Sewage discharged into sea is unacceptable

It appears that yet again sewage has overflowed into the sea in West Dorset. According to Surfers Against Sewage, who monitor our beaches for these discharges, sewage appeared in the sea water at Eype, Charmouth and Seatown following the recent stormy weather. Ironically, a few days later, in their magazine that appeared through my letter box, Wessex Water’s Sewage Planning Manager claimed that they are “proud of our sustained industry-leading performance for customers, our communities and the environment”.

Now I have no problem with the service Wessex Water supply to their customers. Far from it. We recently had need to call them out for a blocked drain we share with our neighbours. The service they supplied was excellent. However, I really struggle to find the sewage discharges acceptable. Wessex Water justify these discharges as the necessary release of storm water to prevent our homes being flooded. This may well be the case, but is this the only response to large amounts of storm water? As our climate changes in response to increased amounts of carbon in the atmosphere such storms will only get more frequent and more severe. Does this mean that we will have to just accept the damage done to both sea life and human health by progressively increased numbers of discharges?

From my perspective, the main issue here is the delivery of essential public services by ‘for profit’ private companies. Starting during the Thatcher era there has been a growing economic orthodoxy that the dominant motivating factor behind all services should be the pursuit of economic growth, and that problems faced by our public services are best tackled by ‘market forces’. Under this economic model factors such as the discharge of sewage are classed as ‘externalities’, and are ignored by the company’s economic planning. Wessex Water is owned by the Malaysian YTL Corporation and turned in a profit of £552.3 million in 2020.

One solution, of course, would be to make water companies incur a cost for discharging sewage – to tax them for any pollution they cause. What I would like see, though, is a move to a completely different economic model, one that measures success by the degree to which the essential things we need in order to live (like warm, safe homes with a secure water and power supply) are delivered. Money and wealth are simply means to achieving these ends. Rather than set our economic focus on the means, as essential as they are, why not focus instead on the ends? Some people term such an economic model a ‘wellbeing economy’.

Our democratic deficit

I can’t help feeling that our democracy, a democracy that many people have fought for over the years, is gradually becoming unfit for purpose – certainly unfit for the functioning of a modern 21st century state. How many voters, for example, feel disconnected from politics, particularly from what’s happening in Westminster? How many of us feel that national politics is a drama being acted out in the national press, a drama that directly affects our lives but one that we have little or no say in? Are such feelings the symptoms of a healthy democracy? Rishi Sunak has recently been appointed our third Prime Minister of the year. The previous one was selected by just 0.3% of the UK electorate (the members of the Conservative Party) whilst Sunak was selected by an even smaller number (Conservative MPs). Surely we deserve more of a say in our national leader than this.

Now I know that in theory at least, UK voters do not directly elect their Prime Minister – that at a General Election we vote to elect an MP, not the PM. But we all know that in practice this is not the case. You only have to listen to ordinary people being interviewed during an election to know that they are voting for their choice of Prime Minister. The 2019 General Election was as much about the election of Boris Johnson and the rejection of Jeremy Corbyn as it was the election of our local MP. Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge this and devise a new way of electing our representatives.

From my perspective the obvious solution is to become a Republic, with a directly elected head of state. This would both get rid of the Monarchy (a residual symbol of inherited power and class privilege) and allow voters to directly select who they wanted as national leader. We could still retain the role of PM of course, but this person would be no more than the leader of the largest party or governing coalition in the House of Commons. Though whilst I’m on the subject perhaps we should change the name of the assembly of MPs. ‘Commons’ is also reflective of the class system, whilst the ‘upper chamber’, the House of Lords, needs to be thrown into the political recycling bin and become elected in some manner.

