Not the best of weeks

It’s been a weird week. I was going to say it’s been a funny week, but apart from comments from some fanatic Trump supporters there’s not been much to laugh at. Our dog has become quite seriously ill, necessitating at one point an emergency appointment at a specialist vet neurology centre. I won’t go into details, but at the moment we still don’t know to what extent he will recover. But what has really struck me is the extent to which humans can become attached to dogs. He’s not my dog, he’s my partner’s, but I’ve grown really fond of him. And it’s heart breaking to see him ill – a shadow of his former playful self. I’m also fully aware that for some on the environmental wing of politics keeping dogs is not an approved practice. I understand all the arguments here, but…well, he’s a dog!

On the political field, preparing a response from the Green Group of councillors on Dorset Council to the Council’s Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy and Action Plan public consultation has been my dominant occupation. And being as honest as I can, I found this far from easy. As I’ve said before, I find a constant tension between being an activist and campaigner, pushing for the outcomes I think necessary and being as critical as I can of anything that falls short, and being a pragmatic politician who recognises that in order to get anything done compromises will need to be made. So after re-reading all the paperwork and discussing the issues at an online meeting we have decided to be broadly supportive of the strategy and action plan. And in all honesty, we are full of praise for the work council officers have done to produce them. But we also feel that there needs to be greater emphasis in a number of key areas.

One of these areas is the need to not only engage the community, but to actively promote their participation in the delivery of the action plan. And, perhaps of even greater importance, to explain the benefits of the strategy – how it will improve their lives, health and wellbeing. This will involve councillors engaging with the communities they represent, the communities in which they are known and have some influence. But here’s the rub. I’m not convinced that all the councillors in Dorset are onboard. I already knew that there are one or two out and out ‘climate change deniers’ within the Tory ranks, but my fear is that there are also a significant number who, whilst accepting that man-made climate change is an issue, also think it’s by no means the most important issue. This was really brought home to me on Thursday afternoon at a councillors’ webinar on the consultation. The number of councillors attending these (roughly) weekly events varies, and I understand that a number have work commitments, but the number at this event was noticeably lower than usual. If a significant number of councillors are not ‘on board’, how are we going to fully engage the community?

I don’t usually comment on casework, mostly out of respect for the resident who has brought an issue to my attention, but this week will be an exception. A sign has appeared on at least one footpath entering the West Cliff estate, West Bay informing walkers that it’s a private estate and only residents have access. This sign appear at the point a signed public right of way enters the estate. Not surprisingly, this has angered a number of local walkers who regularly use the path, some who have done so for 20 years. Checking on a Council ‘rights of way’ map, however, has not made the situation clear. Whilst a bridleway enters and leaves the estate there appears to be a gap between the two sections, and indeed the path is shown to end in a cul-de-sac, and not connect to the bridleway. Further enquiries suggest that this situation results from a situation that occurred when the estate was built but which has never been resolved. My point in saying all this is that even if the management committee of this private estate has some degree of justification for their actions, why? Why stop walkers who have used the path for years? Why stop people enjoying healthy outdoor exercise? What is so precious about this estate that only residents can enter? It’s bad enough that land is owned privately in the first place, and whilst I’m not advocating people walking through other people’s gardens, why do some people want to not only own the roads but prevent other people from walking on them?

Reflections on the week past

On Monday evening, at the Town Council’s planning committee, we discussed the announcement from Dorset Council that they intend to standardise all car parking charges across the county. For Bridport this will mean that charges will be extended from 6pm to 8pm each evening, and will apply all day Sunday. This announcement was met with the very predictable outcry from residents and shop-keepers. It also posed a problem for me in as much that my personal response was sure to be at odds with the popular mood. In all honesty I really do not believe that people will stop shopping because of these changes. It will take much more than that to stop people shopping on a Sunday or driving into Town for an early evening meal.

At a briefing for Dorset councillors later in the week, in defending himself against the mood of the majority of councillors, the portfolio holder responsible implied that these changes are part of a wider strategy to reduce car use and increase the use of public transport, walking and cycling. If only this were true. The Climate Emergency motion that I submitted to Dorset Council last July called for just this. Unfortunately this motion was referred to a newly formed Executive Advisory Panel for consideration, and whilst the Strategy and Action Plan that has been produced as a result of the work of this Panel does contain actions linked to transport, none of these actions come close to forming a comprehensive strategy to reduce car use. Had such a strategy been produced I would have hoped that car parking charges would have been part of it, and if that was the case any changes would have been much easier to sell to residents and traders.

Wednesday evening saw the monthly meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group. Unfortunately, like so many other groups, we only met virtually. Whilst a Zoom discussion misses the atmosphere created by an actual pub meeting by quite some measure, it’s better than nothing and keeps the group ticking over until some degree of social normality returns. The more I think about it the more I become convinced of the value and need for community philosophy; the coming together of disparate members of the community to discuss difficult issues in sense of friendly inquiry. Hopefully such meetings help members develop their skills of critical thinking, their ability to ask good questions rather than simply stating what they consider to be the right answer. These are much needed skills that would benefit most of our public debates. If only the authors of reactionary comments on Bridport Banter could realise that in most cased there is no simple explanation of any issue, and no straightforward solution.

