A royal response to Chris Loder

For a long time I have believed in the need to abolish the monarchy and convert our constitution into a republic with an elected head of state, and in recent months have joined the campaign group Republic. As an institution the Royal Family is inconsistent with a 21st century democracy. Our head of state should be elected by the people of this country, not hold the role by virtue of birth. Inherited privilege and power is an anachronism that is wrong in principle and bad for British politics. It sends a clear message that being born into certain families and of a certain social class affords you the right to certain positions in life irrespective of your merit, ethics, or abilities. It reinforces the belief of many former public school students that certain jobs are theirs as a right. In terms of the head of state it also means that the incumbent is accountable to no one. It surely cannot be right no one can challenge and call into question anything done by the head of state, even if those actions were only symbolic.

A couple of weeks ago Republic asked its supporters to write to their MPs and ask them two questions: 1. Do you agree that the monarchy should be replaced, perhaps sometime after the Queen’s reign is over? 2. Whether or not you support the monarchy, do you accept that in this day and age there should at least be a referendum on whether to keep the monarchy? Would you support a referendum being held at some point after the Queen’s death? Rather than send an email I chose to ask Chris Loder, the MP for West Dorset, these question via Twitter. Doing it via this medium would make more people aware that he had been asked these questions, I reasoned, and provide him with an opportunity to make an open statement.

Well, my reasoning here achieved it’s desired outcome. But rather than reply via Twitter he chose to make a statement to the press, a statement that said he was “dismayed” and “shocked” by my asking these questions of him. He said: “The Queen is grieving. Barely a month after (she) lost her husband…a sitting councillor is pushing for the end of the monarchy. This is an unbelievable mark of disrespect.” There are a number of points here that need responding to. First, I asked the question of Chris Loder, not the Queen. I was seeking his opinion of the monarchy. I some how doubt that, in the unlikely event the Queen became aware of my tweet, she would have been shocked. I’m fairly confident that she is aware of Republic’s campaign. Second, is it really so shocking that a sitting councillor should have an opinion on the monarchy? I can only presume that he is of the belief that sitting councillors can campaign on any matter providing that it’s nothing to do with the monarch. Third, how is asking the above questions “an unbelievable mark of disrespect”? What is actually disrespectful about them? Perhaps he still holds onto something akin to the medieval notion of the divine right kings, that merely looking at them (or asking questions about them) somehow contaminates their divine being?

Of more note, however, were the two elements of irony in his reply. He accused me of subverting and undermining the monarchy “at every opportunity for political gain”! The only way I could make political gain from asking these questions was if the majority of the voters in my ward (or in West Dorset if I’m fortunate enough to contest another general election against him) were in favour of a republic and decided to support me rather than another candidate in any future election. No, the only person making political gain was him, by making a statement to the press, by finding an opportunity to further develop his image of the culturally conservative rural farmer.

In further endorsing this image he also said: “When I was elected, I proudly swore an oath of allegiance to the Queen. I’d like to reassure everyone that I will not be reneging on this oath”. Does he not see the irony of such a statement? Surely in any democracy worthy of the name his first allegiance should be to the people he represents? Such a statement clearly implies that he gives the will of the monarch greater weight than the will of the people of West Dorset! This is just another example of how the monarchy is wrong in principle and bad for British politics. Even if this oath is only regarded symbolically, as a traditional statement that has little meaning in actuality, it still implies that the monarch’s will is above that of the people. This is bad for our politics. It is bad for democracy.

Individualism and the need for PR

An article in this week’s New Stateman has really got me thinking. There has been a great deal of discussion about The Labour Party, and particularly Keir Starmer’s leadership of it, following the results of the local elections and Hartlepool by election earlier this month. This particular article, by the political editor of the Economist, Adrian Wooldridge hasn’t introduced me to any new ways of thinking or to any novel concepts, but by arguing that Starmer’s party should ‘Reclaim meritocracy’ as its central goal it has juxtaposed the pursuit of a meritocracy and that of promoting egalitarian policies in a way that I had never considered before. I accept that I may be very naïve, but somehow I’ve managed to hold onto both some sort of egalitarian principle whilst also believing that people should be rewarded according to what they actually achieve or the amount of work they put in. It would appear that many on the left, including the philosopher Michael Sandel, are now highly critical of a meritocratic approach. This needs exploring. I find it really frustrating, but also quite exciting, when I have my eyes opened to a problem I had hitherto ignored. My first task (when I’ve finished my current book) will be to read Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit. I will report back on my findings.