However, the problems with our democracy are not confined the election of a Prime Minister. In my constituency, West Dorset, at the last General Election our MP was elected with the support of 55% of the electorate. In the scale of things a large majority – but what about the other 45%? Who represents them in Parliament? No matter how hard he tries it is impossible for our MP, Chris Loder, to represent the views and interests of all his constituents. To do so would require him to simultaneously hold and argue opposing viewpoints. I can quite honestly state that I do not feel that my views are being represented in Westminster by my MP. To give a concrete (though quite trivial) example, during a recent debate in the Commons on BBC local radio, Chris Loder said: “My constituents are clear that their priorities when they pay their licence fee are local programmes and local news.” Really? I’m in no doubt that some of his constituents hold this view – but all of them?

Perhaps, then, it is time to rethink how democracy works in this country. To this end it was reassuring to read that the Labour Party overwhelming endorsed proportional representation at their recent annual conference. Adopting a form of PR would not, on its own, resolve all the issues of our democratic deficit – but it would be a great start. Unfortunately, up to now, the Parliamentary Labour Party has been firmly against, and I suspect that all the time Keir Starmer believes that they have a chance of an overall majority at the next election they will remain so. However, if we want people to become active participants in democracy their position needs to change. We need to find a way of ensuring that as many perspectives as possible are not only represented in Parliament, but are involved in the decision and policy making process.

Conservation issues that need addressing

The recent news that two local businesses are to close has caused a great deal of concern in Bridport. Both cited the rising costs of energy as the reason behind their decision, but one, a bakery, also cited the rising costs of ingredients and the fact they were refused permission to install solar panels on their roof. Solar panels would not have supplied all the energy that the bakery needed, but they could have made a vital difference to its viability.

Unfortunately this refusal was far from an isolated incident. Time and again the local planning authority have refused applications for solar panels on local listed buildings, or buildings lying within local conservation areas. To be fair to the current planning authority, Dorset Council, the bakery’s application was turned down by the previous authority, West Dorset District Council, but this doesn’t let Dorset off the hook. I, together with a sizable number of fellow local councillors, have been getting increasingly frustrated by the conservative (small ‘c’) attitude of Dorset Council’s planning department towards such applications.

And it’s not just councillors who recognise the problem. At last night’s meeting of Dorset Council, for example, a member of the public cited Dorset Climate Action Network’s call for the Council’s policies to take a more flexible approach on renewables and energy conservation on historic buildings and in conservation areas. During public questions the Council was specifically asked whether it will adopt a more flexible approach. The answer, from the Leader of the Council, was, I’m afraid, typically vague and unhelpful. He simply stated the obvious by saying that the Council had a duty to give consideration to conservation issues and that we need to find sensitive solutions to these issues.

The reason usually given for the refusal of applications to install solar panels on these particular buildings is that their installation would cause what planning officers term ‘less than substantial harm to the significance’ of the building or area: harm that is not outweighed by the public benefit. This argument needs challenging on two counts.

First there is the question of whether the harm caused by simply being able to see the panels is outweighed by the public benefit. It terms of solar panels the growing imperative to generate as much renewable energy as possible surely tips the scales in favour of the panels. Solar panels can be removed, businesses forced to close rarely reopen and often the buildings they once inhabited fall into disrepair.

Second, in my experience planning officers never give a statement as to the nature of the significance that is supposedly harmed. National planning guidance defines significance as “The value of a heritage asset to this and future generation because of its heritage interest”. But who determines the value the current generation of West Dorset residents attach to their heritage assets? When was the last time the residents of West Dorset were consulted? For all our planning officers know it may be that most of us will not value our conservation areas any less simply because a few solar panels can be seen.

My point here is that planning officers, and particularly the conservation officers who advise them, need to start consulting residents regarding what they value. This is not just my view. It is also the view Kate Clark, an industrial archaeologist who has had a career in heritage management. It her book Playing With The Past she writes: “Traditionally, heritage specialists have used their expertise to define the significance of heritage sites, but increasingly practitioners will need to behave less like dictators and more like facilitators – listening to people, engaging with communities and helping groups to explore what matters, rather than telling them.”

