On time being out of joint

The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen has written about the importance of a cohesive story of the self. “To be a self”, he says, “is to be able to give an account of a self through a narrative of who one has been, who one will become and who one is now”. In other words, our sense of selfhood requires us to be able to gather into a unity our past, present and future, or rather, I suggest, a ‘healthy’ selfhood requires this. I’ve been thinking about this creation of a unity of the self through the use of narrative quite a bit recently, but in the last few days, in relation to the current coronavirus emergency, it seems particularly relevant. To what extent has this emergency, and the strange situation we find ourselves in, disrupted our personal narrative? To what extent has this disruption of a personal narrative interfered with our sense of unity? And, perhaps more importantly, how does this make us feel?

Speaking personally, whilst I am obviously still able to provide a narrative account of the relationship between ‘who I have been’ and ‘who I am now’, the sense of unity I feel between these two tenses seems somewhat fractured, or, to paraphrase Hamlet, my “time is out of joint”. Just a few weeks ago my diary was nearly full. I was often attending several meetings a day, I was engaging with many people each day, and (perhaps most significantly) I was going to the gym most days. Now my diary has been stripped of meetings, and the only people I’m really engaging with are those who I am ‘staying at home’ with. Whilst this could change in the coming weeks as virtual meetings are gradually arranged, the sudden difference between now and then seems strange, perhaps even unsettling. And most unsettling of all – the enforced change to my exercise regime. Whilst walking my partner’s dog is most enjoyable – it doesn’t provide the same ‘buzz’ as a good workout in the gym!

And the relationship between ‘who I am now’ and ‘who I will become’ is equally ‘out of joint’. At the most extreme level, whilst I have no underlying health conditions and therefore should not expect a serious threat to my future existence should I contract the virus, it’s difficult to entirely dismiss the increase in threat level. But even at a less dramatic level my timeline is somewhat fractured. All short term plans have been cancelled. And whilst it’s still reasonable to make loose medium term plans (i.e. plans not tied to specific dates and places), because of the vagueness of these plans they fail to provide the same sense of direction that planning for the future usually does. I feel like a bird who has lost a wing and can only fly in circles. Alright, I’m not sure this last analogy works – I’m not sure that a single winged bird can fly at all – but you get the image! My point is simply that without something tangible to work towards we / I lose momentum. My fear is stagnation.

So the question is: How do I overcome this disruption to my time line? How do I avoid stagnating in a pool of psychological / social / physical inactivity? Well, my suspicion is that just being conscious of the need for a narrative, and actively talking or writing about it, actually restores it to some degree; that talking or writing about the past, present and future puts ‘my time back into joint’. The danger, in contradiction to the advice of ‘mindfulness’ or many meditation manuals, is to focus too much on the here and now. Concentrating too much on the present literally fractures my personal sense of unity; I surrender my sense of becoming to being trapped in the present. So thank you for listening. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if you don’t exist, it doesn’t matter if no one out there reads this. Just sitting down and writing this restores my sense of time, unifies my sense of self. I feel better already.

A cocktail of Stoicism, community spirit and red wine

What I was dreading the most has happened. They have closed gyms! I now, somehow, have to survive without my daily workouts – workouts that (I have convinced myself) help to keep me sane. We are all going to be tested during this time of crisis, and I totally accept that this imposed sacrifice is really quite trivial in the scheme of things, but it’s very much been a part of my life now for several years, and will be hard to live without. However, as there is nothing I can do about the closure, my only recourse is to meet this, and all the other tests that COVID19 will present, head on. Now, to help meet these tests I have elsewhere recommended a cocktail of Stoicism, community spirit, and red wine. And the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced of the efficacy of my advice.

I wrote a little about Stoicism a couple of weeks ago. Then I talked about acquiring the strength to change those things in life that can be changed, the resilience to accept those things that cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. I would now like to add an Aristotelian spin to this by suggesting that the path to achieving this is through the development of certain character traits. Now the obvious character traits requiring development here are psychological strength, emotional resilience, and good old fashioned wisdom, though, given the space would, I would make the case for several others. But let’s stick with these for now. The point I want to make is not so much what these character traits are, but how they are developed. For Aristotle they are developed through sheer hard work – through practice and repetition, through developing the right habits. In other words, it’s not a matter of just thinking about it, of saying to yourself “right, that’s it, from now on I’m going to be…”, but of trying to display these character traits at every opportunity, of accepting that sometimes (most times) we will fall short of who we are trying to become, but that success comes from constant repetition, from constant application.

