It’s time time that we became a republic

Has it really two months since my last blog? I realise that my last post I said that I intended to get back into a regular routine of posts, but that didn’t quite happen did it? Sorry, I promise to try harder. Having said that, and in my defence, this year’s ‘silly season’ has been quite a bit sillier than usual, and provided little motivation for me to write. First we had the ‘election’ of the new leader of the Conservative Party, and, by default, our new Prime Minister. The effect of this on the urgent political decisions that this country needed to make was political paralysis. Then this paralysis deepened, and spread to local government, as a consequence of the period of national mourning that resulted from the death of Queen Elizabeth.

Well, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth has now taken place, the period of national mourning has ended, and the country is hopefully getting back to normal. There can be little doubt that the late Queen was greatly admired. The huge crowds that turned out for the various events and the incredible queue of people for her lying-in-state testify to this. It was obvious to all that she was totally committed to the role that fate had bequeathed her, and had a sense of duty that she maintained throughout her long reign. I have no reason to doubt that she carried out her constitutional duties impeccably throughout this time.

However, despite any respect that I can muster for her as a person I really struggle to find respect for the monarchy as an institution. In fact I find the whole notion of inherited power, status and privilege abhorrent and think that a modern democracy deserves an elected head of state. I therefore chose to stay silent and not attend any formal function, lest I spoke or acted in a way that may have given offence. I find it very difficult to be anything other than honest. I particularly avoided the Dorset Civic Service of Thanksgiving for her life at Sherborne Abbey, and a smaller Civic Service held in Bridport. Religion in a dance with monarchy is the stuff of nightmares.

Now, though, I think we need to start seriously questioning our status as a constitutional monarchy. Whilst I totally understand that our monarchy is essentially symbolic, that it has very little real power, what it symbolises is deeply damaging to any attempt to reduce social inequality in this country. It basically says that a small group of elite people are better than the rest of us, not because they have more knowledge, skills or expertise, but simply because they were born into a certain family. The royal family sits at the apex of a class system which is still prominent in the national psyche.

Coupled with this is the wealth they have accumulated – and not through hard work. King Charles, for example, is in line to receive tens of millions of pounds amassed by the Queen – much of it from art and racehorses – which will not be liable for tax. Most people pay 40 per cent inheritance tax on anything they inherit over a £325,000 threshold, but a deal negotiated between the Crown and John Major’s government in 1993, effectively exempts the monarch. By whose standards can this be seen as fair, especially when so many families are really struggling to make ends meet?

I also struggle with monarch’s role at the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the political association of 56 countries, the vast majority of which are former territories of the British Empire. Our new king will also be king of 15 of these member states. No country volunteered to be member of the British Empire. No country volunteered to have their culture abused and their economic resources plundered by Britain. I firmly believe it is time for Britain to formally apologise for its ransacking and forced control of these countries. If some or all of these countries wish to remain in some form of political association then their head should be the rotating head of member states. Britain and the British monarchy should have no privileged place in the association.

The problem with holding on to traditions is that we are forced to face in two directions at once, the past and the future. Whilst some people may see this as a good thing, it fails understand that the global problems we face can not be fixed by traditional methods. The traditions associated with the monarchy should be left in the past. That doesn’t mean that we erase them from our collective memory, far from it. It means that they become the subject of our history, not our future. It’s time that we became a republic.

Taking back control

First of all an apology for any regular reader who has noticed a lack posts from me over the last few weeks. My excuse? I’ve simply not had the time – too busy enjoying myself, first at a big party to celebrate my wedding a year ago, then with a few days away, and finally with a weekend in London. A lot has happened politically over this time, and there is the potential for things to get even more interesting, so I had better knuckle down and start writing!

As I write the first round results of the Tory leadership contest have just been announced. This contest, and potentially the next General Election (which could follow in the Autumn) seems to be focussed on tax policy. With the exception of Sunak, most candidates seem to be calling for ‘a return to Tory values’, and particularly for a reduction in taxation. Some candidates have even been explicit (though honest) in talking about the corresponding necessity to reduce public services and expenditure. The rationale behind this policy is the belief that its more efficient and fairer to give individuals the power to choose where and how they want their money spent. This is a rationale based on an understanding of the individual as an atomised, rational decision maker. It is a rationale that is deeply flawed.