I very much suspect that many, if not most, local residents would value the presence of viable local shops and businesses over the sight of roof mounted solar panels that happen to lie with in a conservation area. But we won’t know this until we ask them. Preserving the past at the expense of our future wellbeing is not a price worth paying. Allowing town centre buildings to lie empty and neglected is not protecting them for future generations.

Investment Zones are not the answer

I’m sure that no one doubts that we desperately need investment in our local communities, in particular to insulate our homes and workplaces, to provide local jobs for local people, to provide clean and cheap renewable energy and to recover our depleted nature and weakening food systems. Our communities have crumbling services, from social care to local public transport. Locally agreed investment priorities, with the right incentives, could begin a green transformation of our country and support the local economy, without allowing the rich to get even richer and wealth to flow into corporations based in tax havens.

Instead the government has brought forward plans that could see predatory developers and landowners riding rough-shod over agreed local priorities, further damaging our already degraded environments, and reducing commitments to affordable homes and to community facilities. These plans, rather than boosting local economies, could be a threat to existing sustainable businesses. ‘Investment Zones’ are a core element in the Tory ‘Growth Plan’, heralded by the now unravelling mini-budget. According to the Government “Investment Zones will accelerate the housing and infrastructure the UK needs to drive economic growth.”

Government guidance states that their aim is to “remove burdensome EU requirements”. These include Habitats Regulations and the requirement to provide an Environmental Impact Assessment, key tools in protecting nature during the planning process. Even worse, the guidance seems to allow for Investment Zones in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected environments. The stated expectation to ‘mitigate environmental impacts’ fails to meet the government’s own – already weak – ‘biodiversity net gain’ requirement outside investment zones. No wonder the major environmental protection organisations have called into question the Government’s commitment to its own legal target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.

The legal requirement to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 through a series of carbon targets has been completely ignored. The guidance states that “Key planning policies to ensure developments are well designed, maintain national policy on the Green Belt, protect our heritage, and address flood risk, highway and other public safety matters” will apply, but it is silent on climate change commitments. The stated intention is to “accelerate” development. To do so without explicit carbon commitments is reckless in the extreme! “The planning system”, the guidance goes on to say, “will not stand in the way of investment and development”, and that Investment Zones “will benefit from a liberalised planning process”. This clearly means that local communities will lose their rights to resist unsustainable development. Instead, developers will get to by-pass local objections entirely. These objections are often on environmental grounds.

In my opinion the planning system is already unfit for purpose. Local Plans should be pro-active in stating not just were the Local Planning Authority wants development to take place, but the type and design of this development. Instead it is reactive, in as much as once sites for development have been identified it is totally in the hands of the developer what is built. The creation of Investment Zones will further reduce the power that Councils have, and have a chilling effect on planning everywhere. Developers will insist they can’t compete against IZs without looser regulation outside the zones too. House builders will avoid locally agreed requirements for affordable housing, meaning many local families, key workers and those facing homelessness will continue to be left behind.

The driving force behind the current government’s strategy is a simplistic and all-encompassing belief in growth as the universal panacea for all our problems. Yes, there are sections of our economy that it makes good sense to grow – renewable energy and the retrofitting of energy saving improvements to our existing housing stock for example. But blanket growth for the simple purpose of increasing Gross Domestic Product in the belief that the wealth accumulated by the already well-off will trickle down to the rest of us is at best naïve. Moreover, infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible.

But it will also be disastrous for our attempts to limit the effects of global warming. Releasing new land for development is wrong on so many levels. Green-field sites, land that is currently undeveloped, must, as far as possible, stay undeveloped. We need to do a thorough assessment of not just the number of new houses we need (note need, not want) but the type of housing we need. We should then aim to build any new housing on brown-field sites, and be prepared to create higher density housing rather than build on currently undeveloped land.