To my thinking, the development of community spirit is more fundamental than most people acknowledge. It’s more, much more than that added sense of group endeavour achieved when individuals decide, in times of trouble or strife, to come together for the good of everyone. For me it’s more fundamental than our own individuality. We are, at our very core, part of a community. We can only develop a sense of individuality through interactions with others; it’s only by way of interactions with others that our sense of self develops in the first place. One of my biggest criticisms of capitalism, particularly its modern incarnation of neo-liberalism, is the centrality of the individual – the core belief in rational self-interest. Yes, we can be competitive and self-interested, but in evolutionary terms we were cooperative and group-interested first, and for a much longer period. We tend to forget this, and focus solely on our individuality. Even when we talk of community spirit we tend to think it in terms of individuals coming together rather than acknowledging how communities give rise to individuals in the first place. I think it would be of great benefit to us to acknowledge the primacy of the community.

And red wine? Well part of me thinks that any need to justify the drinking of this essential tonic suggests a problem, so let’s just accept its importance and move on. But as such an approach ruins my rhetorical use of a three part list let me simply refer to the 2019 album by the folk singer Kate Rusby – Philosophers, Poets and Kings. How literally should we take the lyrics of the title track that say that “if it wasn’t for red wine, we would not have philosophers, poets and kings”? Well I’m pretty sure that despite the examples she cites, particularly from amongst the ancients, by no meals all philosophers and poets have relied on the restorative and creative powers of red wine to produce their work. And becoming a king has far more to do with being born to ‘the right parents’ than it does to their consumption of their favourite bottle. But the other way to take this claim is at the personal level, that Kate Rusby would not have written the album “if it wasn’t for red wine” – and I’m pretty sure that she’s a fellow fan of the drink. And it’s a great album. So let’s raise a glass to creativity, and to a little something to take the edge of a hard day!

My ‘keeping sane in a crisis’ action plan

We are living in strange times. To be honest, I, along (I should imagine) with many other people, feel unsettled – perhaps unheimlich? Unheimlich literally translates from the German as uncanny, and was a term used by Freud to describe the psychological experience of something being strangely familiar. Familiar? Yes, familiar! At this point I’m beginning to think that I’ve read too many science fiction books, and watched too many science fiction films. I’m starting to imagine a scenario whereby a previously unknown virus breaks out and within a short period of time is causing fear, panic and economic collapse; a situation that so rapidly deteriorates that the pubic demand firm and decisive action from their governments. These governments first respond with calls for the public to stay at home and stay calm, but when food shortages cause riots to break out martial law is declared, troops appear on the streets and those deemed ‘trouble makers’ are shot on site. An imagined scenario of course. It could never really happen – could it?

The trouble is that all of a sudden I’ve got time on my hands. Time to think. Time to imagine. A couple of weeks ago I was complaining about how busy my diary was. Now, within a matter of days, my diary is pretty much clear for the foreseeable future. Just about all meetings and events have been cancelled. So, if I’m not going to let my imagination have free reign to fantasize and construct all types of apocalyptical futures I need to use my time constructively. I need a plan. I can feel that dormant careers adviser lurking within telling me that I need an action plan. And he’s probably right. So, in the short term at least, I have three projects to occupy my time.

First, 5G. Bridport Town Council’s Environment and Social Wellbeing Committee has received two public expressions of concern regarding the potential roll-out of 5G technology in recent months. My usual, rather glib response when the issue of 5G is raised is to comment that I would be grateful for a regular 3G service. But this is obviously an issue that many people are concerned about, it’s also an issue that I really don’t understand. I don’t fully understand what the technology is, what it will be used for, why we need it, and what the concerns are. So that’s my first piece of research.

Second, planning. I sit on both the Area Planning Committee of Dorset Council and my Town Council’s Planning Committee, and it’s my biggest frustration. I have a pretty good idea of what we should be doing, what we should be approving or rejecting, what we should be requiring in all new developments, but I feel constrained by our out-dated local plan and the National Planning Policy Framework – both of which are heavily on the side of developers, and neither of which fully acknowledge our climate emergency. Not only do I need to understand both of these documents in more detail than I currently do, I need to understand where they could be interpreted in ways that better reflect our climate emergency.