Elsewhere in the media over the weekend I read an article that the Labour leadership are being won over to some version of PR. I really hope this happens. I don’t think that Labour instinctively warm to the idea, but are being forced in this direction out of pure necessity. Bottom line is, that if things keep going the way they have been for Labour it’s their only chance of having any influence at all. I have two main reasons for arguing for a move to PR. The first concerns pure fairness. At the last general election, nationally, the Conservatives received 44% of the vote. Under our first past the post system this translated into them being awarded 56% of the seats in Parliament and 100% of the power. How can this be described as fair? What about the views of all those who did not vote Conservative? Why do they count for nothing? No, we claim to have a representational democracy, a system where we elect a person to represent our views in Parliament, but in effect we have a system where we vote for a small number of different manifestos and the winner takes all.

My second reason for wanting PR is more philosophical. There is no ‘right’ or ‘correct’ answer to any problem or situation. The world, particularly the socio-economic world, is just too complex. What this means for the world of political decision making is that decisions made from the perspective of a single party or manifesto position will, of necessity, miss something – potentially something important. We need to start considering the possibility that good decisions emerge from compromise, from the weighing of all perspectives, from good critical debate. This means that we all, and I do mean all (including myself), need to accept that no matter how strongly we hold a view about something it cannot be the definitive view and cannot supply the definitive action. And this in turn means that the greater the range of perspectives presented on any issue, the greater the chance of arriving at a workable solution. I accept that many politicians will find some of this difficult to digest, but it may be the case that if we changed direction, had (through PR) a greater range of ideas presented in debate, the type of politician needed and elected would change as well.

In a way this brings us back to the debate between meritocracy and egalitarianism. One of the claims made by current critics of a meritocracy is that it promotes individualism. One of central claims of most capitalist economic theories is that if we promote the pursuit of rational self-interest, as if by some invisible hand, the greater good for all will be achieved. A meritocracy promotes such attitude. Without going into any detail, I agree that capitalist economic policy promotes selfishness and greed, but I would question the degree to which it promotes individualism. From what I see, rampant consumerism is fuelled by the desire to keep up with fast changing fashions, to be part of the ‘in crowd’. So rather than individualism being a selfish commercial attitude, one that ignores the community good in the pursuit of our own individual good, it could be seen as the opposite. It could be seen as an attitude that, whilst totally acknowledging our interdependence on others, totally accepting that we are, at heart, social beings, at the same time resists the ‘herd mentality’ by attempting to think from a unique perspective. This would not only challenge the dominance of consumerism, it would improve the health of political debate.

A story in need of a name

I concluded last week’s post by pointing out what I consider to be the desperate need for the political opposition in this country to develop a counter narrative, one that provides an alternative political story to the one being told by the Conservative Party. I actually pointed the finger at the Labour Party, but on reflection I think it the responsibility of all those on the left or who support ‘progressive’ politics. In fact, the first task maybe to agree a unifying name for this oppositional narrative. In many voters’ minds ‘the left’ is too closely associated with both the traditional Labour Party and to Marxism in general. Whilst I’m more than happy to consider myself to be well and truly on the left of the political spectrum, I think that this is considered a negative term by many who are not directly involved in politics. ‘Progressive’ is better, but I see no reason why an adherent of neo-liberal economic policies could not consider the changes that they want to bring about as ‘progress’. No, the first key element to this new narrative must be a good name – a name that sparks both the imagination and an emotional response in the electorate. Suggestions more than welcome!

Following the ideas expressed in both Mariana Mazzucato’s new book (Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism) and Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, one element of this new narrative will be the aim to restructure how we do economics – and in particular, the role of national government in our economic model. We need an economic model that truly meets our needs, the needs of everyone (not just the wants of a few), but, even more importantly, will allow future generations to meet their needs. And we need governments to be far more ambitious in what they want to achieve, far mare pro-active in how they go about achieving stuff, and far more risk taking in what they do. We need governments to inspire and to take a far longer term view than what the electorate will think of them at the next election. And even more importantly, we need governments that will promote long-term economic planning in the business sector, perhaps even to penalise short-term economic planning aimed solely at raising executive pay and shareholder dividends.