It’s time time that we became a republic

Has it really two months since my last blog? I realise that my last post I said that I intended to get back into a regular routine of posts, but that didn’t quite happen did it? Sorry, I promise to try harder. Having said that, and in my defence, this year’s ‘silly season’ has been quite a bit sillier than usual, and provided little motivation for me to write. First we had the ‘election’ of the new leader of the Conservative Party, and, by default, our new Prime Minister. The effect of this on the urgent political decisions that this country needed to make was political paralysis. Then this paralysis deepened, and spread to local government, as a consequence of the period of national mourning that resulted from the death of Queen Elizabeth.

Well, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth has now taken place, the period of national mourning has ended, and the country is hopefully getting back to normal. There can be little doubt that the late Queen was greatly admired. The huge crowds that turned out for the various events and the incredible queue of people for her lying-in-state testify to this. It was obvious to all that she was totally committed to the role that fate had bequeathed her, and had a sense of duty that she maintained throughout her long reign. I have no reason to doubt that she carried out her constitutional duties impeccably throughout this time.

However, despite any respect that I can muster for her as a person I really struggle to find respect for the monarchy as an institution. In fact I find the whole notion of inherited power, status and privilege abhorrent and think that a modern democracy deserves an elected head of state. I therefore chose to stay silent and not attend any formal function, lest I spoke or acted in a way that may have given offence. I find it very difficult to be anything other than honest. I particularly avoided the Dorset Civic Service of Thanksgiving for her life at Sherborne Abbey, and a smaller Civic Service held in Bridport. Religion in a dance with monarchy is the stuff of nightmares.

Now, though, I think we need to start seriously questioning our status as a constitutional monarchy. Whilst I totally understand that our monarchy is essentially symbolic, that it has very little real power, what it symbolises is deeply damaging to any attempt to reduce social inequality in this country. It basically says that a small group of elite people are better than the rest of us, not because they have more knowledge, skills or expertise, but simply because they were born into a certain family. The royal family sits at the apex of a class system which is still prominent in the national psyche.

Coupled with this is the wealth they have accumulated – and not through hard work. King Charles, for example, is in line to receive tens of millions of pounds amassed by the Queen – much of it from art and racehorses – which will not be liable for tax. Most people pay 40 per cent inheritance tax on anything they inherit over a £325,000 threshold, but a deal negotiated between the Crown and John Major’s government in 1993, effectively exempts the monarch. By whose standards can this be seen as fair, especially when so many families are really struggling to make ends meet?

I also struggle with monarch’s role at the head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the political association of 56 countries, the vast majority of which are former territories of the British Empire. Our new king will also be king of 15 of these member states. No country volunteered to be member of the British Empire. No country volunteered to have their culture abused and their economic resources plundered by Britain. I firmly believe it is time for Britain to formally apologise for its ransacking and forced control of these countries. If some or all of these countries wish to remain in some form of political association then their head should be the rotating head of member states. Britain and the British monarchy should have no privileged place in the association.

The problem with holding on to traditions is that we are forced to face in two directions at once, the past and the future. Whilst some people may see this as a good thing, it fails understand that the global problems we face can not be fixed by traditional methods. The traditions associated with the monarchy should be left in the past. That doesn’t mean that we erase them from our collective memory, far from it. It means that they become the subject of our history, not our future. It’s time that we became a republic.

Taking back control

First of all an apology for any regular reader who has noticed a lack posts from me over the last few weeks. My excuse? I’ve simply not had the time – too busy enjoying myself, first at a big party to celebrate my wedding a year ago, then with a few days away, and finally with a weekend in London. A lot has happened politically over this time, and there is the potential for things to get even more interesting, so I had better knuckle down and start writing!

As I write the first round results of the Tory leadership contest have just been announced. This contest, and potentially the next General Election (which could follow in the Autumn) seems to be focussed on tax policy. With the exception of Sunak, most candidates seem to be calling for ‘a return to Tory values’, and particularly for a reduction in taxation. Some candidates have even been explicit (though honest) in talking about the corresponding necessity to reduce public services and expenditure. The rationale behind this policy is the belief that its more efficient and fairer to give individuals the power to choose where and how they want their money spent. This is a rationale based on an understanding of the individual as an atomised, rational decision maker. It is a rationale that is deeply flawed.

