sarah Everard. Had the officers in charge of policing these events no sensitivity? A serving police officer has been arrested and charged with the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, and they respond by forcefully breaking up these totally peaceful events? They allowed a photograph of a police officer pinning a protester to the ground by the neck onto the front pages of the morning papers? Have they no concept of how their response simply appears to endorse male-on-female violence?

Yet another was this morning’s report on the BBC website about how a Post-Brexit UK plans to reshape its foreign policy so that it’s aligned with “the UK’s interests and values”. What are the UK’s interests and values? More to the point, whose interests and values are they? I doubt very much that they are my interests or values, nor any of those of the 48% who voted against our leaving the EU. Or, on a more philosophical point, how can a collective such as the UK have a definitive set of interests and values? Sorry, this is an issue that always sparks a reaction in me. In philosophical jargon it’s termed the problem of collective intentionality. Put very simply, the issue is that because only individual people have things like values it’s very problematic to talk about a collective having them. At best we can talk about the majority view or opinion. At worst it becomes shorthand for the value of those in power who somehow have come to the opinion that they represent the whole population.

This same report went on to suggest that there will be a foreign policy shift of focus towards the Indo-Pacific countries. Please, can someone explain the logic of this? We have been historically and culturally part of Europe for about two thousand years. We have a major market for goods and services right on our door step, one (in terms of international trade) that involves the absolute minimum of travel (and hence the minimum of carbon emissions and financial cost). So instead of aligning ourselves to the EU, an alliance that also provides major security benefits, we choose to shun them and focus on trade with countries on the other side of the globe – countries that we have few cultural or historic links with, countries that alliances with will do little (if anything) to improve our security, and countries that the trade of goods with will involve the maximum amount of carbon emissions! So, someone, anyone, please explain the thinking behind this.

The final nail in the coffin of my morning mood was the line that this review of foreign policy “also paves the way for an increase in nuclear warheads”. What the fuck? So just in case we haven’t got enough to worry about by shunning our close allies and opening up alliances on the other side of the world, and in the process maximising our carbon emissions just so that we can ensure that the rise in global temperatures will make many areas of the Earth uninhabitable (producing massive food shortages and flows of migrants who will be unwelcome in the UK), we also initiate a nuclear arms race so that we can protect our shores from those global citizens who may want some of our food or a place to live! And (nearly finished, honestly) the prime minister leading this government is still more popular than the leader of the opposition? What hope do we have? Yesterday was the Ides of March. Draw your own conclusions.

Duty?

My views on the royal family are very straight forward. As an institution they should be abolished, and the United Kingdom should become a republic. But other than to argue, when asked, that I am totally opposed to any form of inherited power or privilege, however symbolic, I tend to keep quiet about them for the simple reason that I have better things to think, write and talk about. However, my guilty pleasure whilst lying in bed of a morning with a cup of tea is to check-out the front pages of the main newspapers, often to be amused by the reactions of the right-wing press. This morning this particular section of the press were all focussing on ‘duty’ – and I just can’t resist some comment.

In response to the fall out between ‘the family’ and Harry and Meghan, and especially to the latter’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey, several newspapers focussed their attention on the Queen’s comments contained in an address to the Commonwealth (and please don’t get me started on this post-colonial institution). The Daily Mail’s headline, for example, was “Queen tells Commonwealth what real service is. Duty means everything”. The Daily Express led with “Duty and family unite us”, whilst the front page of The Times included the headline “Queen highlights duty as Meghan speaks out.” This word ‘duty’ may only be a small word, but it’s word crammed full of meaning. It’s a word whose meaning needs unpicking a bit.