Anyway, rather tongue in cheek, and to mark the fact that we were only six days away the US presidential elections, Wednesday’s meeting discussed the question: If you, and you alone, could secretly press a button causing Donald Trump to drop dead from a heart attack, would you press the button, and should you? This question, posed by one of the group members, was well considered. The heart attack would avoid the potential consequences of an assignation (particularly from gun owning passionate Trump supporters) whilst the secrecy focuses on the tension between being a good person and being seen to be a good person. How would you respond if given this opportunity?

Anyway, how are you feeling at the moment? Yesterday I was introduced to an emotion that was first described by the ancient Greeks, was referred to throughout monastic and other literature of the middle ages, and despite being hardly mentioned today seems to perfectly capture what most of us are feeling at the moment – acedia. Jonathon L Zecher (The Conversation, 27.08.20) describes this emotion as “a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate.” Sound familiar? Apparently this emotion was closely linked to the spatial and social restrictions associated with a solitary monastic life. Not with being a member of a monastic community, note, but with a solitary lifestyle. Depending on what level of restriction your part of the country is under and how closely you follow ‘the rules’, life under Covid is imposing both spatial and social restrictions on us – restrictions which I fear will have a negative impact on our mental health.

Contemplating local democracy

My attendance at a particular Dorset Council meeting last week set me thinking about local democracy. The meeting was considering the forthcoming public consultation on our Climate and Ecological Emergency draft Strategy and Action Plan; it was a meeting that I sat through in relative silence and, to be honest, with too little interest. By the end of the meeting my lack of interest (in the consultation, not the strategy and action plan) was disturbing me. It was not that I was against a consultation, just that for some reason I was indifferent to the fine details of it. Why? This is something that I’m still pondering.

One factor is that there’s a generally held scepticism, one held by many of the people I have discussed these consultations with in the past, that basically says: “What’s the point? The questions are designed to give the answers they want, and they will go ahead with what they want to do anyway.” This is certainly a view that I’ve held in the past. But is it fair? Well apparently there is such a thing as the Doctrine of Legitimate Expectation, a piece of Common Law, that suggests it is. This essentially says that “where people have come to expect a process of consultation, for example for local authority budget cuts or healthcare changes, there are grounds for a judicial review should a public consultation not take place because there is a legitimate expectation for it.” In other words, it could be seen simply as a device to prevent a judicial review. However, this piece of common law also requires that the consultation be conducted properly and the process be a fair one. And in defence of this particular consultation there was, at the above meeting, a great deal of discussion about ensuring fairness.

But leaving the legal aspect to one side there are still problems. One is the very limited number of people who respond. Off the top of my head I cannot remember the number of responses needed to make it ‘a good response’, but I think it was in the high single thousands. Out of a total population of something over 400,000 this is a small sample, and can hardly be taken as a representative view of Dorset residents. Another is that the vast majority of residents will have a very limited understanding of the issues involved. This is not meant as a criticism. The proposals being consulted upon have usually been put together by professional council officers with a degree of expertise in the subject area, under the guidance and scrutiny of councillors with an interest in the subject area. All the consultees have available is the summary explanation that accompanies the consultation. Is this sufficient?

One way to resolve this lack of understanding would be through the use of citizens’ assemblies. The idea here is that a number of citizens / residents are chosen (in a similar way, perhaps, to jury service) to make key decisions. Their important feature, however, is that prior to any decision the ‘jurors’ have all the issues properly explained to them by experts – they have the opportunity to ask questions of the experts and to debate key points. This, it is claimed, will make the whole process of public decision making much more democratic. I’m in two minds about this, but I would certainly like to try it out.

Such a move towards citizens’ assemblies would be a move towards a different type of democracy, towards a participative democracy rather than the current representative democracy. Which would best serve the residents of Dorset? This is far from an easy question to answer, and to a large measure requires us to agree what these ‘best interests are’. It is also one that is in part determined by our background politics, with views ranging from promoting individual freedom and wealth creation to the provision of public services and community wellbeing. Personally I think I prefer representative democracies, democracies where people are elected not to represent the views of their ward members (this would be impossible) but, having made their general views clear, to make decisions on their behalf and then to be judged on how well they did at the next election. But would, or should this include consulting residents along the way? Bearing in mind just how difficult it can be to make any consultation meaningful, would it not be better to allow our elected councillors to demonstrate some political leadership and then answer for those decisions at the ballot box? The more I think about this, the more I think that political leadership is in short supply at the moment.

Emergency? What emergency?

