In the best interests of who?

First of all, an apology. I’ve been rather busy in the last few weeks, with the consequence that I’ve had to place certain projects and activities on hold – including this blog. But now that the local elections are over, and the initial turmoil of my election onto the Dorset Council starting to calm down, it’s time to start writing again. My aim during my time on this council will be to use this blog as a place for philosophical reflection on Dorset politics.

There’s been a great deal of criticism at the national level of ‘tribal politics’, of politicians voting for party political reasons rather what’s in ‘the national interest’. In a similar vein, during various training and introductory events for the new Dorset Council there have been many comments from councillors calling for cross-party co-operation, for councillors to talk and listen to their fellow councillors, of all political colours, and make decisions in the best interests of the residents of Dorset. This all sounds very reasonable, but not as straight-forward as many of the advocates would wish.

However much we would prefer it to be otherwise, notions like ‘the national interest’ and the ‘best interests of residents’ are far from clear cut. And they are certainly not objective states against which all decisions can be referred. They may sound like reasonable reference points against which political decisions can be made, but they are even more ephemeral than political theory and party political statements of policy. At least the latter of these have the advantage of being written down and argued in a rational manner, and therefore subject to criticism and debate. The ‘national interest’ and the ‘interest of residents’ are more often than not just disguised notions of subjective political opinion.

For example, I strongly suspect that my understanding of ‘the national interest’ would be somewhat at odds with that of a strong adherent of free market economics, someone who genuinely believed that if left to itself, and free from state restrictions, the market will come up with solutions to the fast approaching climate breakdown. How then do we agree on what this national interest is? In compromise, I hear people shouting! In the rational centre ground of politics. But I seriously doubt whether we can save ourselves from climate catastrophe through compromise. And likewise with the ‘best interests of residents’. I strongly believe that it is in the best interests of the residents to do all we can to provide locally sourced renewable energy, through both solar panels and wind turbines (on land and off shore) – but many people would argue that their ‘best interests’ are harmed by those ‘unsightly’ turbines ruining their view and devaluing the value of their property. I would argue that preventing a one metre rise in sea level trumps such aesthetics and personal wealth.

The problem is, however, that no single statement, whether written or spoken, whether from an individual person or agreed by a collective, can be definitive. And that includes anything I write and say. Including this. Basically, the world is just too complex. There are too many variables, there is too much inherent uncertainty, for such positions to exist. However much we may crave such simplicity, and we do crave it, often intensely, it doesn’t exist. There is no intrinsic meaning to the world and life, there is no objective purpose. We create all meaning and purpose.

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with the need to accept that whatever we believe cannot be the whole truth, and it leaves us with the need to listen and talk to people, and particularly to those people who we disagree with, in as open a minded way as we can. We need to learn to debate. We need to participate in political discussion. And on the political stage, councillors and MPs of all parties need to engage in genuine dialogue – but please, let’s drop any notion of ‘national interest’ or the ‘best interests of residents’. Whilst I certainly do not wish either the nation or the residents of Dorset any harm, such phrases are too contested to be used as the rationale for any decision.