The origin of the word can be traced back to Latin and Old French where it referred to a debt, to something which was owed and which we had an obligation to repay. Cicero, the early Roman philosopher, writing ‘On Duty’, claimed that there are four sources of this debt. The first, he argued, arose as a result of our being human. Now whilst this may make some sense to someone of a religious nature (to someone who believes that we have been given the gift of life and therefore forever have a debt, a duty to the supernatural being who gave us life) it makes no sense to me. In an evolutionary sense, all life, and particularly human life, came about by chance. Whilst I can see a case for arguing that once we understand our evolutionary place in the web of life we have an obligation to future generations to behave in ways that will preserve, or even enhance their chances of survival, this cannot be a debt. A debt has to get its meaning from the past, not the future.

The second source of debt for Cicero comes as a result of one’s particular place in life – for example from one’s family, country or job. I suspect that this is where the Queen’s comments come from, and it’s a source that has some merit, but probably not in the sense meant by the Queen. We are who we are, we develop our view and understanding of the world, and secure our survival within the world through our relations and interactions with others. In this sense we have a constant debt to others. To take just one example, many jobs, and not just those in the care sector, involve a ‘duty of care’, a moral or legal obligation to ensure the safety or well-being of others. If you enter into a contract with a bus company to drive a bus in return for an amount of money, not only do you have a duty to keep to your side of the contract and your employer to theirs, you have a duty of care to keep your passengers safe.

The above debt is to our fellow members of society, to all those people we depend upon to maintain our wellbeing. If you have been born into a privileged family, a family like the royal family, you most certainly have a debt to repay – but the debt is largely to those countless previous generations from whom your family has extracted wealth and land, including previous generations from foreign countries that were robbed of their resources, labour and lives in the process of creating an empire. This debt cannot be repaid by maintaining some concept of duty if by duty you mean visiting those countries on formal visits, becoming patrons of charities, having an honorary rank in the armed forces, or attending state occasions – however ‘hard’ you consider this work to be. No, the only way to repay this debt, and therefore do your duty, would be to return the vast majority of your wealth to the citizens of this country and the countries of the Commonwealth and earn a living like the rest of us have had to do. At the very least doing your duty would entail rejecting the privileges of that family.

The third and fourth sources of duty for Cicero come about as a result of one’s character and as a result of one’s expectations for oneself. For the sake of completeness, I will briefly mention both of these together. Whilst one’s character is primarily the result of the complex interaction of genetics and childhood experiences, it can be consciously developed by the individual to varying degrees through (as Aristotle argued) the formation of ‘right’ habits. So whilst it makes little sense to have a debt to your genetic makeup (in the sense of a debt that can be repaid), and it makes some sense to have a debt to your parents or to those adults who raised you (though this could be a debt in a positive or negative sense), for me it makes most sense to have a duty to oneself (and to wider society) to develop your character in the service of others and future generations. If one were a member of the royal family this would entail the rejection of privilege, the development of those skills needed by society, and a commitment to earn a living through hard work.

Thinking about thinking

A recent telephone conversation with a colleague gave me the opportunity to hear first hand what having Covid was like. To say that it did not sound pleasant is a bit of an understatement. Apart from the obvious symptoms like breathlessness I was given a description of what he called a brain fog, the inability to think coherently, with associated panic attacks. I find the wide range of differing symptoms described by people who have contracted this virus disturbing. With most viruses, even the flu, you know what to expect. But this uncertainty, not knowing whether (if you caught it) you would be asymptomatic, have mild symptoms, severe breathing problems, and /or some other unexpected symptom, adds a whole new dimension. But even more disturbing than this is the prevalence of people who claim that the Covid pandemic is a hoax. I really do fail to understand how or why someone would deny the reality of this illness. They must obviously buy into some conspiracy theory. If you know of anyone who does believe Covid is a hoax I can only suggest that they speak to my colleague and try explaining his symptoms to him.