In order to meet these needs and guarantee the long-term wellbeing of human society on this planet we will need to learn to live within certain natural boundaries. And in order to do this we will need to retell and re-understand both the relationship between human society and the rest of the natural world, and between different human societies, nations and cultures. With regards to the former realignment, in the words of Aldo Leopold, this will change the role of humans on this planet “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” The old narrative sees the natural world, both the living world and the mineral world, as one vast storehouse and repository to raid and plunder at our will. Our new narrative needs to tell of our very complex and interdependent relationship with the non-human world. And with regards to the latter realignment, our new narrative needs to tell a story of cooperation between groups of people, not competition. It needs to acknowledge that all of our major challenges and threats are global in nature and will only be resolved through our working together and supporting each other. This will not be a story of national greatness, but one of international solidarity and humility. In short, it will be a story of how humanity finally came to understand its place in nature.

And finally (for now), and to pick up a theme from last week’s thrilling episode, we will need to slay the dragon of excessive wealth. Excessive wealth needs to become the villain of this new story, this counter narrative, not the hero. People like Jeff Bezos, for example, the CEO of Amazon. Rather than be seen as an example of what we can all achieve if we work hard under capitalism (we can’t, it’s a fallacy) he should be seen as someone who has accumulated wealth by exploiting, by effectively stealing it from, others. Nothing will convince me that even the most talented, creative and hard working person amongst us can be worth 187 billion US dollars. Yes. 187 billion. Just stop and try to imagine just how big that number is. He’s so rich that he can afford to spend 500 million US dollars on a new yacht. And once you’ve comprehended just how big these numbers are, try and imagine how much good this amount of money could achieve if spent on alleviating poverty. Or at the very least, if spent paying the Amazon workforce a decent wage! No, such wealth is exploitation of and theft from humanity as a whole, and needs to be seen as a crime against humanity.

Let me tell you a story

Together with a great many other people I’m trying to make sense of last Thursday’s election results. How can an incumbent Conservative government so tainted by sleaze and deceit be so successful, especially in what has been traditionally regarded as strong Labour areas? Some of the anecdotal evidence is even more puzzling. One voter from the former North Eastern ‘red wall’, for example, who I heard being interviewed by the press, justified his support for the Tories by pointing out how, under a Labour controlled council both the Police and NHS had been struggling for resources – resources supplied by a Conservative national government! Another praised the Tory government because, under them, the number of food banks had gone up! How can sense be made from all this?

Well, I’m increasingly coming to the opinion that most people make sense of life and politics through the use of narrative or story. We develop stories, complete with heroes, victims, villains and plot lines, that makes sense of our life experiences. These stories do not need to be true, they only require an internal logic and dynamic that appears to unify these experiences into a coherent whole. And the themes for two of the most dominant plot lines, I suggest, have been supplied by Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

For some of the most economically deprived areas of the country Brexit supplied a story line with a happy ever-after ending. The villain of the story was the dark bureaucratic figure of the EU; a faceless character, democratically unaccountable, who breathed fire in the form of an abundance of rules, regulations and paperwork, that stifled the hard working ‘ordinary’ people of this country. These people, the victims of the story, were offered hope by the arrival of a blonde haired knight who had always dreamed of leading ‘his people’. His promise of slaying the dragon and leading his people into a future free from foreign control captured the imagination of those people who could see no other reason for their lack of riches. They immediately forgot the actual help this particular beast had supplied to various parts of their once great country. He became the reason for their poverty and the lack of current national greatness. Once slain by the great blonde hope all would be well again.

A second, overlapping narrative has been supplied by the Covid pandemic. Here, very obviously, the villain is the virus – a foreign virus that has invaded our shores and deprived us of our liberty. Once again, in general, the ordinary people of this country are the victims, but it needs to be remembered that these narratives are usually told in the first person. It is my own personal freedom that has been taken from me – it is my livelihood that is being threatened. And once again, for some inexplicable reason, the hero of this story is the same blonde haired buffoon. In the popular imagination he has led the development and roll out of vaccines that will restore freedom to the besieged population. Never mind that this was an international effort or that the UK had greedily stockpiled vaccines, depriving the populations of other countries their fair share. Never mind the earlier chaos concerning the purchase and distribution of PPE. Never mind the earlier ignoring of medical advice. No, all that matters for the personal story lines is that liberty is in sight, and that BJ has restored it.