What actually happens is that power is transferred not from the government to the individual, but to big business. Because we are encouraged to regard ourselves as consumers, to spend our money in line with the marketing and advertising that most appeals to our sense of need, money (and power) flows to big business. The more profit a business makes the more it can invest in shaping our needs and wants, and the more it controls our desires the more profit it makes. This consumerism, the dominant social attitude, has been described as buying what we don’t need, with money we haven’t got, to impress people we don’t know. And to make matters worse, and assuming that the business is UK based, because there is low taxation, little money flows back to government. In a nutshell – the rich get richer and the poor become trapped with little access to publicly funded services.

From the Tory perspective low taxes are associated with a small state and is contrasted to the large state of socialism and left-wing bureaucracy. From this angle power is firmly with ‘the state’ and the individual is seen as powerless. This is a persistent image which, whilst largely false, the Labour Party has not done enough to challenge. I say largely false because historically there has been an element of truth to it. Either way Labour always seems to be on the back foot with this accusation and unable to offer an alternative scenario. This simply allows the image of the atomised consumer to dominate our thinking. An alternative scenario, however, does exist – and its one that is much closer to the reality of our lived experience.

This alternative also focusses on the individual, but not the atomised, competitive individual of the consumer ideology. Instead it views the individual citizen as both social and cooperative. It views individual citizens as highly interactive within their community and highly interdependent upon their fellow citizens. It is that aspect of our communities we saw when the Covid pandemic first struck and whenever there is a disaster or social emergency. It is an understanding of the social individual that whilst based in actuality is suffocated by that of the individual as consumer. Which is a real shame, because if we could only allow this understanding of the social individual to flourish we could make a true transfer of power, one that would allow us to be free from both faceless bureaucrats and big business.

How? Well first of all we need to start encouraging greater direct citizen participation in decision making and government. I truly believe that if ordinary citizens had the opportunity to come together to discuss important issues and make decisions that directly affect their communities their degree of engagement would grow rapidly. One way forward would be to start experimenting with the idea of citizens assemblies. This would need to be accompanied by the devolution of power to the lowest possible level of government. Yes, central government may need to retain power over certain aspects of our lives (much as even those of a Tory small state would) but a great deal could be devolved down to regions, counties, towns and cities, and even to local communities.

So how would this affect taxes?. Even though, ideally, local government would be responsible for it’s own local tax collection (under the control of local citizens) central government would still need to both ensure sufficient tax was collected to maintain national level services and infrastructure and that those large corporations that had not been replaced by local cooperatives paid their full contribution. Whilst the overall tax burden would not go down (it can’t if we want to maintain a functioning NHS for example), and in all likelihood would need to be raised, because its distribution would be much more in the direct control of service users it would be viewed as a positive, not a negative.

Brexit was ‘sold’ to many people in this country with the phrase “taking back control”. People, the citizens of this country, quite naturally want some sense of being in control of their lives and somehow were led to believe that shrugging off the perceived bureaucracy of the EU would allow this . Instead, power is increasingly being passed to big business and the rich. People have no more control now than they had when we were a member of the EU. But this could change if we started to trust citizens to make more decisions themselves. Not decisions about which fashion brands to buy but decisions about local planning issues and how local schools are funded, decisions about the funding of local buses, decisions about the supply of local food and energy. If we could start to nurture this direct involvement I believe people would start to realise, to directly feel, their interdependency on their fellow citizens, and would begin to realise that they really could genuinely take back control.

To hell in a handcart

I’ve started to use a phrase often muttered by somebody I used to work with. ‘Going to hell in a handcart’ seems to totally sum up the current state of humanity. What’s brought on this doom and gloom? Well, many things, but the tipping point this weekend was reading a newspaper report on the US House select committee investigation into the attack on the Capital that followed Trump’s defeat in the presidential elections. One commentator said that despite the damning inditement against him we shouldn’t rule out the return of Trump. What? If this happens I see no future for humanity.

What is it about us that makes us elect popularist political leaders like Trump and Johnson? They are cartoon characters who better belong to a TV soap opera than the political world stage. What is it about us that desires, and puts our faith in celebrities rather than serious politicians who have a genuine understanding of the issues we face? Why do we dismiss serious politicians with phrases like ‘they’re only in it for themselves’ yet keep supporting those over-inflated egos who are only it for themselves? That we do so says as much about us as it does about those charlatans we elect to office.