Is it my imagination, or are there more conspiracy theories about now than ever? Apart from those related to Covid (that it’s a Chinese plot, a plan by Bill Gates that allows him inject a vaccine into people that tracks their movement, that it’s a hoax that allows the government to get away with restricting our movements) there are those related to the rollout of 5G technology (which again for some reason is related to the Chinese government). There are actual fake news stories doing the rounds on social media, and there are politicians who dismiss any news they find inconvenient or don’t like as fake. This situation, together with the sheer number and variety of news and information sources, makes deciding on the truth of any situation very challenging. So how do we navigate this information maze? My suggestion is that we all start learning critical thinking skills. This is a topic that you will hear a lot more about from me in the coming weeks. I’m fast arriving at the conclusion that we all, even those of us who are convinced that their thinking skills are spot on, perhaps especially this last group, could do with giving some thought to our thinking.

The research that I’ve just started into critical thinking has thrown up an essay that explains where I’m coming from rather well. Written in 1877 by the American philosopher and father of pragmatism Charles Sanders Peirce, ‘The Fixation of Belief’ describes four ways in which we tend to come to the beliefs we hold about the world. One way is to simply believe whatever makes us feel most comfortable. Another way is to believe what our favoured authority (our priest, parent, tradition, Donald Trump) tells us to believe. A third option is to tenaciously hold onto which ever belief first entered our thinking because we just can’t entertain the notion that we may have been wrong. None of these methods, however, are recommended methods for establishing the truth of the matter. If this is what we seek, Peirce recommends a fourth method, the scientific method. This method, contrary to the beliefs of many, regards all beliefs as conditional. Having arrived at a theory that we consider may explain whatever situation we seek an explanation for, we set about testing or challenging that theory, and in the process slowly move closer to the truth. In other words, we become critical of any fixed belief, even our own.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that in terms of social, political or economic phenomena no absolute or definitive truths can or do exist. To fully explain this assertion would involve a long digression into systems thinking, and in particular an understanding of how dynamic systems work. The short (and probably inadequate) explanation is that all phenomena of this type are just too complex to be condensed into any single theory. This is the main reason why, in politics, I argue we need some form of proportional representation. As it is impossible for any single person or political party to have a complete and infallible understanding of any situation we first need many different perspectives to come together. And having come together it then becomes necessary for each person to at least attempt to understand the other perspectives before agreeing to a provisional solution – a solution that will be modified in light of further evidence. This requires politicians to become continuously critical of whatever beliefs or theories they hold, and be prepared to admit they were wrong when the evidence suggests so. Am I being too idealistic here? Maybe. But I’m more than happy to debate the matter.

Trying to understand Fascism

From the perspective of local politics, last week was a quiet affair. This was welcome, partly because it provided some respite after the previous few weeks which have been particularly busy, but also because it gave me the opportunity to do some reading and thinking around the discussion subject for this coming Wednesday’s Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group meeting – fascism. So far my reading has been focussed on the emergence of fascism in Italy and the rise to power of Benito Mussolini. From this reading two distinct but separate problems have been dominating my thinking. The first is the distinctly philosophical problem of ‘collective intentionality’ and concerns the question of whether States can have values and whether they are capable of having a will of their own, as distinct from the individuals who comprise them. The second problem concerns our ability to properly understand how a political movement like fascism could come about without being actually immersed in the social climate of its emergence.

The problem of ‘collective intentionality’ often raises its head in my thinking, but in terms of the political thinking of Mussolini it becomes critical. According to his The Doctrine of Fascism, not only is the State “absolute, individuals and groups relative. Individuals and groups [only] admissible in so far as they come from within the State”, but the State “is wide awake and has a will of its own…[it is] a spiritual and ethical entity.” How can this be? How can States have spiritual or ethical values of their own? How can they have a will that is separate from the wills of those actual members of the State who are in power and make the key decisions. Individual minds possess values, make ethical choices, and have the will to bring some action about. If we claim that States can do this in their own right, separate and distinct from any individual or group that is a member of the State, what added ‘something’ does a State have that allows this to happen? I really struggle to see this. I suspect, rather, this is just a way of allowing the individual or individuals who happen to be in power to have a free reign to do what they like.

