The walls they are a crumbling

Immediately following the 2019 Conservative general election victory the Prime Minister repeatedly used the phrase ‘one nation conservatism’. Referring to the breaches his campaign had made in the ‘red wall’ he said: “I’m proud to say that members of our new one nation government, a people’s government, will set out from constituencies that have never returned a Conservative MP for 100 years.” Fast forward to last Thursday and we have evidence of a possible breach in the ‘blue wall’. Much of the analysis of the Conservative loss of the Chesham and Amersham constituency to the LibDems centred on voters feeling ignored or marginalised; that they were not being listened to on the issues that affected them most – issues like the proposed planning reforms and the HS2 rail link. Assuming that this is more than a one-off, and that Conservative voters in the normally safe southern constituencies are starting to get twitchy, were does this leave the notion of ‘one nation conservatism’ – or even ‘one nation’?

It leaves it were it has always been – in the store room of fantasy ideas. Why should, how could, the whole population of the UK unite behind one collective idea? The only way such a proposal could be justified was if a definitively right or correct answer for the various problems we face not only existed, but could be articulated in such a way that everyone could see it. But there is no definitive position or answer to any issue or problem. Other than in the abstract world of mathematics it is impossible for such a position to exist. The world, and especially the social world, is just too complex. The best we can hope for is a degree of agreement as to what we want to achieve, followed by a degree of agreement in how we plan to achieve it. But even here it is quite often the dissenting voice, the view from a different or original perspective, that supplies the creative input that leads to the resolution of a problem.

No, we need and should nurture a variety of views. We need to view our problems from a multiplicity of perspectives. We then need to discuss and debate the pros and cons of these perspectives before finding a consensus. The bottom line here is that we need to start doing politics in a different way. We need to start opening up debate, not trying to close it down by creating a mirage of unity. In local government the main villain here is the cabinet system. Rather than have committees of councillors made up (proportionally) from all the political parties, decisions in the cabinet system are made by one committee composed of members of the dominant party. This nicely avoids any radically different perspective, makes decision making easier, and gives the false impression of unity. It is often accompanied by statements from members of the cabinet suggesting that such and such an issue is non-political – a blatant attempt to create a (false) definitive position.

Another aspect of opening up debate sounds at first to be a contradiction. We need to move on from the adversarial nature of politics – from having a position put forward by the government which is then opposed by the opposition. Such a system does not promote debate – it only promotes the attempt to win arguments. In good, genuine and creative debate, the type of debate that finds solutions to problems, all parties need to accept that there is no definitive position. Each person taking part in the debate needs to accept that the position they start with may not be the best, and may not be the position they end with. Each person needs to actively listen to other perspectives not just find ways to disagree.

We need, desperately need, some system of proportional representation. We need to encourage both a diversity of views in the electorate, and we need to have those views represented in government. If this means we have coalition governments – then good; it will force politicians to listen to opposing ideas and make compromises. This, to my mind, seems only fair and just. But more than this, more than a formal system of PR, we all need to learn to engage in creative debate and discussion. We need to learn to listen and consider other perspectives than our own. We need move away from the belief that not only definitive answers to our problems exist, but that we have found them. And who knows, but in a supreme twist of irony we may all become united in a collective, open and creative debate about our future.

Dreamland

I don’t read that many novels. It’s not that I don’t enjoy them, it’s that I never seem to have enough time for reading and when I do there always seem to be works of non-fiction that are more demanding of my attention. When I do get drawn into one, however, they can quickly take over my life. Such was the case last week when I picked up and read Dreamland, a dystopian novel by Rosa Rankin-Gee. I shall refrain from saying much about the plot because that would spoil it for any potential readers, but I would like to comment on two aspects on what I think an excellent and thought provoking read.

The first is personal – the book’s setting, Margate. I was born and brought up in Margate and know many of the locations described in the book intimately. I can remember the town when the guest houses were full of holiday makers, and can remember these same guest houses being converted to cheap flats for ‘London overspill’ (as it was termed at the time) when the holiday makers decided to visit Spain instead and avoid the joy of sheltering in the cliff top shelters when the weather turned wet and the wind decided to blow. In recent years, when I have visited, I have been shocked and saddened by the gradual decline of the town, and, with the exception of a very small area in the old town, have failed to notice its much talked about resurgence. All the emotions associated with these memories were easily rekindled by my reading, and added a deep intimacy to the narrative.

The second is the book’s slow journey into dystopia. From a social arena not far removed from where we are at the moment we are led on a slow and gradual path to a place that, on arrival, is not only deeply disturbing, but is made all the more so by the characters not really being aware of what was happening until they arrived there. In terms of climate change, one of the main themes of the book, this echoes a problem described by the sociologist, Antony Giddens – that people will not take the threat from climate change seriously until the effects are ‘in their face’, but by the time they are it will be too late to do anything about them. Mean global temperatures are rising and are set to overshoot the 1.5 degree maximum agreed at the Paris conference and confirmed at last weekend’s G7 conference of ‘world leaders’. The ice caps and glaciers are melting now. Sea levels are rising now. By the time our coastal towns are experiencing the floods described by Dreamland it will be too late to turn back the tide.

