The need to exercise democracy

I’ve been reminded of that famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill this week: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There is no perfect form of either national or local government, but if we want to avoid the slow creep towards oppression, abuse of power and ever growing inequality we need to nurture the democratic process. We need to guard against its erosion by people who either allow political power to go to their heads or to their bank accounts. Whilst the notion of political sleaze has resurfaced in Westminster this last week, with even the normally loyal Conservative supporting press starting to ask questions, it’s the more subtle erosion of democracy within Dorset Council that I want to focus on.

But first, let’s be clear about what I mean by democracy. We have a representational democracy, which means that for both national and local government citizens elect representatives to make decisions of their behalf. As it is not possible for an elected councillor or MP to know what the majority of the people they represent think on any particular issue it is incumbent on them to think for themselves and then be judged on their decision making at the next election. Democracy only works when those elected fully participate in the process of government. It’s the erosion of this ability to participate that most concerns me.

In last week’s post I wrote about my anger at the decision to not allow a motion (concerning the Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill) that another councillor and I had submitted for debate at last Thursday’s Full Council meeting. Well, I was finally given an explanation for this decision. I was told that it was because “it does not relate sufficiently to the responsibilities of the Full Council and does not directly affect the Council.” This statement echoes Standing Order 14.2(a)(i) which states that a valid notice of motion should be “about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the council or the district.” This is all a matter of interpretation. I would argue the opposite, that because the Council’s Climate & Ecological Emergency Strategy document clearly states that “The Council has a key role in lobbying government for clear policy and financial support required for the transition to a zero-carbon future and to actively participate in national forums and consultations on policy development” it very much does relate to its responsibilities. But in terms of the erosion of democracy, this decision should have been made by a full body councillors. I should have had the opportunity to make my argument. The decision should not have been made by an officer together with one or two councillors from the ruling party!

Another example of this erosion of democracy concerns the Cabinet system. Rather than Full Council being asked to endorse decisions made by council committees (comprising councillors from all political parties according to the ratio of their electoral success), most local authorities operate the system whereby Full Council is asked to endorse decisions made by an executive committee of the ruling party. On the surface this is a very open process. I can attend meetings of the cabinet. I can ask questions on any of the reports being discussed. Except there is no discussion. No debate. Any question asked gets a very factual response. And when it comes to approving a report, in the vast, vast majority of cases the chairman simply asks if other cabinet members approve, and they all say yes. No discussion amongst cabinet members. No debate. No challenging questions. I really find it hard to believe that questions, or even concerns, do not occur to members of the cabinet. But if they do, when are they aired? When are they discussed?

The recently approved Council’s ‘Member’s Code of Conduct’ clearly states that “councillors should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” If the questions, discussions and debate that result in decisions made by the Cabinet are not taking place during Cabinet meetings, then where and when are they? Assuming that the brains of Cabinet members are working (and I have every reason to believe they are) then these members are not being very open in their decisions. More importantly, without this open debate we have no way of knowing whether Cabinet members are failing to “act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”. Let me be clear, I am not accusing Cabinet members of breaking the ‘objectivity’ requirement of the Code of Conduct. I’m simply saying that without open discussion how do we know? How can I, as a councillor representing residents of Bridport, effectively challenge, let alone participate in, decisions made?

I also have growing concerns about the planning system, concerns that, I admit, need a great deal more thinking through. For purely practical purposes approximately 95% of all planning decisions are made by planning officers under delegated authority. If our planning committees heard all the applications received they would be sitting constantly. My main concern here is that many of these officers make very conservative (small ‘c’ – I’m not suggesting any political bias) and safe decisions, particularly when it regards heritage buildings – not approving solar panels and double glazing on listed buildings for example. Planning guidelines, like the Council’s Standing Orders, require interpretation. They are written in abstract terms that need applying in particular situations. They often also need balancing against other guidelines. I’m starting to feel frustrated, however, that these guidelines are not being interpreted in the way many councillors would like, particularly in relation to our climate and ecological emergency. I will write more on planning in future posts.

The value of a healthy democracy is that the electorate genuinely think and feel that they are being listened to, and do not feel that they are being used simply to give politicians the power they believe so many crave. But to allow the heart of democracy to beat in a healthy fashion it needs to be exercised. Politicians, all politicians, need to be allowed to engage in the decision making process and to be totally open regarding any and all decisions they make.

It’s not been a good week

To say that I am angry is a bit of an understatement. Councillor Maria Roe and myself submitted a motion to this coming Thursday’s full meeting of Dorset Council. This motion called upon the Council to support the Climate and Ecology Bill which is waiting for its Second Reading in Parliament, and (more importantly) to write to our local MPs asking them to support the Bill. This Bill would (amongst other things) require the Prime Minister to achieve certain climate and ecological objectives, give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives, and give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and strategy. This Bill is essential background legislation for the successful implementation of Dorset Council’s own Climate and Ecological Strategy.

However, Cllr Roe and myself have been informed that our motion is not considered suitable for debate. This is bad enough, but what has really angered me is that despite asking the Council’s Corporate Director for Legal and Democratic Services twice for an explanation as to why the motion is not considered suitable for debate I have had no reply. This places me in an awkward position because until I have been given such an explanation I cannot be certain how to respond. In the mean time the best I can do is simply repeat the words of Cllr Ray Bryan, the cabinet member responsible for the Council’s Climate and Ecological Strategy: “Dorset Council as an organisation is only responsible for 1% of the county’s carbon emissions and has limited powers to affect the remaining 99% without huge changes to national legislation by central government.” Because the success of our Dorset Strategy is so dependent upon the national strategy, it is surely essential for the citizens of Dorset that this Bill is supported by our MPs.