I’ve called this a philosophical problem because under the critical gaze of a thinking mind many real and troubling questions (like the one above) are raised and not easily answered. However, whilst he may have been a very skilful politician in the mould of Machiavelli (he was a great admirer) I do not think that Mussolini had the inclination to analyse his own thinking in such a critical manner. In fact from a philosophical perspective his thinking is deeply flawed. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in his The Righteous Mind, our minds are first and foremost instinctive, acting from emotional stimuli, and only tend to use reason post hoc to justify the emotionally based opinion we have already reached. And by all accounts Mussolini was very well tuned in to the Italian zeitgeist.

Italy, before, during, but especially immediately after the First World War was a State in turmoil. It was close to economic collapse, there was widespread violence on the streets from extremists of all political perspectives and there was a widespread belief that the liberal mainstream political class were corrupt. There had been a long held view amongst the population that there was an ethical vacuum at the heart of the State, together with a craving for the national pride that was promised, but never delivered, from unification. Out of this caldron emerged Fascism and Mussolini. As Christopher Duggan says in his excellent history of Italy since 1796 (The Force of Destiny), Italy “had since 1860 been morally fractured, militarily week, corrupt, economically backward and culturally undistinguished …Fascism offered for many a new hope and a new dawn.” [p450] The citizens that voted for Mussolini and the Fascists (yes, initially they were actually elected to power) did so far more as an emotional need for renewal and hope than as a rational choice.

The question that has been dominating my thinking, therefore, is: had I been an Italian citizen at the time, how would I have viewed the opportunity to end all those deeply felt ills that plagued my nation? It very easy with hindsight, and from the perspective of post Second War British culture, to condemn Fascism, but if you were actually living in Italy at the time, if you had grown up and adopted the dominant social and cultural narrative, how would you have responded to the emergence of Fascism? I strongly suspect that it would be radically different from how you respond now. And this poses a wider question. Can we truly understand any political, social or cultural phenomena if we are not immersed in it, if we are outside of what I term the ‘narrative of its inception’? Whilst we can take an anthropological approach to existing cultural phenomena by studying them from within, how can we do this with past phenomena?

On red and green politics and the need to think critically

Last Sunday I attended an online symposium, organised by the Philosophy in Pubs national group, that discussed some aspects of the thinking of the left wing polymath Raymond Williams. Being a member of the Green Party, and having been twice a member of the Labour Party, of particular interest to me was the first session, ‘Red and Green, Ecology and Politics’, focussing on a paper Williams wrote in 1984 entitled ‘Ecology and The Labour Movement’. My own take on the relationship between these two political movements has been heavily influenced by a book written by the French philosopher Michel Serres.

In The Natural Contract Serres argues that to date human history has been dominated by some form of a social contract, by our concern with finding the right or correct form of social relations (including economic and political relations), and in so doing we have ignored the damage we have done to the planet, to our environment, our home. He argues that to remedy this we need a natural contract to sit alongside our social one. The Labour movement, in all its variations, along with all the other political movements, have been likewise blind to the essential relationships that exits between human society and its natural environment. They have argued about what they consider to be the correct relationship between humans, but have only seen the planet as a resource to be plundered and polluted. However, for me, when you start to understand our place within nature you are led, quite naturally, to a socialist perspective.

In last Monday’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash argued that we need to start fighting back in the war of fake news versus the facts. “To prosper,” he said, “democracy needs a certain kind of public sphere, one in which citizens and their representatives engage in vigorous argument on the basis of shared facts. Restoring that kind of public sphere is now a central task for the renewal of liberal democracy”. I agree, but think that in order to do this we need to start learning how to think critically. Facts don’t just exist waiting to be discovered. They need producing. They need interpreting. And most importantly, they need challenging. And all this requires the ability to think critically. But in all honesty, how many people do you know capable of doing this? How many of us test the robustness of what we are told before accepting it? Most people appear to be able to produce an opinion about everything without actually thinking at all. So one of the best reforms we could make to the education system would be to make critical thinking part of the national curriculum. We also need to find a way of introducing critical thinking into the national conversation. Ideas on how we could do this anyone?