Third, ICT. For some reason that I have not yet worked out I have managed to become a member of a team of ICT mentors for my fellow Dorset Councillors. My ICT skills are not bad, but they are no where near developed enough for me to feel comfortable in this role. There is a wide range of applications that I have never used, and of those that I have used I am uncertain of many of their capabilities. So I need to view the many online instruction videos that are available, and try out their full range of uses. These then form the projects of my ‘keeping sane in a crisis’ action plan. I will keep you informed of progress.

A touch of eco-stoicism

A couple of incidents during the last week have made me think of stoicism. I’ve no intention of going into the detail of this ancient philosophy that flourished in the Greek and Roman worlds up until the 3rd century AD, and which has had several revivals over the years (including quite recently), but I would like to comment on a ‘prayer’ that for me sums up the stoic approach to life. This is to achieve:
The strength to change those things in life that I can change
The resilience to accept those things in life that I can’t change
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Whilst the exact wording of the above was never uttered (as far as I know) by an actual stoic philosopher, and whilst in modern times it has found form as the Christian ‘serenity prayer’, I think it exactly encapsulates the stoic approach to life. Taken as a statement of intent, of personal development, rather than as a request to a non-existent deity, I think that it provides us with a valuable guide to living – even the saving of humanity.

I think that there is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning those things in life we can change and those we cannot. Take the meaning and purpose we ascribe to life for example. For so many of us this is provided by our blind acceptance of the belief that we are naturally competitive creatures whose raison d’etre is to accumulate as many goods and as much wealth as possible, and that our success in life is measured by the amount of these we have accumulated. Such an attitude is largely believed to be set in stone as part of human nature, and that therefore we should just accept the fact and continue accumulating more and more stuff, even if this accumulation strips the planet of resources and poisons it with our waste.

However, we could, if we wanted, if we could find the strength, provide our selves with an alternative: we could appreciate that for over 90% of our evolution co-operation has been more important than competition and that its development will provide us with the best chance of dealing with most of the big issues that we face; we could see our raison d’etre as that of flourishing as part of a highly inter-dependent global eco-system. Yes, we could if we wanted. This last bit though, this seeing ourselves as plain members of the land community (as Aldo Leopold put it) rather than conquerors of it, is simply the acknowledgment of the truth, and can’t be changed – no matter how much we may wish it otherwise. This acceptance of the fact that we humans are just part of the Earth’s ecosystem, not masters of it, not exterior to it, and that we could easily become extinct if we disturb our relationship with our ecosystem to a much greater extent than we have so far, will require a fair amount of human resilience because it flies in the face of our over inflated sense of importance.

Yes, we humans really need to develop our wisdom. We need to learn to be able to differentiate between those things in life that can be changed and those that can’t. For so many aspects of our existence on this planet we have got it arse about face, believing that much of what we could change if we could find the strength is, instead, a fixed part of human nature, whilst simultaneously failing to see that much of what we are trying to change is in fact inalterable outside of a small degree of variability. If we fail to develop this wisdom soon our future existence has a great big question mark hanging over it.

Something slightly more philosophical

I’m not quite sure why, but I don’t think that I’ve often, if at all, mentioned the Philosophy in Pubs group that I run in either this blog, or on Twitter. I think that whilst political opinions are openly and robustly discussed at the Philosophy group, I have probably tried to keep this group at a little distance from my overtly party political activities and comments. It may also be that I don’t wish to give the group any more publicity than it already receives – a monthly column in the Bridport Times magazine. Largely as a result of this monthly column, attendance at the monthly discussions has been, well, shall we say, very healthy, sometimes bordering being a bit too healthy. Once you start getting more than 20 people together to discuss an issue it becomes difficult to control and ensure that everyone has a chance to engage.

So, why am I writing about it now? Well, quite simply, because, following last week’s meeting, it is dominating my thoughts. For two reasons: what we discussed at this meeting, and what we agreed to discuss at next month’s meeting. The question chewed over last week was: Can or should technology be ethically neutral? I will avoid summarising a direct answer to this question here (if you want one, see the April edition of Bridport Times) and instead focus on some thoughts that came to me as a result of our discussion.

