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.

Community philosophy

How do you decide what to believe, what not to believe? How do you decide what is the morally right or correct thing to do in any situation? For example, when you are offered the Covid-19 vaccine, will you accept it and the Government’s assurance that it is safe? Or will you decline in the belief that it will change your DNA or, by implanting a piece of nano technology, will allow the Government to track your every movement? If you discovered that there are plans to build a 5G transmitter close to your home, would you immediately start a campaign to stop the transmission of this brain damaging radiation? Or would you look forward to the enhanced connectivity that it will offer? When you hear mention of Qanon, do you think that this is just the tip of an massive iceberg of corruption at the very heart of the US establishment? Or do you dismiss it as the completely unsubstantiated ravings of people with over-active imaginations? How do you know? Do you consider yourself to be open minded, willing to consider any proposal put to you on its merit? Or do you find that you have an instant opinion on such a proposal?

Why have I just written a whole paragraph of questions without offering any answers and without offering a proper introduction to what I want to say? Well, in short, it’s because I genuinely believe that most of us never stop to properly question the beliefs that we hold and the process by which we came to them. I do not think that we have been taught how to critically think, or if we have, that we need much more practice in doing so. That’s why I have become very enthusiastic about community philosophy. Often known as ‘Philosophy in Pubs’, this is a grass-roots movement that brings together ordinary members of the community to discuss ideas in an open and respectful way. The Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group that I organise only has two rules: That all participants must be open to be challenged, and having to rationally justify what they say; and that we challenge or criticise the idea, not the person who expresses it. I can’t help thinking that if these two rules, and the critical reasoning skills that you develop from them, were widely adopted, even taught in schools, that our society would be in a far healthier state.

As it happens, the January meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group (to be held ‘virtually’ on 27th January) will be discussing a book that tries to get to the very heart of how you answer the questions posed in the opening paragraph. In The Righteous Mind, Jonathon Haidt makes a three-fold claim. First, that we are nowhere near as rational as we would like to believe we are; that our responses to questions and events arise from our emotionally based intuitions and that we generally only use reason, post hoc, to justify them. Second, that these intuitions themselves arise from six basic psychological systems in much the same way that all the flavours we experience when we eat arise from five basic tastes. And third, that once we have become aligned to what he calls a ‘tribal moral community’ (our particular moral or political belief system) our adherence to this community both ‘binds and blinds’ us. Oh, and just to make his point clear, this isn’t something that ‘the other side’ do. This is something that we all do. Yes, you do it. I do it.

If Haidt is correct (and remember, we should not just accept that he is) this means that our initial response to his argument will be an emotional one rather than a rational one; it may feel intuitively correct; it may feel that he has insulted my intelligence. Either way, I think that it is beneficial to stop and consider how his arguments make us feel. Likewise, I think that it would be beneficial to use his approach to reflect on our answers to not just those questions I asked initially, but on our responses to all those news items that that provoke a strong reaction in us. And having done that, why not start on all our basic moral and political beliefs? Okay, maybe (just maybe) I’m getting a bit carried away. But whether Haidt is correct or not I do think that there is great value in constantly having our opinions and beliefs challenged. If you agree, and would like further details about the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs Group, please do get in touch.

This is a very serious public health crisis

I’m sure that most people are already aware of this, but just in case please allow me to really push this warning home: This Covid pandemic presents a very serious public health situation. On Friday afternoon I ‘attended’ two events that really underlined the this message, a briefing for Dorset councillors from Sam Crowe, the Director of Public Health Dorset, and the monthly meeting Dorset councillors in West Dorset have with our MP, Chris Loder. Two particular messages emerged from these meetings: The situation is more serious than many people realise; and many people are not even taking the same precautions as they did during the first lockdown back March. Certainly from my perspective it is nowhere near as quiet out there as is was first time round when, on going out for my daily walk, I remember being struck by just how quiet it was. The A35 was practically empty of traffic, even in the middle of the day, with the sound of bird song replacing the constant background rumble of traffic.

The most recent figures for the number of Covid cases in Dorset are really quite alarming. The number of cases per 100,000 people in the seven days up to 4th January was 347.7, up from 161.7 the previous week. That’s an increase of 115% in a week! And just to underline the severity of the situation further, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, has today warned that hospitals face their “worst crisis in living memory”. What this means is that if you or a loved one contract the virus and are unfortunate enough to be one of the unlucky one that requires hospital treatment, or that you require other, non-Covid related urgent treatment, that treatment may not be immediately available. And please, let us not distract ourselves by starting an argument about underfunding or the creeping privatisation of the NHS. These arguments can, and have to wait until after the crisis is over. Our priority at the moment must be to prevent the spread of the virus and ease the pressure on our hospitals.