One of the areas in particular need of critical thinking skills is the anti-vax movement. I read a report this morning of a video that has since been banned from most social media sites that has been putting people from vulnerable groups off having the Covid vaccine. The video, entitled Ask the Experts, claimed to show a number of medical professionals explaining the dangers of the vaccine and why we should refuse it. This raises a number of questions. Should be simply ban ideas from being publicly expressed because we regard them as dangerous? Who decides? Should we not have the right to decide for ourselves who is telling ‘the truth’? And, most importantly, have we all got the critical thinking skills to come to our own decisions? I do not find questions such as these easy to answer but would really like to start a public debate – but how?

By way of a final comment for this week, I have nothing but praise for the volunteers and staff at Bridport Medical Centre for their delivery of the Covid vaccine. I received my first jab last week, and despite the huge numbers of people ‘being processed’ is was done incredibly efficiently and in a very welcoming and friendly atmosphere. I for one have no reservations about receiving the vaccine. Nothing we do or take into us is without risk. For me, though, the risks associated with not receiving it far outweigh the risks of receiving it.

Parish councils, planning and philosophy

The big news on Friday concerned Handforth Parish Council, which made the national news for all the wrong reasons. A recording of a Zoom meeting of their Planning and Environment Committee, showing some disgraceful behaviour by a number of councillors, went viral on social media. Whilst initially I found this all very amusing, I quickly became sad – partly because it devalued all the great work parish councillors are doing up and down the country, and partly because many of these councils already struggle to attract local residents to step forward to fill councillor vacancies. So, if you have been thinking of standing for your local town or parish council, but, on seeing this, have been put off, please think again. As a Dorset Councillor I attend the four parish councils that lie within my ward, and can guarantee that the Handforth example is a rarity. Parish councils can, and often do, make a real contribution to their local community. Please support them.

Parish and town councils are statutory consultees on all planning applications for their area. I have been sitting on both Dorset Council’s Western & Southern Area Planning Committee and Bridport Town Council’s Planning Committee since the last local elections. In that time I have become convinced that planning is probably the most important area of a council’s work with regards to the mitigation of climate change. But, as a councillor, I feel my hands are tied by out-of-date national guidelines and overly cautious planning officers who are nervous of legal challenges to their decisions. Very few planning decisions are clear cut. Most require the balancing of competing requirements. Perhaps more pressure from towns and parishes would tip this balance in favour of a future climate that continued to support human life. We need to insist that all new developments are built to the highest energy conservation standards as possible, and we need to resist all development on greenfield sites.

One of the most important documents in terms of planning decisions is the Local Plan. This sets out the main principles and policies for developments in a local authority area for the next 15 years of so. Once approved by a government inspector it becomes one of the main determinants in any decision. Dorset Council is in the process of producing its plan, and a draft version has just gone out for public consultation. Bridport Town Council has formed a working group to put together its response. I am part of this group, and so far we have had six two hour meetings – two in the last week. Yet despite all the work we have put in, we have not been able to go through every detail of the plan, there is simply too much of it. This, however, should not put residents off making their own response. It is important that as many people as possible take part in the consultation. Even if you just read the section that most interests you, please read and respond.

Philosophy has been one of my major interests since my teens. Had you asked me at the time I may not have cited philosophy, but the questions I was asking of life then were definitely philosophical. It was only later in life that I was able to study it formally. And one of my big frustrations at the moment is the lack of time I have to pursue or research ideas that come to me. I really need to do something about this. One of my current desires is to revisit Nietzsche. In part this is as a result of reading The Righteous Mind, and the discovery that one of central points of Jonathon Haidt’s book, that our values and judgements emerge from our intuitions and that we use our faculty of reason post hoc to justify them, was said by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil 127 years previously.