These concern the extent to which technologies like social media have the power to change social norms and embody new norms; the degree to which these technologies can directly influence our perception or understanding of the world. I’m thinking particularly of how easy it is to use abusive or threatening language against someone who you have never, and are unlikely to ever meet; how our language to others can be normalised without the opportunity of direct social engagement. Or how teenagers learn about sexual norms from pornography rather than the fumbling embarrassments of direct sexual experiment. Up until very recently new norms have developed slowly. They have evolved. Those that have proved useful have been retained, those that have not have been lost. And the test has always been direct social feedback, feedback that has been nuanced by other body language and social context – feedback that now comes in the form of a simple, context-free ‘like’.

At the next meeting we agreed to discuss fashion. Yes, fashion…the philosophy of fashion. This has come about because of my association with Transition Town Bridport. Every year TTB run ‘Green Fortnight’ – a series of events around the town aimed at raising public awareness of a particular aspect of developing and living a sustainable way of life. As this year’s event is focussing on fashion I rather casually suggested to the person leading on the event that we devote a PiP session to discussing its philosophical aspects. Now I had completely forgot about this when I received an email from the organiser asking if this was actually happening. Fortunately this arrived the day before our PiP meeting, and when I suggested it to the group the idea was very favourably received – especially as I offered to introduce the topic myself. So my project for the coming week will be to do some research and thinking into fashion from a philosophical perspective, something that will be completely new to me, but something that I’m actually quite looking forward to. I will report back in a subsequent post.

Another area of research that has been dominating my thoughts for the last couple of years concerns the role that stories and narratives play in our lives; the extent to which we use them to structure and give our lives meaning and purpose. More particularly, I’ve been thinking about the extent to which meta-narratives, those over-arching narratives such as supplied by religion, or more recently supplied by our dominant economic model, supply what we take to be common sense. I’ve been following this line of thinking because I suspect that one of the main reasons why so many of us accept, at one level, that our climate is starting to breakdown and become a problem for human societies, but at another level refrain from taking the necessary action, is because it will retard economic growth or development – and this feels like it is contravening good old common sense. Fortunately I have been invited to talk at a number of local climate related events in the next couple of months, so will have an opportunity to test my thinking in live debate – always the best test!

A week of political frustration and humour

Last week’s meeting of the full Dorset Council was, for me, another chapter in my growing frustration at the lack of actual meaningful action emanating from the Council in response to our climate and ecological emergency. Two agenda items were of particular note. One was the presentation for approval of the Council Plan, its ‘corporate’ plan for the next four years. I accept that as a result of comments received from its public consultation the Council acknowledge the emergency as an all-encompassing issue in the plan’s forward, and give it a central location in the graphics illustrating the plan, but it is only referred to in passing when the actual main aims of the plan are spelt out. This is just not good enough. However, being the only councillor to vote against the plan I was in a significant minority on this issue.

The other key agenda item was the approval of the Council’s budget for the forthcoming year. Both the Liberal Democrat and Green groups submitted amendments to this budget; both were defeated. One of the two proposals within the Green amendment concerned the establishment of a fund to support climate emergency action. Given that Dorset Council’s reserves are almost twice as large as those of other councils, we had hoped to propose an immediate £5m capital investment in such a fund. However, after being advised that such a proposal would be vetoed on procedural grounds, we proposed something far more modest: That the scope of the Council’s transformation fund (a £5m fund already established to improve the efficiency of the Council) should be revised with immediate effect to include not just projects which lead to revenue savings but also measures which materially mitigate or adapt to climate change and improve Dorset’s ecology. As other councils are able to create such an emergency fund from reserves (even Bridport Town Council has effortlessly made £100k available to help deliver its Climate Emergency Action Plan) I fail to understand the resistance that emanated from the Conservative majority group. I can only assume that they will only support actions that do not hinder economic ‘business as usual’ – even if such principals are the cause of our emergency!

Last week also saw the first of the Climate Emergency Inquiry Days set up by Dorset Council as a result of its pubic consultation on possible action. Whilst the degree of public attendance was a little disappointing, I cannot fault either the ideas that came forward or the enthusiasm of their presenters. My frustrations around this public consultation have nothing to do with the ideas that are coming forward. No, they concern the fact that in broad principle we already know what we need to do, and whilst such a consultation may well bring forward some very creative and innovative projects, we should not be delaying necessary action whilst waiting for them.