OK, I’ve gone a little over the top in how I’ve described these two stories, but from my perspective they do supply the main thrust of how voters in many parts of the country have made sense of events. The irony in all this, of course, is that the latter story has obscured the closing scenes of the former. The full outcomes of our leaving the EU has been overshadowed by over a year of repeated lockdowns, by a year in which Covid has not just infected large numbers of the population but our popular news as well. For most of the last year there has been no other news. This, I can’t help feeling, has been very fortunate for the government, in as much as the full consequences of our leaving has not entered the news narrative. But, to repeat a constant theme in these posts, what I find most concerning is the lack of critical thinking being exercised. Far too many of use seem incapable of, at the very least, asking questions about the stories we are being fed – of not only challenging the stories that are told by others, but of having our own stories challenged in return.

There is though, one other aspect to all this – the need, the desperate need, for a counter narrative. Traditionally this has been supplied by the opposition party in Westminster. In the dying years of the John Major government the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, put forward a vision that captured the public attention. I am by no means a fan of Blair (quite the opposite in fact) but you have to admit that, as an opposition, they did get their act together. The same cannot be said of the current parliamentary Labour Party. Even if you are a Conservative supporter you must surely admit it’s healthy for the government to be challenged by an effective opposition – an opposition that can provide a different narrative, one that helps people make sense of their experiences in a different way. There has never been a greater need for a change of story.

An open letter to Chris Loder

I must confess that I enjoy eating meat. Having said that, I also openly acknowledge that there is a powerful argument for eating substantially less meat. If we are going to not only achieve net zero-carbon emissions, but actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to the levels required to prevent us reaching a climate tipping point, we may well need to seriously consider a predominantly vegetarian diet. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, meat and dairy accounts for around 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and many scientists argue that if the world is to meet its target of limiting global warming to well below 2C, some degree of diet shift will be necessary. My point here is not to argue the case for a vegetarian, or even vegan diet, but to simply suggest that, at the very minimum, there is a good case for at least considering such a diet. Why then have you, as my MP, been so offended by the long-running BBC children’s programme, Blue Peter, and its Green Badge initiative that includes the challenge to try a vegetarian diet for two weeks?

I think that one reason is that it helps to build your image of being a farmer’s son and champion of rural life. Apparently, farm leaders across the country have accused the BBC of adopting an anti-meat agenda by allowing the initiative. However, by asking why the BBC was allowing the programme to “demand children not to eat meat in order to get their Blue Peter Green Badge” you grossly distorted the nature of the challenge. As a BBC spokesperson pointed out, not only are other options than avoiding meat available to choose from to gain the badge, but the challenge is to simply not eat it for two weeks. They are not asking the children to stop eating meat for ever, and using the word ‘demand’ invokes an degree authoritarianism that is just not there! If, after just two weeks of abstinence, the young person taking the challenge decides that they would like to continue with the diet their attachment to meat could not have been that strong in the first place. And I see no harm in having a debate about our diet, a debate that can only be informed by having some experience of alternatives. But, perhaps even more importantly, it just may be the case that the nature of farming needs to change – that how we use our land for agriculture needs to acknowledge the fast approaching climate crisis and adapt accordingly.

I think that another reason is the belief amongst certain people on the right of politics that the BBC has a left-wing bias. Your tirade against the broadcaster included the accusation that they have a “woke agenda”. Okay, it’s time for a second confession. I am getting increasingly annoyed, and not a little perplexed, by the derogatory way the term ‘woke’ is being used by many Conservatives and their supporters. The term originated in the African-American culture as an expression of being awake to social injustice. And what is wrong with that? Surely we should all be trying to be awake, to being aware and conscious of social injustices? I would really like someone who uses the term as a pejorative, as a way of dismissing an opinion they do not like, to explain exactly what they mean by the term. And if the BBC does have an agenda of being awake to social injustice then perhaps they deserve our support rather than criticism. The mission of the BBC, as set out in its charter, is “to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.” Social injustice, by its very nature, is not in the public interest and is not impartial.

But this accusation of left-wing bias from the right is mirrored by accusations of right-wing bias from many on the left. I know many people who regard themselves as being on the left of the political spectrum and who think that our favourite auntie is biased in the other direction – though in fairness this is often aimed at their news coverage (and a particular political editor in particular). It seems to me that many of us are all too prone to finding a quick way to dismiss an argument that we either do not like or find inconvenient to us; we seem to prefer ridicule and insult the messenger than critically engage with the message. We would rather label an opinion or action as ‘woke’ or ‘biased’ than properly listen to the argument, explain why we think differently, and be open to amending our position in the light of evidence. I am fast coming to the conclusion that collectively we need to find a way to open our minds to a much higher degree of critical thinking.