Politically I often think of myself as both Red and Green. I have twice been a member of the Labour Party, but left out of frustration at their lack of a socialist agenda, and have philosophical issues with many in the Green Party, particularly with what I would (probably unfairly) term the tree hugging fringe. I am therefore looking forward to an online symposium being put on tomorrow by the national Philosophy in Pubs organisation. The theme of this symposium is the left wing Welsh cultural critic Raymond Williams, who wrote on a wide range of issues including education, politics, culture, the media, literature, ecology, communication and technology. I am particularly looking forward to the first session entitled Red and Green, Ecology & Politics. Hopefully I will have something positive to say about this next week.

It’s time to change how we govern ourselves

Gordon Brown has urged the Prime Minister to set up a commission to review how this country is governed. This follows polling that suggests growing support for both Scottish independence and a united Ireland following our exit from the European Union. I think such a commission to be an excellent idea, but would call for it to have a really wide remit. Whilst Gordon Brown is in favour of a federal system of government with more power being devolved to the separate nations and / or regions, I would like it to consider applying the notion of subsidiarity to the UK. This would mean that government takes place at the lowest possible level; that a central government should only have a subsidiary function – performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level. This means that any review of governance should be applied to all levels, all the way down to town and parish councils. The aim would be to allow decisions to be made as close as is practically possible to those people affected by them; to make the whole process much more democratic. However, to really boost democracy, three other issues need to be thrown into the mix.

First, we need to abolish the House of Lords. I fail to understand how a country that regards itself as a model of democracy can have a completely unelected second chamber of government, let alone one that contains members who are there simply because they have inherited a title or have been awarded a title because of the money they have donated to the political party in power at the time. I know that not all members of the House of Lords have bought a place on the green benches, but I do not consider being ‘a national treasure’ a suitable qualification for membership either. And whilst there are a small number of very hardworking and competent members who have been appointed on the recommendation of smaller political parties, they have still been appointed – not elected. If we moved to a more federal system of government the second chamber could consist of members who were elected to represent a much larger area than that represented by constituency MPs – perhaps on a similar model to the Senate / House of Representatives in the US. But we do not need to imitate. We should have a thorough national conversation and devise a new model that suits our particular needs.

Second, we need to abolish the monarchy and establish a Republic. Whilst I realise that the monarch is only the formal head of state, and has very little real power, it is still an inherited role – not an elected one. It is a throw back to past times when the King or Queen was considered to be God’s representative on Earth and had divine rights. Or, more recently, to when the monarch was the pinnacle of a very strict social hierarchy that severely limited the life chances of the majority of the population. In my opinion the social memory of this royal history holds us back; it prevents us from evolving a new system of government – one suited to the challenges of the 21st century. Whoever is our formal head of state, even if their position is largely ceremonial and diplomatic, they must be appointed by a national ballot. It will be for the commission to decide exactly how much power they should have and how their position fits the elected chamber(s).

Third, we need elections (other than those for the role of head of state) to be conducted under some form of proportional representation. We must have all voices and opinions, no matter how minority, heard and represented in Parliament. My argument for this is largely philosophical. Quite simply, there is no definitively ‘correct’ political view point. I have a particular view of how I would like our government to operate, the laws I would like them to pass, and the type of society I would like to see them try and create. But how ever good I may consider my argument to be, it is impossible for me to state categorically ‘this is how things should be’. Why? Because the correct type of government / society does not objectively exist. It is all a matter of opinion based largely on what we are trying to politically achieve and how best we think we can achieve it. In this sense your opinion is as valid as mine, and the only practical way forward is for all (or as many as possible) viewpoints to be aired, discussed and debated, and a consensus agreed upon. Yes, decisions need to be made, and sometimes the situation may call for strong leadership, but none of these decisions can be definitively correct and all must be open to review. As a society we have not really accepted this relativity of opinion. We tend to form an opinion and then defend it ‘to the death’ as the correct one. We are not good at genuine discussion and debate. We are not good at constructively challenging the views of others and having them do the same to us. We are not good at reaching a consensus. We need to learn this fast. But to do so we need as many viewpoints represented in the debating chambers.