Part of the problem is that humanity is, on the whole, crap at assessing risk and making predictions. We are only motivated to change things when the we are directly experiencing discomfort, not beforehand to avoid discomfort. And we seem to have an inbuilt faith that things will either continue as they have done or get better in some way. We seem intoxicated by the notion of progress and blind to the all the existential storm clouds building on the horizon. Why do we resist realist assessments of our situations in favour of ‘happy ever after’ fairy stories?

Another part of the problem is that we are nowhere near as intelligent as we like to think we are. We seem to make sense of the world through the use of simple narratives like those used for soap opera story lines; narratives with easily identifiable heroes and villains – characters like Trump and Johnson and their evil (often foreign) nemeses. We seem unable to deal with complexity and nuance, with important debates quickly descending into a simplified polemic. As a recent Radio 4 programme on the loss of nuance pointed out, in a world of increasing complexity we are more and more seeing things in black and white, yes or no, support or reject.

Yet despite all this we somehow believe that we have a special place in the universe. Unless we quickly wake up to the reality, the precariousness of our situation, I fear that our arrogance will be our downfall. If we want to avoid that trip to hell onboard the handcart of our self-belief we need to start having proper and meaningful public debates and discussions about the future of humanity’s place on Earth. We need to understand that we are part of the natural environment, not separate or above it, and that this relationship is complex. If we don’t, if we keep with the soap opera story lines and characters, we’re “doomed, we’re all doomed!”

Reflections on a royal weekend

Whilst I’m more than happy to accept four days on which no one expects any work from me, the last thing I did over the long jubilee weekend was become involved in any royal celebrations. In fact I found it all rather nauseous. As I’ve said on other occasions, it is completely inappropriate for a modern democracy to have an unelected head of state. In addition to this short-fall in democracy our monarchy simply endorses existing notions of class and privilege. In this day and age it is simply not acceptable for anyone to inherit their place in society according to who gave birth to them.

Nevertheless, there were people who obviously got quite enthusiastic about the royal family. Why? A quick internet search found five reasons why people think them a force for good. The first said that monarchs “serve as figureheads, providing a focus and unifying force, bringing countries together and healing divisions.” Well I see no evidence of this happening. The only way I can imagine this happening is if people accept a strong social hierarchy and their place in it, accept inherited power and privilege, and, as my mother used to say, “don’t get above themselves.”

The second that monarchs “are apolitical and therefore better suited to representing their countries at state occasions such as remembering war dead, or celebrating social causes, than politicians.” This annoys me in the same way that so called independent councillors claim to be above politics, and only fighting for what’s good for their communities. A person’s political perspective shapes the way they interpret social events and social causes, and it helps determine what they consider to be socially good. Whilst I’ll admit that, out of respect for the dead, political statements should be left out of certain state occasions, elected politicians are more than capable of doing this. In fact this is what they do.

The third that a “royal family provides a sense of continuity and stability that ordinary politicians, who come and go, cannot provide.” However, as Karl Marx famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Whether we like it or not, many things in British society need to change, and clinging hold of tradition and our past can blind us to many of them. And before I’m attacked for wanting to destroy our history, that is not what I’m saying. We are more than capable of having a good understanding of our past without constantly reliving it and endorsing it as appropriate now.

The fourth that “national pride and patriotism is focused on a largely ceremonial figure and is therefore harder for political leaders to exploit.” National pride and patriotism requires political scrutiny. Again, it is not apolitical. The main issues affecting our wellbeing, issues such as the climate crisis, food and energy security, international conflict and war, and asylum seekers and economic migration, are global issues – issues that require global solutions and global cooperation. A strong sense of national pride and patriotism quickly leads to a distorted view of ourselves as ‘world leading’ and superior, feelings that get in the way of global cooperation.