Changing topic completely, for me, one of the big political battles waiting to break out concerns planning permission for listed buildings. I sit on both Bridport Town Council’s Planning Committee and Dorset Council’s Area Planning Committee for west and south Dorset, and am getting increasingly frustrated by our inability to approve necessary energy efficiency and generation measures for listed buildings. In particular my concerns relate to the siting of solar panels on roofs and the replacement of old windows with double glazing. I fully accept that all applications must be taken on merit and assessed as individual cases, but in general the reason often given for refusal of permission is that the appearance is not in keeping with the historical nature of the building or the conservation area. There must come a point when we regard making buildings, all buildings, as energy efficient as possible, and taking every opportunity to locally generate electricity from renewable sources, more important than the historic appearance. If the latter was our main concern we should be restoring outside toilets and open fires / removing inside toilets and central heating from many building in Bridport. Put bluntly, what’s the point of admiring the aesthetics of old buildings if in doing so we risk allowing our climate to make the environment in which they are situated unliveable?

Unfortunately, some of the fears I expressed last week about Donald Trump and his ‘army’ of loyal (and armed) supporters came true this week when, at his incitement, they stormed the Capitol building in Washington during the Congressional process of confirming Joe Biden as President. My positive spin on this is that Trump’s behaviour has caused so many people to distance themselves from him that although five people were killed this was nowhere near as bad as things could have got if widespread open revolt had broken out – revolt that I now think increasingly unlikely. I am by no means a fan of the US politics, but I have been feeling genuinely sorry for them this week. Trump has been a global embarrassment. Just imagine how Peking or Moscow have viewed these events. Just imagine their reactions when, in 10 days time, their television screens are full of images of him being escorted from the White House in a straight-jacket!

Back to work…

Today is my first day ‘back at work’. Apart from checking emails for anything pressing, I’ve done next to nothing council / politics related for nearly two weeks. During that time I’ve also largely avoided social media (though could not resist the odd check on what mad comments have been emanating from Donald Trump’s Twitter account) and totally avoided this blog. So, what’s been happening? Well, I suppose the two ‘biggies’ are that the UK has got its sovereignty back and is now fully in control of its destiny. That comment, by the way, in case you think that something serious has befallen my mental state in these last two weeks, was said ironically. The other is that the Covid virus is showing no indication of getting bored with its assault on our health and way of life.

The Covid alert level in Dorset has now been raised to ‘very high’. As a result of a significant rise in reported cases and growing pressure on our hospitals, just before New Year we were placed in Tier 3 – and as I write this another total lockdown seems inevitable. This, though, did not stop a number of young people gathering on Eype beach around a bonfire to see in the New Year. I first heard about this when a reporter from the Dorset Echo called me for a comment. I generally do not like being asked to comment on something that I know nothing about and when my only information is what the questioner passes to me. Despite being reported in The Sun newspaper (a serious source of news that has never been known to sensationalise a story in order to sell itself) I have since been informed that the party was not large, was well behaved, and that the group both tried to ‘socially distance’ and cleared up after themselves. Nevertheless, they should not have gathered.

I told the reporter that whilst I understood why they did gather, out of respect for our fellow citizens it is important to keep to the rules and for each of us to do our bit to stop the spread of the virus until such times (hopefully about in about 3 months) when the vaccines have got it under control. Yes, I know that many people acutely feel that their freedoms are being taken from them. And yes, I really missed going to the pub on New Year’s eve before heading to the midnight gathering in Bridport’s Bucky Doo Square. But, as the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin has argued, there are two types of freedom – freedom to, and freedom from. Humans are social animals and should be free to meet and socialise with fellow humans without restriction. But, because we are social, we are also members of a community of fellow human beings, not just individual creatures only concerned with our own self-interest. This means that we need to respect other peoples’ right to freedom from unnecessary hurt and harm. We have the duty to respect the need to protect others from unnecessary exposure to the virus.

I genuinely think that most people do not understand just how interconnected we are – interconnected to our fellow humans, interconnected with other animals, and interconnected with our wider environment. This means that what we do cannot be isolated from its effects upon others, upon the lives of animals, and upon planet Earth as a whole. Take climate change as an example – our climate affects all humans, all animals, and all habitats. This means that whatever happens elsewhere can, and often will, have an effect upon us. And the more humans become globally connected through travel, the media and trade, the more our lives will be affected by events happening elsewhere. This also means that, increasingly, we are not in control of everything that happens to us. We have never had control. We cannot take back control. We can never be totally sovereign as a nation. But of even greater significance is the fact that the things which pose the greatest threat to us (climate change, global pandemics, economic collapse, terrorism) are global in their nature, and can only be dealt with globally through cooperation. This cooperation was much easier to achieve as a member of the EU. I think that our leaving the EU was a retrograde step for the UK, the EU and the world.

I’m still finding Donald Trump a source of amusement in these dark days. Will he go with grace, with dignity? Or will he be carried screaming and sobbing from the White House? The next important event in this melodrama comes on Wednesday when the Senate are due to formally accept the result of the electoral college and acknowledge Joe Biden as the next president of the United States. If they vote as expected Trump has very few cards to play. But those he does hold could quickly turn my amusement into serious concern. My background fear is that his words incite some of his less than rational (and armed) supporters onto the streets in protest. If this happens things could turn very nasty. Let us hope that Covid and Brexit remain the dominant news items for the next few weeks.