What actually happens is that power is transferred not from the government to the individual, but to big business. Because we are encouraged to regard ourselves as consumers, to spend our money in line with the marketing and advertising that most appeals to our sense of need, money (and power) flows to big business. The more profit a business makes the more it can invest in shaping our needs and wants, and the more it controls our desires the more profit it makes. This consumerism, the dominant social attitude, has been described as buying what we don’t need, with money we haven’t got, to impress people we don’t know. And to make matters worse, and assuming that the business is UK based, because there is low taxation, little money flows back to government. In a nutshell – the rich get richer and the poor become trapped with little access to publicly funded services.

From the Tory perspective low taxes are associated with a small state and is contrasted to the large state of socialism and left-wing bureaucracy. From this angle power is firmly with ‘the state’ and the individual is seen as powerless. This is a persistent image which, whilst largely false, the Labour Party has not done enough to challenge. I say largely false because historically there has been an element of truth to it. Either way Labour always seems to be on the back foot with this accusation and unable to offer an alternative scenario. This simply allows the image of the atomised consumer to dominate our thinking. An alternative scenario, however, does exist – and its one that is much closer to the reality of our lived experience.

This alternative also focusses on the individual, but not the atomised, competitive individual of the consumer ideology. Instead it views the individual citizen as both social and cooperative. It views individual citizens as highly interactive within their community and highly interdependent upon their fellow citizens. It is that aspect of our communities we saw when the Covid pandemic first struck and whenever there is a disaster or social emergency. It is an understanding of the social individual that whilst based in actuality is suffocated by that of the individual as consumer. Which is a real shame, because if we could only allow this understanding of the social individual to flourish we could make a true transfer of power, one that would allow us to be free from both faceless bureaucrats and big business.

How? Well first of all we need to start encouraging greater direct citizen participation in decision making and government. I truly believe that if ordinary citizens had the opportunity to come together to discuss important issues and make decisions that directly affect their communities their degree of engagement would grow rapidly. One way forward would be to start experimenting with the idea of citizens assemblies. This would need to be accompanied by the devolution of power to the lowest possible level of government. Yes, central government may need to retain power over certain aspects of our lives (much as even those of a Tory small state would) but a great deal could be devolved down to regions, counties, towns and cities, and even to local communities.

So how would this affect taxes?. Even though, ideally, local government would be responsible for it’s own local tax collection (under the control of local citizens) central government would still need to both ensure sufficient tax was collected to maintain national level services and infrastructure and that those large corporations that had not been replaced by local cooperatives paid their full contribution. Whilst the overall tax burden would not go down (it can’t if we want to maintain a functioning NHS for example), and in all likelihood would need to be raised, because its distribution would be much more in the direct control of service users it would be viewed as a positive, not a negative.

Brexit was ‘sold’ to many people in this country with the phrase “taking back control”. People, the citizens of this country, quite naturally want some sense of being in control of their lives and somehow were led to believe that shrugging off the perceived bureaucracy of the EU would allow this . Instead, power is increasingly being passed to big business and the rich. People have no more control now than they had when we were a member of the EU. But this could change if we started to trust citizens to make more decisions themselves. Not decisions about which fashion brands to buy but decisions about local planning issues and how local schools are funded, decisions about the funding of local buses, decisions about the supply of local food and energy. If we could start to nurture this direct involvement I believe people would start to realise, to directly feel, their interdependency on their fellow citizens, and would begin to realise that they really could genuinely take back control.

To hell in a handcart

I’ve started to use a phrase often muttered by somebody I used to work with. ‘Going to hell in a handcart’ seems to totally sum up the current state of humanity. What’s brought on this doom and gloom? Well, many things, but the tipping point this weekend was reading a newspaper report on the US House select committee investigation into the attack on the Capital that followed Trump’s defeat in the presidential elections. One commentator said that despite the damning inditement against him we shouldn’t rule out the return of Trump. What? If this happens I see no future for humanity.