And lastly that monarchs “can stay out of the fray of party politics, and are therefore better to provide a role model, or leadership role, in times of national emergency or constitutional crisis.” Really? Has anyone noticed any member of the royal family acting as a role model? Prince Andrew perhaps? Or how about the Queen herself? In what way does she act as a role model? People say that she has shown a sense of duty and commitment, admirable qualities, but what evidence is there that anyone emulates her? According to the Daily Mail (hardly a republican journal) the Queen uses a wheelchair much of the time but cancels engagements because she is ‘proud’ and ‘doesn’t want to be seen struggling’. If she really wanted to be a role model she could swallow her pride and be seen in public in a wheelchair like so many of her subjects. She could even start highlighting the difficulties faced by wheelchair users.

None of the above reasons justify the continuation of an out-of-date and undemocratic anachronism. They don’t even get close to counteracting the endorsement of inherited privilege and a strongly hierarchical social structure. And I haven’t even mentioned the wealth they have acquired over the centuries – wealth that has been taken from other countries and the exploitation of other people. This wealth has certainly not been earned through hard work or merit. And to make matters worse, we, their subjects, continue to give them money through the taxes we pay. No, the royal family need to be given their cards. We need to become a republic with an elected head-of-state.

Socrates and common sense

I find it curious how minds work – or at least, how mine works. For the last couple of weeks I developed an increasing urge to revisit some books I have about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. Socrates is the closest I have to a philosophical hero, but he’s a bit of an enigma. Not because his writing is obscure or difficult to understand, but because, as far as we know, he wrote nothing. The only accounts we have of his ‘philosophy’ are the writings of others, primarily Plato, who used the character of Socrates as the central figure in his dialogues . Of these, it’s generally regarded that Plato’s earliest writings (those which recorded the last weeks of Socrates life) are the most historically accurate – though it’s impossible to be certain.

This lack of a ‘philosophy’ however is his greatest attraction. He didn’t wander around the ancient market of Athens trying to teach any particular idea or thesis. No, in effect, he did the complete opposite. He went up to people who claimed to know the answers, who talked about their ideas with and air of authority, and challenged their certainty. Through the careful questioning of what they said he effectively deconstructed the reasoning of his interlocuter and the arguments they used to justify their lives. Through conversation he urged them to explore the principles by which they lived and what they understood by ‘the good life’. He lured them into examining the meaning of their existence and the consistency of their beliefs. That’s what appeals to me about him anyway.

But why does that appeal to me? It drove his fellow citizens of Athens up the wall and caused some to find a reason to get rid of him. His approach to philosophy appeals to me because I think contemporary life is in desperate need of it. Because I do not think that there are any certainties in life (except, of course “death and taxes”, and even the latter of these is questionable for some) and those that think there are need challenging. Because not enough of us are challenging basic assumptions like the measuring of our success in life by the wealth we have accumulated or the fame / celebrity status we have gained. We are not asking and discussing basic questions like what constitutes a good life and what sort or person should we aspire to become?

Relax, though, you’re safe. However much I would like to I will not be wandering around Bridport on market day challenging what people say and think. My urge to do this, however, is partly met by the Philosophy in Pubs group that I run. Once a month we meet in a local pub and discuss a topic that a group member has prepared an introduction to. The aim of the discussion is very much about challenging ideas and asking questions and not at all about giving a lecture or arguing for a particular point of view. Whilst this, I hope, proves to be very satisfying for those people who attend – those that do attend are not necessarily the people that I think would benefit most from the questioning.

At the last meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we discussed ‘common sense’. Without attempting to summarise the discussion I would like to briefly refer to Antonio Gramsci’s take on the topic, one that I think particularly relevant to the comments that I’ve made above. In his Prison Notebooks he describes common sense as that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. For him these are the basic realities we use to explain that world.
However, whilst we may have no choice but to begin from the common sense into which we are born, we should not accept its comforting familiarities unthinkingly. Instead we should continually question them; we should drag them into the light of day and expose all the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions that otherwise present themselves as simple reality. In short, for Gramsci, ‘common sense’ is a confusion of unexamined truisms that must be continually challenged. Now that is philosophy in the spirit of Socrates. That is the philosophy that I like. That is what the world so desperately needs right now.

A lack of political leadership

A few days ago I noticed in the morning news that our Prime Minister is receiving criticism from his own side for a lack of leadership. In a different context, I have been (and remain) critical of Dorset Council for failing to show enough political leadership regarding our climate crisis. Yet despite my frequent use of the term leadership (and particularly political leadership) I am not totally sure what I mean by the it – it’s something that I’ve been intending to give some thought to for some time but never quite got round to. This then is my starting point. Any thoughts or views are welcome.