However, last week was not without its highlights. Thursday evening saw BBC’s Question Time broadcast from Weymouth. And there, on the front row, in full view of every camera shot of the audience, was our Town Council’s very own Town Clerk. Now this, in and of itself, may not be worth commenting on. But what made this so great, and created a bit of a local social media storm, was his facial reactions to the woman sitting next to him (who, he has assured me, is no relative or friend) as she expressed some rather bigoted and not very well informed views on “all those foreign workers coming over here taking all our jobs”. Well done Will. After a particularly long Area Planning Committee meeting your face lightened my mood no end!

And that was not the end of the humour. On Saturday evening I was fortunate enough to see the comedian Mark Thomas perform at the Electric Palace in Bridport. Mark’s political (Marxist) humour was not only entertaining, it was also, in my opinion at least, insightful. In many ways comedians can say stuff that politicians are very cautious of saying in public. His comments about the large number of northern former labour voters who, in December, decided to give their support to the Tories instead in the hope that they will make Britain great again (my paraphrase) by restoring our former place in the world order, a place that basically came about through our abusing, invading and/or plundering all but a small number of other countries, I found particularly poignant, as I did his pointing out to all those people like that woman on Question Time that rather than being full only 1% of our country is actually occupied. Oh, and on a local(ish) note, he didn’t express much love for our wealthy Dorset South MP Richard Drax, a man whose family wealth, in case you didn’t know, was derived from the slave trade.

Restoring my political mojo

I have been lacking some political motivation. This is the first time I have written for three weeks, and have barely offered any comment on Twitter. The first week of inaction can be easily explained – I took a week off to visit my daughters and grandchildren – but since I have been back I just haven’t been able to find the enthusiasm to comment. Why? Has my political fire gone out? Where has my motivation gone? In an attempt to restore my mojo I even revisited the main theories of motivation in the hope that some cognitive reflection might rekindle my fire, but alas they offered no help or solace at all. They all appear to be focused on the workplace or success in an organisation.

However, this attempt did lead me to the rather obvious realisation that my problem is quite simply the size of the task before me, the hard fact that no matter how hard I work the chances of anything worthwhile changing are minimal. We have a Conservative government with a sufficiently large majority that barring some unexpected scandal they are secure for another four years. We have a Conservative led Dorset Council with a much reduced majority, but probably just as secure. Both pay lip service to the need to take our climate and ecological emergency seriously, but both are so constrained by their adherence to the neo-liberal mindset that they are incapable or either serious action, or more importantly, of providing political leadership. And in a strange way this realisation helped. I realised that my day to day political activities will almost certainly be pointless, and that I should simply accept this. But having just talked this through with my partner I was also reminded that despondency and inertia are not the answer either. Instead, what I / we can do is…well…do what ever I / we can, no matter how small, to make a difference. Focus on the small, the local, on community actions…and hopefully watch them grow.

Last weekend is was fortunate to be taken to a Sam Lee concert in Lyme Regis. Sam is a folk singer with an amazing voice and an incredible backing band. However, my reaction to his music prompted much reflection, not least because some of the people I went with were somewhat surprised that, as a green politician, I wasn’t more taken with the sentiment and lyrics of the traditional songs he sang, songs that were very much about nature and our natural environment. My problem, I think, is that most of the songs he sang, songs he had collected from the travelling community in particular, were songs related to folklore, to traditional beliefs, customs and stories of different communities. Whilst these songs are certainly interesting, to my thinking some supporters of a ‘green’ attitude simply see their implied return to nature as the answer to all our problems. I am very sceptical that a return to any past attitude, in and of itself, will solve anything. Instead of resurrecting old ways of thinking we need to be developing new ways. Whilst we can no doubt learn from the past, we need to develop non-tradition mindsets. We need to develop a new common-sense, not adopt an old one.

