To my fellow candidates & voters in West Dorset

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

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

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

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

Resolving our twin crises

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

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

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

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

On not taking back control

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

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

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

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

A plea regarding public debate

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

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

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

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