To get things moving, here are two descriptions of leadership that I warm to: “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common and ethical task”; and “An influential power relationship in which the power of one party promotes movement or change in others”. From this I would tentatively suggest that there are three main elements to leadership: Having a vision of what is to be achieved; being able to communicate this vision to others; and being able to motivate others to buy-in and work towards that vision.

Aristotle argued that whenever we do something we do it in order to achieve something we consider good, and we want to achieve that something in order to achieve something else good. At the end this line of reasoning we eventually arrive at the greatest good, and this provides our raison d’être. I think a similar line of reasoning applies to politicians, except, perhaps, that the good to be achieved often lies someway short of the greatest good. But where ever it lies, this good provides the reason for that politician being in politics. To be effective, therefore, that politician needs to have a clear vision and understanding of what for them is the good they want to achieve, and if they happen to gain a position of leadership that good must surely be their guiding principle.

A political leader stands no chance of leading others towards their vision of the good they want to achieve unless they can share that vision with others. This requires, therefore, the leader to effectively communicate their vision of the good to others in such a way that they see it and understand it in much the same way as the leader does. This, of course, is no easy task. Our leader needs to be a very effective communicator, a skill that not only involves speaking to other people but listening to them, understanding the others understanding of their message, and adapting their message accordingly.

But whilst the successful communication of their vision to others is necessary it is not sufficient. The political leader also needs to be able to motivate those others to buy-in to that vision, to adopt it as their own vision. I would suggest that in effect this is achieved through the use of narrative, that the leader can tell a story of where they think the country or their organisation is going in such a way that those being led are able, in fact want to, synchronise their own personal narratives to it.

What does this mean for our PM? Here the task should be easier in terms of his own party than it is for the country as a whole as there should already be a high degree of synchronicity between the narratives of party members, MPs, and their leader. The fact that there isn’t probably tells us a great deal about the vision Boris Johnson has – a vision that focuses on himself more than the party or the country. In fact in terms of the country all we hear from him regarding a vision is an endless series of clichés like ‘levelling up’ and ‘let’s get Brexit done’. The problem with clichés is that whilst they can be easily absorbed into an individual’s personal narrative (because they are vacuous of any real meaning and refer to no clear vision) for the same reason they achieve no synchronicity between the individual’s ‘vision’ of their future and that of the leadership of the Government.

What does this mean for Dorset Council in terms of our climate crisis? The short answer is that, outside of their own estate and organisation, there is simply no clear vision of what they hope to achieve, of what the geographical and political area of Dorset will look like and how it will operate in response to the crisis. This vision needs to integrate the key areas of planning and transport to create a reimagined Dorset, an image that they then attempt to communicate to the residents of Dorset and encourage them to adopt themselves.

Some reflections on politics and democracy

My experience of last Thursday’s meeting of Dorset Council was more positive than the one four weeks before, but not to massively so. The main area of contention was a Conservative motion that condemned the actions of the two women protesters who disrupted the previous one. The meeting was accompanied by a demonstration taking place outside the council chamber, an occurrence that seemed to further inflame many Conservative councillors – causing one to describe the protesters as “a rabble” and say “I’m disgusted at some of the people we represent.” An amendment to this motion, one which softened the language to “regret” but which was additionally critical of how the Council leadership handled the previous disruption, was proposed by the Lib Dems. I was prepared to support this amendment, even though I wasn’t sure that I did regret the disruption. What had made me angry was being denied an opportunity to speak at the previous meeting by the Chair’s decision to go straight to a vote when the meeting reconvened.

The outcome of the voting was predictable, with the Conservative’s voting en bloc: The amendment was defeated and the main motion was passed. What I found so hard to swallow, apart from the obviously inappropriate condemnation of a peaceful protest, was the seemingly inability of many Conservative councillors to understand the purpose of such protests. Many of these councillors made a point of saying that none of the people they represent had contacted them to raise concerns related to the climate emergency, thereby implying that it wasn’t an issue for them – which is exactly the point! For the many residents of Dorset (and many Conservative councillors) it is not an issue – at least not an urgent, in-your-face issue. The point of the demonstrations was to make it an issue; to try and inject some urgency into the climate emergency.