What is it about us that makes us elect popularist political leaders like Trump and Johnson? They are cartoon characters who better belong to a TV soap opera than the political world stage. What is it about us that desires, and puts our faith in celebrities rather than serious politicians who have a genuine understanding of the issues we face? Why do we dismiss serious politicians with phrases like ‘they’re only in it for themselves’ yet keep supporting those over-inflated egos who are only it for themselves? That we do so says as much about us as it does about those charlatans we elect to office.

Part of the problem is that humanity is, on the whole, crap at assessing risk and making predictions. We are only motivated to change things when the we are directly experiencing discomfort, not beforehand to avoid discomfort. And we seem to have an inbuilt faith that things will either continue as they have done or get better in some way. We seem intoxicated by the notion of progress and blind to the all the existential storm clouds building on the horizon. Why do we resist realist assessments of our situations in favour of ‘happy ever after’ fairy stories?

Another part of the problem is that we are nowhere near as intelligent as we like to think we are. We seem to make sense of the world through the use of simple narratives like those used for soap opera story lines; narratives with easily identifiable heroes and villains – characters like Trump and Johnson and their evil (often foreign) nemeses. We seem unable to deal with complexity and nuance, with important debates quickly descending into a simplified polemic. As a recent Radio 4 programme on the loss of nuance pointed out, in a world of increasing complexity we are more and more seeing things in black and white, yes or no, support or reject.

Yet despite all this we somehow believe that we have a special place in the universe. Unless we quickly wake up to the reality, the precariousness of our situation, I fear that our arrogance will be our downfall. If we want to avoid that trip to hell onboard the handcart of our self-belief we need to start having proper and meaningful public debates and discussions about the future of humanity’s place on Earth. We need to understand that we are part of the natural environment, not separate or above it, and that this relationship is complex. If we don’t, if we keep with the soap opera story lines and characters, we’re “doomed, we’re all doomed!”

Reflections on a royal weekend

Whilst I’m more than happy to accept four days on which no one expects any work from me, the last thing I did over the long jubilee weekend was become involved in any royal celebrations. In fact I found it all rather nauseous. As I’ve said on other occasions, it is completely inappropriate for a modern democracy to have an unelected head of state. In addition to this short-fall in democracy our monarchy simply endorses existing notions of class and privilege. In this day and age it is simply not acceptable for anyone to inherit their place in society according to who gave birth to them.

Nevertheless, there were people who obviously got quite enthusiastic about the royal family. Why? A quick internet search found five reasons why people think them a force for good. The first said that monarchs “serve as figureheads, providing a focus and unifying force, bringing countries together and healing divisions.” Well I see no evidence of this happening. The only way I can imagine this happening is if people accept a strong social hierarchy and their place in it, accept inherited power and privilege, and, as my mother used to say, “don’t get above themselves.”

The second that monarchs “are apolitical and therefore better suited to representing their countries at state occasions such as remembering war dead, or celebrating social causes, than politicians.” This annoys me in the same way that so called independent councillors claim to be above politics, and only fighting for what’s good for their communities. A person’s political perspective shapes the way they interpret social events and social causes, and it helps determine what they consider to be socially good. Whilst I’ll admit that, out of respect for the dead, political statements should be left out of certain state occasions, elected politicians are more than capable of doing this. In fact this is what they do.

The third that a “royal family provides a sense of continuity and stability that ordinary politicians, who come and go, cannot provide.” However, as Karl Marx famously said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Whether we like it or not, many things in British society need to change, and clinging hold of tradition and our past can blind us to many of them. And before I’m attacked for wanting to destroy our history, that is not what I’m saying. We are more than capable of having a good understanding of our past without constantly reliving it and endorsing it as appropriate now.