Another aspect of this slow descent into dystopia is that the people who really need to take the threat seriously (most politicians and business leaders) lightly dismiss it with an air of optimism. Yes, they argue, such a scenario makes good fiction, but in the real world all will be well. Whilst they are happy to admit that the dystopian state is a possibility, they prefer instead to focus on the possible utopian outcomes produced by technologies yet to be devised and inventions yet to be made. This is an example of what the philosopher Roger Scruton called ‘the best case fallacy’: given a range of possible outcomes we tend to focus on the most favourable and develop a faith that that we will achieve it. This dismissal of the worst case outcome not only makes us feel better, it also stops us working to prevent it. There is a strong argument here for pessimism. But who is going to vote for politicians who describe a future that may not come about but which, they argue, we should take seriously and actively work to prevent? Most people prefer a happy ending. They want to believe a whole range of positive fantasies told them by politicians. They don’t want to believe in the possibility of an unhappy ending.

And talking of endings, I want to know what happens to the lead characters after the closing scene of Dreamland! So Rosa Rankin-Gee, what about a sequel? Or better still, why not make Dreamland the first part of a trilogy? I would love to read the story from Franky’s perspective in the second part, whilst the third part could tell the story of Blue. Or is this just an example of me wanting a happy ending?

A Mission for Dorset Council?

My thinking on Dorset Council’s proposed Climate and Ecological Strategy and Action Plan has been clarified, largely thanks to Mariana Mazzucato’s latest book, Mission Economy. Two ideas in particular stand out for me; ideas which I think are of vital importance. One, the central argument of her book, is the need for governments to be ‘mission-oriented’. The other, more in the background, is need for us all to understand issues such as our climate and ecological emergency as ‘wicked problems’.

Mazzucato’s call for governments to become ‘mission-oriented’ is primarily a call for them to fundamentally rethink their relationship with the market economy, and to reassess the way in which they interact with business. Rather than adopt a back-seat relationship with the economy, effectively limiting their interventions to fixing market failures, they should become actively involved in both shaping and co-creating markets; they should recover a sense of public purpose; they should create a vision of what they believe needs developing or achieving and then work with business and other stakeholders to foster the necessary sense of mission to bring this about. These missions may not, probably will not, have clear paths to their achievement – these will be discovered through the creative and dynamic economic relationships engendered by the revised economic attitude. And whilst Mazzucato is talking primarily about national government, I think the same principle should apply to local government. Dorset Council may not be able to change the fundamentals of our national economic structure, but they could start working with local businesses to develop a vision of the type of Dorset they want to create.

Our climate and ecological emergency is the perfect example of a wicked problem. Wicked problems are those that arise from the interaction of many complex systems; they are problems that requires much more than a technical solution; they are problems for which we do not have (perhaps cannot have) definitive answers. Without going into too much detail, complex systems are systems with a large number of variables that interact in such a way that a small variable or input can have a large consequence or output (the butterfly effect, how the flapping of a butterfly wing can be the difference between a tropical storm developing or not) and which often produce effects that cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts. If we are to have any chance of successfully responding to this climate and ecological crisis it is vitally important that we all understand the nature of the problem we face. The changes that are occurring to the Earth’s climate are the result of the interaction between an array of complex human social and economic activities and many complex inter-related natural systems. They will require a supreme sense of mission to first stabilise and then reverse.

So what does all this mean for Dorset Council and its CEE Strategy and Action? Well for one, it means that the Council will achieve very little on its own. It means that it needs to be working with residents and stakeholders to bring about radical changes to how we live. It means that it needs to take a political lead and start setting out a visions of what they think life in Dorset should be like by 2030 / 2040 / 2050. But even more importantly, having set out such a vision it needs to sell the vision; it needs to get residents, organisations and businesses onboard; it needs to start working with these stakeholder groups to help create the vision. The bottom line here is that the changes we need to make to how we live cannot be imposed – they need to emerge from Dorset communities working together in a creative way. And the only organisation that can drive this dynamic collaboration is Dorset Council.
It’s not for me to say what this vision of a future Dorset may look like, but just to start some discussion here are three examples of what could be included. Dorset should aim to be self-sufficient in renewable energy. The easiest way for this to happen would be via a large-scale off-shore wind farm. It was estimated that the previously rejected Navitus Bay project could have supplied something like 95% of our electricity – with the remaining 5% easily delivered by solar. Dorset Council should start promoting this idea and encourage discussions amongst all possible stakeholders. It should set the mission, the vision, and then work to realise it.

Another mission would be the retrofitting of all current buildings to the highest energy efficiency standards possible, and for all new buildings (all buildings granted planning permission) to be constructed to these standards. Rather than take a back-seat and wait for national planning guidelines to change the Council should adopt this as a mission and then start working on ways, on creating ways, that will bring it about.

Earlier in the year the Town and Country Planning Association published a report on how to create net-zero carbon living. It suggested various models including those for cities, large towns and for counties like Dorset which are mostly rural but with a number of market towns. The idea for this last option was to develop these towns into eco-towns – towns where local facilities are within walking distance, where the local economy is focused on shopping locally, working locally, producing locally, and where ‘active travel’ is strongly encouraged. But for when this wasn’t practical, these towns would be connected into a network by a first class public transport system. The creation of such a network of eco-towns could be a third mission.