The main issue for me, however, was not addressed. As I said at the meeting, in reference to the previous reconvened meeting which, on the Chair’s direction, went straight to a vote: “I utterly fail to understand how a motion can be voted on without those who oppose it being given an opportunity to speak. This was a flagrant erosion of democracy.” The closest we got to an answer was the Chair saying she did it in the best interests of the councillors, presumably to get the meeting over with, and allow councillors to go home, as soon as possible. But if she didn’t think that there was time for a proper debate she should have deferred the debate to a later meeting, not deny councillors the right to speak against the motion. In many respects I am becoming increasing concerned about the gradual erosion of democracy on Dorset Council.

The following day I had an entirely different political experience. I have recently joined Bridport’s University of the Third Age (u3a), and Friday morning saw a meeting of their Political Discussion group. This meeting, actually about the results of the recent local elections, sparked a number of thoughts. How, for example, do you get people interested in local politics? Many people, possibly the majority, whilst very quick to complain about a whole range of things that directly inconvenience them, have very little idea about what local councils and local councillors do. In fact many would probably tar all politicians (both local and national) with the same ‘only in it for their own benefit’ brush. This is probably why the turnout for local elections is usually so low. Which is a shame. So how do you get people to become actively involved in democracy? To want to understand the issues?

Part of the problem, I think, may be the blatant bias of many national newspapers. Whilst I’m sure that many people to the right of the political spectrum would claim that The Guardian, for example, has a definite left wing bias, they at least carry headlines that appear to be objective statements. Papers like the Express and Daily Mail, however, usually carry headlines that openly support the Conservatives and condemn Labour politicians. My concern here is that many of their readers, particularly those with only a limited interest in politics, will simply accept the messages being sent. And even if they venture beyond the headlines they will probably read the article uncritically. They will not ask questions of it. They will not try and find alternative accounts. They will not ask what hasn’t been reported.
I know that I’m being unrealistic, but don’t you think that our democracy would become so much healthier if people were better able to think critically?

Critical thinking used to be taught in some schools, but nearly always only as a ‘fill-in’ GCSE or A-level course. I think that we would be helping our future generations no end if we started teaching them critical thinking as a integral and core part of their general education. We should be teaching our future voting public to not accept at face value what they are told and hear. We should be teaching them to ask questions, of their own thoughts as much as those of others. We should be teaching them to try and understand an issue from multiple perspectives. We should be teaching them a healthy scepticism. And it wouldn’t only have a positive effect on those who vote for politicians of course – it would also help provide far more effective politicians. Perhaps such politicians would even be better able to understand the motives of protesters who disrupt their meetings.

Some reflections on the local council elections

Didn’t we do well? In April 2019, the Green Party had 175 councillors across England and Wales. Following Thursday’s local elections this has grown to 542 on 164 local authorities. These elections produced some phenomenal results for Greens across England and Wales. We made a net gain of 75, taking seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, and becoming the official opposition on several councils. My heartiest congratulations to all those successful candidates and the hard working local parties that got them there!

Looking through various news websites this morning (the Saturday following Thursday’s local council elections) one thing that strikes me is the wide range of interpretations of the results on the national newspaper front pages. These range from The Financial Times’ headline “Johnson faces renewed threat as Tories hit hard in local elections” to that of “Bullish Boris back on track as ‘red wall’ keeps faith” in the Daily Express. What are we supposed to make of this? I suppose my biggest fear (other than, or course, the Tories somehow getting their act together and managing to retain power at the next General Election) stems from a generally unthinking electorate who only ever go to one source of news and generally accept whatever they are fed. How can we raise the general level of political scepticism across the country? Note – I do not mean cynicism. I mean trying to avoid confirmation bias. I mean asking critical questions and not reading only the news that supports what you already believe.

