On our last week in the EU and my frustrations at being a Dorset Councillor

And so we enter our last week as a member of the EU. Putting to one side any personal sense of loss from the weakening of our political and cultural relationship with our closest neighbours, I have two main concerns as we drive into the post Brexit fog. First, that in their desire to be seen to quickly negotiate ‘great’ trade deals with the US and others (but primarily Trump’s US) the government is forced to accept terms that in any other circumstances would be regarded as unacceptable. And second, and in a way related, that despite it’s assurances to uphold all the EU environmental and employment standards we currently adhere to, the government slowly sets about dismantling all those standards that ‘business leaders’ regard as impediments to economic growth, and particularly to the growth of their own profits. My sense is that despite the long term view expressed by the political left in the UK, the EU is our best channel for limiting the power of big business.

I’m beginning to get a real sense of frustration from being a councillor on Dorset Council. I’m becoming acutely aware of the problems faced by many the county’s residents but feel impotent to bring about the necessary changes. Take our rural bus services for example. There been a long standing issue with the Bridport to Yeovil corridor, but the situation has now got worse with the announcement that the number 6 bus service from Bridport to Crewkerne via Beaminster will be withdrawn from 1st May. I can understand the problem from the bus operating company’s perspective (the service is loss making) and that Dorset Council have not got the money to subsidise it, but this doesn’t mitigate the hardship felt by residents who rely on the service.

The way forward is for Dorset Council to adopt a long term strategic public transport policy. I know what I’m going to suggest will make our cabinet members choke and look at me in disbelief, but this policy should make it clear public transport is a public service, that we need to make it easier and cheaper than car travel (if for no other reason that to reduce the carbon emissions from private care ownership), and that our policy sets out a plan to achieve this service even though we can’t afford it! We should then go public with the plan, aim to win the support of residents for it, and then campaign to get national government to change its policies and funding arrangements. Such an approach would demonstrate political leadership – something that I think this council lacks.

I’m feeling similar frustrations with Dorset Council regarding our climate and ecological emergency. I’m experiencing the same lack of political leadership. The approach being adopted by the panel looking into our response to this emergency (which I sit on), or rather the approach we are being instructed to take, is to look at the evidence, the facts, and then to decide what is both possible to achieve and what we can afford to achieve. This on the surface sounds eminently sensible. The problem is that what’s possible to achieve is heavily dependent on current attitudes and practices – both of which may need to change in light of this emergency! And what we can afford is heavily dependent on our current economic models – which may well also need to change. So rather than assessing what’s possible though existing attitudes, practices and economic models we need to first assess what we need to achieve, and then what we need to change in order to bring this about.

Youth centres, public transport, and the need for political leadership

Our new MP, Chris Loder, has just won a place in the Parliamentary lottery to introduce a Private Members Bill, and has made a call for suggestions as to what legislation his bill could bring about. Well, the secretary of our Bridport Youth & Community Centre (which I now have the privilege of chairing) has made a suggestion that I would like to not only endorse, but to publicise as widely as possible. She has written to him suggesting that the Government reinstates “the funding and support of Youth Centres, making it mandatory for County and District councils.” As she goes on to point out, “Their closure all over Britain is already having a terrible impact on young people and the Government could give ring-fenced money to the councils to pay for this.” Since the old Dorset County Council decided it could no longer afford to pay for youth centres and youth clubs over two years ago it has fallen to volunteers across the county to give their time and energy to keep, what I consider to be an essential service for our young people, alive and kicking. I think this a scandalous situation in such a wealthy country.

It’s not that the government has not got the money to spend on other projects. Take HS2 for example. A leaked report has just suggested that the cost of the new high speed rail link could more than double from its 2015 estimate of £52bn to £106bn, with a considerable risk that it could rise by a further 20%! That is an awful lot of money to simply cut the journey time between London and Manchester by 50 mins. I have travelled on the existing West Coast main line many times and know it to be a far better service than which I experience travelling to London from the South West. No, what we need (and need urgently) is a national strategic transport policy – one that takes into account the lack of public transport (particularly buses) in many rural areas of the country. We not only need a fair public transport system, one that allows everyone to travel with relative ease (not just business people who could communicate and attend meetings on-line), but we need one that will entice people away from their cars. If we are in any way serious about tackling our climate emergency we need to make public transport cheaper and easier than owning and using a private vehicle. And don’t even get me started on domestic air travel and the government bailout of FlyBe!

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has called for any decision regarding the future of the HS2 project to be based on evidence. This may sound eminently sensible, except for the fact that evidence, hard data, still needs interpreting. And it can be interpreted in different ways depending on how you understand the world, particularly how you understand the social world. We need to move away from the naïve view that evidence speaks for itself – it doesn’t. What’s needed in situations like this is political leadership. What’s needed is a clear vision of the type of society we want to create in light of the many challenges we face. A similar situation exists on Dorset Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Advisory Panel. We, on the chair’s guidance, are constantly searching for evidence on which any decision will be based in such a way that suggests this decision will be obvious and beyond dispute. But evidence will always be open to interpretation. No. We do not need any further evidence. What we need is a political interpretation of the evidence we already have. What we need is the political will to take action. What we need is political leadership.

Royals and Red-tops

The royal soap opera continues to command public attention and constant news coverage. Why? Why does this archaic and blatantly undemocratic institution continue to exist in the 21st century? Why does this epitome of class and privilege refuse to fade into the background and simply become a memory of the way things once were? Surely we have more important things to worry about? More pressing issues to debate on the news channels and in our newspapers? I’m sure that there are a multitude of answers available, but none of them definitive. One of the most concerning answers I heard voiced last week was that the British still regard themselves as superior to other nations, and our royal family superior to all the existing royal families scattered across the world, such that people from these other countries look to us to lead and guide them. I find such national arrogance deeply troublesome. It reminds me of an argument I once had with an otherwise very intelligent person who, in all seriousness, regarded the queen as the provider of a moral compass. But whether you agree with my reaction or not, surely you can agree it is worth having a proper public debate about the future of our royal family and their place (if they have one) in a modern democratic state.