One area of our lives that really demands a re-think is that of fashion and the fashion industry. On Thursday, to coincide with the launch of London Fashion Week, Transition Town Bridport launched its Fashion revolution. This much needed revolution concerns the negative social and environmental impacts of producing, consuming and wasting clothes, particularly clothes produced to meet the artificial demands created by the fashion industry itself. Put simply, there is a very high environmental cost to the production of clothes in terms of the materials used, the incredibly high volume of usable clothing that is simply discarded into landfill, and the carbon footprint of transporting clothing from factories in the far east to high streets and shopping malls in the west. There is also an incredibly high human cost in term of the conditions of the factory workers employed to make these garments. When we buy new clothes we really do need to consider these factors. We need to ask ourselves whether we really do need to replace an item of clothing or buy an additional one. And if we manage to convince ourselves that we do, perhaps we should consider buying from a charity shop instead. Rather than bemoan the number of charity shops on our high street, perhaps we should consider it an asset.

On our last week in the EU and my frustrations at being a Dorset Councillor

And so we enter our last week as a member of the EU. Putting to one side any personal sense of loss from the weakening of our political and cultural relationship with our closest neighbours, I have two main concerns as we drive into the post Brexit fog. First, that in their desire to be seen to quickly negotiate ‘great’ trade deals with the US and others (but primarily Trump’s US) the government is forced to accept terms that in any other circumstances would be regarded as unacceptable. And second, and in a way related, that despite it’s assurances to uphold all the EU environmental and employment standards we currently adhere to, the government slowly sets about dismantling all those standards that ‘business leaders’ regard as impediments to economic growth, and particularly to the growth of their own profits. My sense is that despite the long term view expressed by the political left in the UK, the EU is our best channel for limiting the power of big business.

I’m beginning to get a real sense of frustration from being a councillor on Dorset Council. I’m becoming acutely aware of the problems faced by many the county’s residents but feel impotent to bring about the necessary changes. Take our rural bus services for example. There been a long standing issue with the Bridport to Yeovil corridor, but the situation has now got worse with the announcement that the number 6 bus service from Bridport to Crewkerne via Beaminster will be withdrawn from 1st May. I can understand the problem from the bus operating company’s perspective (the service is loss making) and that Dorset Council have not got the money to subsidise it, but this doesn’t mitigate the hardship felt by residents who rely on the service.

The way forward is for Dorset Council to adopt a long term strategic public transport policy. I know what I’m going to suggest will make our cabinet members choke and look at me in disbelief, but this policy should make it clear public transport is a public service, that we need to make it easier and cheaper than car travel (if for no other reason that to reduce the carbon emissions from private care ownership), and that our policy sets out a plan to achieve this service even though we can’t afford it! We should then go public with the plan, aim to win the support of residents for it, and then campaign to get national government to change its policies and funding arrangements. Such an approach would demonstrate political leadership – something that I think this council lacks.

I’m feeling similar frustrations with Dorset Council regarding our climate and ecological emergency. I’m experiencing the same lack of political leadership. The approach being adopted by the panel looking into our response to this emergency (which I sit on), or rather the approach we are being instructed to take, is to look at the evidence, the facts, and then to decide what is both possible to achieve and what we can afford to achieve. This on the surface sounds eminently sensible. The problem is that what’s possible to achieve is heavily dependent on current attitudes and practices – both of which may need to change in light of this emergency! And what we can afford is heavily dependent on our current economic models – which may well also need to change. So rather than assessing what’s possible though existing attitudes, practices and economic models we need to first assess what we need to achieve, and then what we need to change in order to bring this about.

Youth centres, public transport, and the need for political leadership

Our new MP, Chris Loder, has just won a place in the Parliamentary lottery to introduce a Private Members Bill, and has made a call for suggestions as to what legislation his bill could bring about. Well, the secretary of our Bridport Youth & Community Centre (which I now have the privilege of chairing) has made a suggestion that I would like to not only endorse, but to publicise as widely as possible. She has written to him suggesting that the Government reinstates “the funding and support of Youth Centres, making it mandatory for County and District councils.” As she goes on to point out, “Their closure all over Britain is already having a terrible impact on young people and the Government could give ring-fenced money to the councils to pay for this.” Since the old Dorset County Council decided it could no longer afford to pay for youth centres and youth clubs over two years ago it has fallen to volunteers across the county to give their time and energy to keep, what I consider to be an essential service for our young people, alive and kicking. I think this a scandalous situation in such a wealthy country.