One headline that did strike me as being of particular relevance to my situation as a councillor on Dorset Council was that of The Times: “Tories punished in south”. Dorset, of course, did not have any local elections this time round – Dorset Council elections will be in May 2024. But the Tories on the council are already rattled, as evidenced by their aggressive attitude at our last full Council meeting. Their agitation seems to have stemmed from last month’s by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward which they lost to us (The Green Party). The results from numerous local elections across the south of England now seem to confirm what we experienced on the doorstep whilst out canvassing for our candidate locally – that voters are so fed up with the Tory Government that they cannot support them locally. In Dorset the Conservatives only have an overall majority of four. This means that it would only take two further by-election losses for them to lose overall control. Will these results rattle them even further?

One other thing that really struck me about this week’s results was the number of new young Green councillors elected. Now I don’t want this to come as a shock, but the average age of councillors on Dorset Council isn’t particularly young. Part of the reason for this, of course, is that it is not easy being a councillor on a principle council if you have a full-time job. Many committee meetings are during the day, and the allowance paid to councillors is no where near that of even a modest wage. Whilst Dorset has a few councillors that manage to maintain some form of employment, I don’t think that they find it easy. This means that in practice most councillors are either retired or can afford to work on a very part-time basis. Despite these obstacles, it would be so refreshing to have some young people with a different take on life involved in local decision making.

But it’s not just difficult to find young people to stand as councillors, in my experience it is difficult to find candidates full stop! In regards to the Green Party situation in Dorset, this is a real shame. My feeling is that there are many wards that would be eager to elect a Green councillor if only one would stand. But to do this well we need candidates who are not only prepared to stand for election, but who are prepared to get themselves known in their potential wards in advance of any election. This means that for the 2024 elections we need to start finding potential candidates now! So how about it folks? Anyone out there fancy putting themselves forward? I’m not claiming that it’s easy being a councillor in a minor party, in fact at times it can be damn frustrating at times, but as one councillor from a different party said to me a short while ago – “you Greens punch far above your weight”! We do. And could be even more effective if there were more of us.

If you fancy discuss discussing what it’s like being a councillor, please contact me. In fact if there are any other issues playing on your mind about local issues, get in touch. You can either message me via this website, or email me direct – my contact details can be found on either the Dorset Council or Bridport Town Council websites under ‘councillors’. Alternatively you can drop in to see me at me regular weekly surgery. I’m to be found every Wednesday morning in the front of Soulshine, South Street, Bridport between 09.30 and 10.30. Come and have a chat and a coffee. Soulshine’s coffee is very good!

Not the finest day for democracy!

My how my political mood can change! Just two weeks ago I was celebrating our Green Party success at the recent Dorset Council by-election in the Lyme and Charmouth ward. This was not just a victory for our excellent candidate, Belinda Bawden, and our green policies, but a rejection of the negative Conservative campaign. The local Conservatives threw a lot into their campaign, and had both our MP, Chris Loder, and the Conservative leader of Dorset Council out campaigning. They even made an indirect reference to me (the only Green councillor in West Dorset) as someone who prioritises the abolition of the monarchy over dealing with the harm caused by the misuse of drugs – based simply on the national Green Party policy on drugs and my open desire to replace an inherited monarch with a directly elected head of state. I have never made any comment on the relative priority of these two issues.

One of the consequences of this victory is that our Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council is now up to five, and the overall Conservative majority down to four. This majority would have been down to two had it not been for a recent Liberal Democrat defection to the Conservatives. The first test of this reduced Conservative majority came the following Thursday evening at a full meeting of Dorset Council, and the debate of two rival motions about fossil fuels and the energy crisis. The first motion, proposed by the leader of our Green Group, Clare Sutton, called upon the Council to lobby Westminster to change planning guidelines to allow local authorities to refuse planning applications for energy generation “on the grounds of climate impact alone”. The second motion, proposed by the leader of the Conservative Group, called for permission to utilise any form “of energy generation sourced from within the UK”, and thus ease the path for fracking and local oil exploration. After a discussion with other group members I decided to save my comments for the second debate. Well, that was the plan.

The first debate, though fairly bad natured at times, proceeded without incident and went to the vote – which was won by the Conservatives with a comfortable majority. The debate then moved to the second motion. First the leader of the Conservative group proposed the motion, then a fellow Conservative spoke as seconder – and in doing so spoke in favour of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. It was at this point that two supporters of Extinction Rebellion entered the council chamber and glued themselves to a table at the front. The Chair immediately suspended the meeting and ordered an evacuation of the chamber. Whilst I have always been a supporter of the aims of XR I don’t understand how stopping the debate furthered their ends. Yes, the act attracted publicity, but not as much as I had hoped the now interrupted debate would have attracted.