But are we a democratic state? The reaction of the press, particularly the ‘red-top’ newspapers to this and other stories, does make me wonder. Their, dare I suggest, over coverage of last week’s royal news has been well commented upon, not least by Mark Steele who, on Radio Four’s News Quiz, criticised one ‘red-top’ because after 17 pages of comment, page 18 hardly mentioned the royal family at all. OK, this all makes for good satire, but its damaging for democracy as well. Not only does such royal coverage over emphasise the significance of one over-privileged family, it avoids all reporting and discussion of other issues – issues such as wild fires in Australia larger than the size of Greater London and the growing threat to world peace in the Middle East. For anyone who gets their news from such sources, the impression given is that these ‘other’ stories are of marginal importance to an individual family dispute. This promotion of political ignorance is dangerous.

Of even greater danger than this avoidance of reporting important issues is the selective and partisan reporting of domestic political issues, particularly concerning the Labour Party. Now are am no Labour apologist. I have no reason to defend them either on policy or their dismal lack of political opposition, far from it. But when I saw the reporting of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s announcement of her standing in their leadership contest in one particular ‘red-top’ I was appalled. Rather than reporting and commenting on her particular political orientation they simply published, on their front page, a particularly unflattering photograph of her with a personal comment on her appearance. To my mind this was a particularly crude attempt to ridicule and demonise her. My fear here, over and above this particular (and particularly nasty) piece of ‘reporting’, is the power these newspapers have (or to be more precise, the power the owners of these newspapers have) to influence public opinion. Rather than inform and promote debate amongst their readership they appear to want to manipulate public opinion through fear and ridicule. This is not only unfair, it’s a dangerous attack on our democracy. It gives tremendous power to the few very rich owners of news media, and at the same time actively encourages their readership to avoid actual thought and consideration and instead to form ‘opinions’ based on emotion and prejudice. A very dangerous combination!

Patriotism

The word ‘patriotism’ has been associated with a couple news stories this week; in relation to Donald Trump’s decision to assassinate a leading Iranian army officer coupled with him seeking the Republican nomination for a second term as president, and in relation to Rebecca Long Bailey’s expected declaration that she will enter the Labour Party’s leadership contest. It’s a word that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines the concept as a “feeling of attachment and commitment to a country, nation, or political community” and differentiates it from ‘nationalism’. This latter term, which I’m even more uncomfortable with (particularly due to its association with the far right) is defined as “loyalty to one’s nation”, and as having a history starting in the 19th century. Patriotism, on the other hand, is defined as “love of country”, but this time with having a history dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans for whom it was “associated with the love of law and common liberty, the search for the common good”. So what’s wrong with that? Well, firstly, I think it difficult, if not impossible, to claim words have definitive meanings. Effectively, words mean what people in general interpret them as meaning, and I’m deeply uncomfortable with the attitude of many who describe themselves as patriots . And secondly, but far more importantly, I fear that the term narrows our sense of solidarity and attachment to a far too confined sense of community.

The news item about Donald Trump well illustrates the worst connotations of the word. This story referred to his invocation of an evangelic and patriotic fervour to help support his nomination for a second term, his repeated use of the term ‘America first’, and his assertion that ‘God’ was on their side. In a comment aimed at the Iranian leadership, he was reported as saying “You don’t stand a chance against the righteous might of the United States military.” This is the use of religion at its very worst: it’s the claim that the believed source of all that is right and ethical supports one group of people, one nation, with the implication that therefore whatever they decide to do against any other nation is, by definition, right. This was the sort of attitude that allowed the colonialisation of various global communities by those whose military power was the greater, and the genocide of certain ethnic groups deemed to be of lesser worth. I’m sorry, but such an attitude is not only bullshit, it’s not only bullshit that is ethically obnoxious, but, by mitigating against the need to develop a sense of global community to allow humanity to overcome its global problems, it’s bullshit that has the potential to destroy us all.

Rebecca Long Bailey’s used the term in a much softer and less overtly troublesome way, but problems still exist. She talked about the need to revive a sense of “progressive patriotism” in order to unite communities; she pointed out that “Britain has a long history of patriotism rooted in working life, built upon unity and pride in the common interests and shared life of everyone.” Now the idea of communities being united and working for the mutual benefit of everyone I fully endorse. And I accept that the size of the community that you feel part of and work to enhance must, at one level at least, be limited in size. I genuinely feel part of my local community, far more than I feel part of my national community, and very much more than I feel part of a global community. But my fear is that in emphasising the unity of particular groups, particularly national groups, we limit the boundary of our common interests and shared life to the extent that ‘everyone’ only applies to those who live within our own national boundary, and (potentially) only those that pledge allegiance to that boundary.

As I’ve said on many, many occasions, the existential threats facing humanity on this planet (climate and ecological breakdown for example) do not respect national boundaries; sea levels will increase across the world, climate and its effects on weather systems cannot be confined to particular localities, and ethically the wealthier nations of this world have an obligation to help those fellow humans fleeing their loss of habitat. We can only combat these threats through the recognition and acceptance that ‘common interests’ and the ‘shared life of everyone’ refer to the interests and lives of every global citizen. I fear that calls for patriotism mitigate such a recognition and acceptance by confining our focus to a national boundary, and that this harms us all.