This assumes, of course, that I will be given an explanation as to why our motion is not considered suitable for debate. The nightmare situation is that no explanation is forthcoming. This would be such a serious threat to democracy that I really do not believe the silence would be allowed to continue. However, even if I do now receive an explanation (as of 10.00am Tuesday morning none has been received) it is too late to do anything about it in relation to Thursday’s meeting – which in itself could be considered an erosion of the democratic process.

Last week I attended a briefing for Dorset Councillors on the post-Covid recovery. At this briefing the Leader of the Council and other members of his cabinet went to great pains to express their view that such things are “non-political”. Really? There are two sides to this comment, both of which I disagree with. One is the implication that there are certain areas of community or social life where the desired outcome is beyond opinion – that this outcome is somehow objectively obvious to anyone who thinks clearly. The other is that politics is a superficial activity, some sort of past-time that whilst interesting is unnecessary when it comes to the really important issues. Any form of socio-economic recovery assumes an understanding of what the healthy or desired state of normal looks and feels like, and this understanding will vary greatly according the political views of the person holding them. A strong believer in the market economy will hold a different view of what we should be trying to achieve to someone like me who would like to see an end to the equalities that our market economy has created.

I have found the death of the Duke of Edinburgh very difficult to come to terms with. Not because it has deeply affected me, but because a great many assumptions are being made about how I feel and what I thought about the man. Whilst I wish no personal harm to members of the Royal Family, I feel no warmth or affection to any of them either. They are an archaic legacy from a past which should be just that – the past. Such privilege should have no place in a modern society. It was bad enough that the BBC changed the schedules of Radio 4 and both BBC1 and BBC2 to news coverage. Yes, both channels! Why both? And took BBC4 off air completely! Again, why? Surely all the viewers who wished to soak up the atmosphere would have been satisfied with just one channel devoted to news of the event. But even worse than this were the comments made by my MP, Chris Loder. In a letter to the queen, published on Twitter, he claimed that “the constant presence of Your Majesty” was a comfort to his constituents. Does he actually believe this? There may well be some residents of West Dorset who are so comforted, but by no means everyone – and by no means myself!

On the need for secular festivals and truth

It’s Easter Sunday. It’s therefore a very significant day for Christians across the world. But should it be a national holiday for the UK? It will be interesting to see how many of the population actually identify as Christians in the census we completed two weeks ago. Ten years ago, only 59.9% of our citizens said that they were Christians, down from 71.6% in 2001. If the 2021 census returns a figure of less than 50% should we continue to regard this country as Christian? Should there not be a complete divorce between the State and church? Any church? Any religion? These, surely, are legitimate questions to ask. If we genuinely believe in freedom, fairness and human rights it’s wrong to force a default Christian structure upon everyone, especially if it’s only relevant to a minority of the population. In a truly fair and open society we should all be free to practice any faith or none at all. No one should be made to feel socially excluded because their thinking finds it impossible to accept the myths being peddled by religion.

The festival or holiday that I have the biggest problem with is Christmas. I want to join in the festivities, I genuinely want to feel a part of what is being celebrated. But for that to happen I need to ‘but in’ to the idea behind it all, and my thinking will simply not accept the concept of God, let alone a God that can have a son through a virgin birth. However, there are very good reasons to have a social festival at the end of December. The winter solstice marks the genuine end of one year and the start of another. What better time to gather with friends and family and reflect on the year past and look forward to the year to come? And a spring festival at around the time of the equinox is a great occasion to stop work for a few days to reflect on the new life bursting forth from nature, from the natural environment all around us. What better time to reflect on our relationship with the rest of nature? If people with particular religious beliefs want to add their own interpretations to these festivals, that’s fine with me. But the festivals themselves could and should be made accessible to any rational person.

In saying all this, I do not wish to suggest that there are not good elements to religion. Whilst the metaphysics provided by the various religions has been totally superseded by science, and should be discarded by all rational beings, their ethics often captures some enduring human values. If we could all learn to love our fellow humans in the way Jesus of the Christian Bible taught his followers to love, we would all benefit no end. But this is not because a mythical god has instructed us to adopt certain values, it’s because over the course of human social evolution certain values have been found to be invaluable to maintaining social structure and coherence. But such an acceptance also comes with a serious health warning. Some of the social values and ethical behaviour taught and codified by religion is seriously out-of-date. In particular I’m thinking of various faiths’ attitudes to same sex relationships and their enforcement of gender roles and sexuality in general.

Now apart from loving your neighbour, another ethical value (as far as I’m aware) universally endorsed by religion is that of telling the truth. And it’s very easy to understand why. Telling the truth, being honest in your dealings with others, lies at the very core of any stable community or society. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how quickly social life would collapse without it. This has been a particularly dominant theme in my thinking the last few weeks, not least because I’ve just finished reading Peter Oborne’s The Assualt on Truth. This book is a damning indictment of our Prime Minister. It clearly documents the history of Boris Johnson’s distortion of the truth, his falsehoods, and his arrogant dismissal of personal accountability. But of even greater concern than Johnson’s disregard for the truth is how certain national newspapers (I don’t need to name them, you know the ones I mean) have completely failed to call him to account. Had Jeremy Corbyn lied even a fraction of the amount he would have been annihilated by these papers. As far as I’m aware, these papers have not even offered a review of this book. If, as a society, we hold so little regard for the truth, or are so partisan in how we apply it, what sort of future awaits us?

Another reason why ‘truth’ has been at the fore of my thinking is that I’ve been working on an introduction to the problems associated with the concept of ‘truth’ for both the next meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group, and the spring symposium of the national Philosophy in Pubs network. I will write this up for a blog post at the end of the month, but for now let me whet your thinking appetite by suggesting that when placed under close scrutiny ‘truth’, as Oscar Wilde observed, “is rarely pure and never simple”.