It’s not that the government has not got the money to spend on other projects. Take HS2 for example. A leaked report has just suggested that the cost of the new high speed rail link could more than double from its 2015 estimate of £52bn to £106bn, with a considerable risk that it could rise by a further 20%! That is an awful lot of money to simply cut the journey time between London and Manchester by 50 mins. I have travelled on the existing West Coast main line many times and know it to be a far better service than which I experience travelling to London from the South West. No, what we need (and need urgently) is a national strategic transport policy – one that takes into account the lack of public transport (particularly buses) in many rural areas of the country. We not only need a fair public transport system, one that allows everyone to travel with relative ease (not just business people who could communicate and attend meetings on-line), but we need one that will entice people away from their cars. If we are in any way serious about tackling our climate emergency we need to make public transport cheaper and easier than owning and using a private vehicle. And don’t even get me started on domestic air travel and the government bailout of FlyBe!

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has called for any decision regarding the future of the HS2 project to be based on evidence. This may sound eminently sensible, except for the fact that evidence, hard data, still needs interpreting. And it can be interpreted in different ways depending on how you understand the world, particularly how you understand the social world. We need to move away from the naïve view that evidence speaks for itself – it doesn’t. What’s needed in situations like this is political leadership. What’s needed is a clear vision of the type of society we want to create in light of the many challenges we face. A similar situation exists on Dorset Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Advisory Panel. We, on the chair’s guidance, are constantly searching for evidence on which any decision will be based in such a way that suggests this decision will be obvious and beyond dispute. But evidence will always be open to interpretation. No. We do not need any further evidence. What we need is a political interpretation of the evidence we already have. What we need is the political will to take action. What we need is political leadership.

Royals and Red-tops

The royal soap opera continues to command public attention and constant news coverage. Why? Why does this archaic and blatantly undemocratic institution continue to exist in the 21st century? Why does this epitome of class and privilege refuse to fade into the background and simply become a memory of the way things once were? Surely we have more important things to worry about? More pressing issues to debate on the news channels and in our newspapers? I’m sure that there are a multitude of answers available, but none of them definitive. One of the most concerning answers I heard voiced last week was that the British still regard themselves as superior to other nations, and our royal family superior to all the existing royal families scattered across the world, such that people from these other countries look to us to lead and guide them. I find such national arrogance deeply troublesome. It reminds me of an argument I once had with an otherwise very intelligent person who, in all seriousness, regarded the queen as the provider of a moral compass. But whether you agree with my reaction or not, surely you can agree it is worth having a proper public debate about the future of our royal family and their place (if they have one) in a modern democratic state.

But are we a democratic state? The reaction of the press, particularly the ‘red-top’ newspapers to this and other stories, does make me wonder. Their, dare I suggest, over coverage of last week’s royal news has been well commented upon, not least by Mark Steele who, on Radio Four’s News Quiz, criticised one ‘red-top’ because after 17 pages of comment, page 18 hardly mentioned the royal family at all. OK, this all makes for good satire, but its damaging for democracy as well. Not only does such royal coverage over emphasise the significance of one over-privileged family, it avoids all reporting and discussion of other issues – issues such as wild fires in Australia larger than the size of Greater London and the growing threat to world peace in the Middle East. For anyone who gets their news from such sources, the impression given is that these ‘other’ stories are of marginal importance to an individual family dispute. This promotion of political ignorance is dangerous.

Of even greater danger than this avoidance of reporting important issues is the selective and partisan reporting of domestic political issues, particularly concerning the Labour Party. Now are am no Labour apologist. I have no reason to defend them either on policy or their dismal lack of political opposition, far from it. But when I saw the reporting of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s announcement of her standing in their leadership contest in one particular ‘red-top’ I was appalled. Rather than reporting and commenting on her particular political orientation they simply published, on their front page, a particularly unflattering photograph of her with a personal comment on her appearance. To my mind this was a particularly crude attempt to ridicule and demonise her. My fear here, over and above this particular (and particularly nasty) piece of ‘reporting’, is the power these newspapers have (or to be more precise, the power the owners of these newspapers have) to influence public opinion. Rather than inform and promote debate amongst their readership they appear to want to manipulate public opinion through fear and ridicule. This is not only unfair, it’s a dangerous attack on our democracy. It gives tremendous power to the few very rich owners of news media, and at the same time actively encourages their readership to avoid actual thought and consideration and instead to form ‘opinions’ based on emotion and prejudice. A very dangerous combination!