The fourth that “national pride and patriotism is focused on a largely ceremonial figure and is therefore harder for political leaders to exploit.” National pride and patriotism requires political scrutiny. Again, it is not apolitical. The main issues affecting our wellbeing, issues such as the climate crisis, food and energy security, international conflict and war, and asylum seekers and economic migration, are global issues – issues that require global solutions and global cooperation. A strong sense of national pride and patriotism quickly leads to a distorted view of ourselves as ‘world leading’ and superior, feelings that get in the way of global cooperation.

And lastly that monarchs “can stay out of the fray of party politics, and are therefore better to provide a role model, or leadership role, in times of national emergency or constitutional crisis.” Really? Has anyone noticed any member of the royal family acting as a role model? Prince Andrew perhaps? Or how about the Queen herself? In what way does she act as a role model? People say that she has shown a sense of duty and commitment, admirable qualities, but what evidence is there that anyone emulates her? According to the Daily Mail (hardly a republican journal) the Queen uses a wheelchair much of the time but cancels engagements because she is ‘proud’ and ‘doesn’t want to be seen struggling’. If she really wanted to be a role model she could swallow her pride and be seen in public in a wheelchair like so many of her subjects. She could even start highlighting the difficulties faced by wheelchair users.

None of the above reasons justify the continuation of an out-of-date and undemocratic anachronism. They don’t even get close to counteracting the endorsement of inherited privilege and a strongly hierarchical social structure. And I haven’t even mentioned the wealth they have acquired over the centuries – wealth that has been taken from other countries and the exploitation of other people. This wealth has certainly not been earned through hard work or merit. And to make matters worse, we, their subjects, continue to give them money through the taxes we pay. No, the royal family need to be given their cards. We need to become a republic with an elected head-of-state.

Socrates and common sense

I find it curious how minds work – or at least, how mine works. For the last couple of weeks I developed an increasing urge to revisit some books I have about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher. Socrates is the closest I have to a philosophical hero, but he’s a bit of an enigma. Not because his writing is obscure or difficult to understand, but because, as far as we know, he wrote nothing. The only accounts we have of his ‘philosophy’ are the writings of others, primarily Plato, who used the character of Socrates as the central figure in his dialogues . Of these, it’s generally regarded that Plato’s earliest writings (those which recorded the last weeks of Socrates life) are the most historically accurate – though it’s impossible to be certain.

This lack of a ‘philosophy’ however is his greatest attraction. He didn’t wander around the ancient market of Athens trying to teach any particular idea or thesis. No, in effect, he did the complete opposite. He went up to people who claimed to know the answers, who talked about their ideas with and air of authority, and challenged their certainty. Through the careful questioning of what they said he effectively deconstructed the reasoning of his interlocuter and the arguments they used to justify their lives. Through conversation he urged them to explore the principles by which they lived and what they understood by ‘the good life’. He lured them into examining the meaning of their existence and the consistency of their beliefs. That’s what appeals to me about him anyway.

But why does that appeal to me? It drove his fellow citizens of Athens up the wall and caused some to find a reason to get rid of him. His approach to philosophy appeals to me because I think contemporary life is in desperate need of it. Because I do not think that there are any certainties in life (except, of course “death and taxes”, and even the latter of these is questionable for some) and those that think there are need challenging. Because not enough of us are challenging basic assumptions like the measuring of our success in life by the wealth we have accumulated or the fame / celebrity status we have gained. We are not asking and discussing basic questions like what constitutes a good life and what sort or person should we aspire to become?

Relax, though, you’re safe. However much I would like to I will not be wandering around Bridport on market day challenging what people say and think. My urge to do this, however, is partly met by the Philosophy in Pubs group that I run. Once a month we meet in a local pub and discuss a topic that a group member has prepared an introduction to. The aim of the discussion is very much about challenging ideas and asking questions and not at all about giving a lecture or arguing for a particular point of view. Whilst this, I hope, proves to be very satisfying for those people who attend – those that do attend are not necessarily the people that I think would benefit most from the questioning.