However, things went from bad to worse. After a period of time those councillors that had not gone home were led into a committee room and told that we would finish the meeting there. Except that there was to be no debate. The Chairman of the Council announce that we would go straight to the vote and that she would take no speakers. Many, including me, were furious at being denied the right to speak, and at least one councillor walked out in disgust. Again the vote was won by the Conservatives.

My political mood, in the space of a week, had swung from a celebratory high to a disillusioned low. This was not the finest day for democracy. Although I’m still angry at this event, I’m also angry at myself for not being familiar enough with the Council’s Constitution and it’s ‘Rules of Procedure’. These rules, which I’ve now read, state that “If a motion that the question be now asked is seconded and the Chairman thinks the item has been sufficiently discussed” the debate can proceed straight to a vote. Now, as I remember events, the Chairman simply announced that we were going straight to a vote and that she would take no further speakers. I do not recall a motion to do this being either proposed or seconded. And if it was, it must surely have gone to a vote itself. Moreover, I absolutely fail to see how anyone could consider the item ‘sufficiently discussed’ when the only speakers had been its proposer and seconder. No one had been allowed to speak against the motion. How can this possibly be considered democratic?

The need for local renewable energy

Last Monday saw the publication of the third and final report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This one focussed on the actions we need to take. In short it said that if we want to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees we need to make drastic changes at once. There is no time to lose. The fossil fuel infrastructure already in operation, planned or under construction is more than enough to bust the available carbon budget comprehensively, the IPCC found, so we must stop building more and start retiring what is already in use.

Now I know that many people believe, as I do, that the current energy crisis demonstrates a compelling reason for the UK to become self-sufficient in energy production as quickly as possible. But this self-sufficiency must not be through the use of either fossil fuels or nuclear energy. It doesn’t even make economic sense to do so. The cost of solar and wind energy has plummeted by up to 85% over the past decade, making them cheaper than nuclear, gas and coal. Renewables, combined with better insulation and energy efficiency measures, provide the only way out of the current energy crisis and the only way to prevent climate breakdown.

There is though, a further dimension to this need for a drastic change to our energy generation strategy. To my mind our energy needs to not only be derived from 100% renewable sources (chiefly wind and solar) but also be generated locally.

It is really sad that the application to construct the Navitus Bay windfarm off the coast of Dorset was not approved. Had this windfarm been built is would have been able to supply up to 80% of Dorset’s electricity. I really fail to see how the sight of wind turbines out at sea could have distracted from anyone’s enjoyment of our wonderful world heritage coastline. As we urgently need to make full use of the wind available to us I really hope another application comes forward in the next round of licensing.

One of the advantages of the local generation of electricity is that it limits the energy lost through transmission. An even more local idea is through the establishment of Energy Local schemes like the one in Bridport. This scheme, the first of its kind in England, enables 55 households to form a club and buy their electricity directly from the Salway Ash wind turbine at around 12 pence per kWh. There are plans through the building of a 1 acre community-funded solar farm to supply an additional 250 households in Bridport. Just imagine what could be achieved if turbines were sited on the hills surrounding the town. Evidence shows that objections to onshore wind quickly fall away if local people directly benefit from the power generated. I would love to hear your views on this.

A combination of a large windfarm off the coast of Dorset together with Energy Local clubs established in as many towns and communities like Bridport as possible would ensure that our energy would not only be secure from world events, but it would be lower cost, low carbon and support the local economy. Our local economy could be further enriched by a massive project to ensure that all our homes were retrofitted to the highest energy efficiency standards possible. Whilst the free energy efficiency advice and promotion of ‘energy champions’ by Bridport Town Council is a great start, this needs to be expanded and greatly enhanced by Dorset Council, who need to start showing leadership.

One aspect of this need for leadership should be through the development of a policy regarding planning applications for double glazing in listed buildings and the siting of solar panels on buildings in conservation areas and on land in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Their current approach relies far too heavily on the opinions of conservation officers who, in my opinion, seem to prioritise the conservation of the past at the expense of adapting to the future needs of citizens. This is a topic that I will be returning to – probably quite soon.