At the last meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group we discussed ‘common sense’. Without attempting to summarise the discussion I would like to briefly refer to Antonio Gramsci’s take on the topic, one that I think particularly relevant to the comments that I’ve made above. In his Prison Notebooks he describes common sense as that comforting set of certainties in which we feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the world we inhabit. For him these are the basic realities we use to explain that world.
However, whilst we may have no choice but to begin from the common sense into which we are born, we should not accept its comforting familiarities unthinkingly. Instead we should continually question them; we should drag them into the light of day and expose all the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions that otherwise present themselves as simple reality. In short, for Gramsci, ‘common sense’ is a confusion of unexamined truisms that must be continually challenged. Now that is philosophy in the spirit of Socrates. That is the philosophy that I like. That is what the world so desperately needs right now.

A lack of political leadership

A few days ago I noticed in the morning news that our Prime Minister is receiving criticism from his own side for a lack of leadership. In a different context, I have been (and remain) critical of Dorset Council for failing to show enough political leadership regarding our climate crisis. Yet despite my frequent use of the term leadership (and particularly political leadership) I am not totally sure what I mean by the it – it’s something that I’ve been intending to give some thought to for some time but never quite got round to. This then is my starting point. Any thoughts or views are welcome.

To get things moving, here are two descriptions of leadership that I warm to: “A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common and ethical task”; and “An influential power relationship in which the power of one party promotes movement or change in others”. From this I would tentatively suggest that there are three main elements to leadership: Having a vision of what is to be achieved; being able to communicate this vision to others; and being able to motivate others to buy-in and work towards that vision.

Aristotle argued that whenever we do something we do it in order to achieve something we consider good, and we want to achieve that something in order to achieve something else good. At the end this line of reasoning we eventually arrive at the greatest good, and this provides our raison d’être. I think a similar line of reasoning applies to politicians, except, perhaps, that the good to be achieved often lies someway short of the greatest good. But where ever it lies, this good provides the reason for that politician being in politics. To be effective, therefore, that politician needs to have a clear vision and understanding of what for them is the good they want to achieve, and if they happen to gain a position of leadership that good must surely be their guiding principle.

A political leader stands no chance of leading others towards their vision of the good they want to achieve unless they can share that vision with others. This requires, therefore, the leader to effectively communicate their vision of the good to others in such a way that they see it and understand it in much the same way as the leader does. This, of course, is no easy task. Our leader needs to be a very effective communicator, a skill that not only involves speaking to other people but listening to them, understanding the others understanding of their message, and adapting their message accordingly.

But whilst the successful communication of their vision to others is necessary it is not sufficient. The political leader also needs to be able to motivate those others to buy-in to that vision, to adopt it as their own vision. I would suggest that in effect this is achieved through the use of narrative, that the leader can tell a story of where they think the country or their organisation is going in such a way that those being led are able, in fact want to, synchronise their own personal narratives to it.

What does this mean for our PM? Here the task should be easier in terms of his own party than it is for the country as a whole as there should already be a high degree of synchronicity between the narratives of party members, MPs, and their leader. The fact that there isn’t probably tells us a great deal about the vision Boris Johnson has – a vision that focuses on himself more than the party or the country. In fact in terms of the country all we hear from him regarding a vision is an endless series of clichés like ‘levelling up’ and ‘let’s get Brexit done’. The problem with clichés is that whilst they can be easily absorbed into an individual’s personal narrative (because they are vacuous of any real meaning and refer to no clear vision) for the same reason they achieve no synchronicity between the individual’s ‘vision’ of their future and that of the leadership of the Government.

What does this mean for Dorset Council in terms of our climate crisis? The short answer is that, outside of their own estate and organisation, there is simply no clear vision of what they hope to achieve, of what the geographical and political area of Dorset will look like and how it will operate in response to the crisis. This vision needs to integrate the key areas of planning and transport to create a reimagined Dorset, an image that they then attempt to communicate to the residents of Dorset and encourage them to adopt themselves.