I’m the Green Party group lead for Climate issues on Dorset Council, and I’m feeling increasingly frustrated over the Council’s response to its declaration of a climate emergency. At its very first meeting in May 2019, the newly formed council, thanks to pressure from various members of Extinction Rebellion, declared a climate emergency – but it was just that, a declaration with no commitments. At the following meeting in July I, together with Daryl Turner, the ward member for Lyme Regis, tabled more detailed motions calling on the Council to commit to certain actions. Both motions were referred to the newly formed Executive Advisory Panel (EAP) without debate. Never mind, I thought, at least I was to be a member of this EAP so would have plenty of opportunity to debate the issues and influence outcomes. How wrong I was.

From the outset the approach of the EAP, under the direction (dictatorship?) of its chair, has been overly cautious: a climate emergency without a sense of emergency; a process of gathering all ‘the facts’ before making any decisions; of not committing to any action unless ‘we were certain that we can deliver’. This last phrase in particular was repeated many times by the chair, almost as a mantra, as a badge of his professional prudence. The response we actually need to the climate emergency has been compared by many to the response a country needs to make to a declaration of war. Imagine for a moment Winston Churchill speaking to the nation in September 1939 and boasting that we will only respond with measures that he was absolutely certain that the country could manage. No. Neither can I. I’m no fan of Churchill but how ever hard I try I cannot imagine how we would have survived as a nation with such a cautious response.

This EAP has, however, produced a strategy document and action plan. No, I’ll rephrase that: a strategy document and action plan has been produced. Members of the panel had very little say as to the content and structure of these documents. Whilst the officers that wrote them put in a lot of hard work and exhibited a great deal of professionalism, the ‘action plan’ in particular fails as an action plan – primarily because of its lack of targets. Because of the urgency and ambition required, I’m not convinced that these targets should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timebound) simply because focusing on the achievable and realistic elements implies the caution that I criticised above. But they should certainly be specific, measurable, and timebound. Not only that, but they should also have named people responsible / accountable for their delivery, together with a series of review dates.

But what really rubs salt into my wounds is an agenda item on this coming Thursday’s (15th October) full Council. This calls upon the Council “To note the response of the Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel (EAP) in the publication of the draft Dorset Council Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy addressing the Climate Change Notices of Motion tabled by Cllr Daryl Turner and Cllr Kelvin Clayton at Dorset Council on 18th July 2019.” This appears to suggest that the EAP has both considered my motion and addressed the points made by it. It hasn’t. Neither motion has been discussed or debated by the EAP, in fact they have hardly been mentioned. It would be easy to interpret this agenda item as a cynical attempt to finally kill off two motions that some have not wanted debated from the start.

Why I will not be wearing a tie at any Dorset Council meeting

Sometimes the smallest of things cause a strange reaction in me. On Thursday I, together with all the members of the Dorset Council Area Planning Committee of which I am a member, received an email from our chairman reminding us that it was “important to preserve and enhance our appearance of competence and professionalism when dealing with the public”. Ok. No particular problem with that. It continued that, to this end, we were encouraged “to be smartly dressed (i.e. with gentlemen in collar and ties), when appearing in person or on-line.” Mmmm. Now I do have a problem with that. But why? Apart from the fact that I hate wearing a tie (I really dislike the feel of them round my neck) and hate the Victorian formality that the phrase ‘gentlemen in collar and ties’ conjures up in me, why has this simple request haunted me for the last few days? Why was my immediate and simple reply of “no way!” insufficient? After all, what could they do if I simply ignored the request?

Part of my problem is that I have an intuitive urge to rebel, particularly at what I consider to be unnecessary rules. When I was in secondary school I was one of only three pupils in my final year not to be made a prefect. This was simply because I had refused to have my shoulder length hair cut. Why should I, I had reasoned. If girls were allowed to have hair of any length, why shouldn’t boys? What’s the difference? (Anyone who currently knows me will appreciate the irony of this!) It’s not that I am in anyway a libertarian. I do not believe that I have an intrinsic right to do whatever I like, and I do believe that, because the wider social good is more important than my own personal good, rules are important. But these rules should serve the wider social good, and if I fail to see the connection I feel at liberty to question them, and sometimes break them. At school I failed to understand the reason why I was expected to have my hair cut. I am now struggling to understand how wearing a tie preserves and enhances my appearance (my appearance, note, not my actual being) of competence and professionalism as a politician.

So how could my wearing a shirt and tie create this appearance? Well the obvious answer is that my wearing them behaves in a similar way a uniform does by signifying membership of a particular group of people – a group that adheres to a particular code of behaviour. In this case the group is possibly ‘respectable public figures’, politicians who, as public servants, adhere to the conventions expected of them. I suppose that in some way, to some people, it signals that the wearer of the ‘uniform’ is playing by the rules, is taking their role seriously, and can be trusted. But is this really how most of the 21st century residents of Dorset read the situation?

A great many people have a very negative view of the traditional politician. And let’s be honest, the picture painted above is a very traditional one. It’s a very conservative (with a smallish ‘c’) one. In an attempt to introduce new ways of working many modern businesses have left these traditions behind and radically relaxed their dress codes. Is not the same expected of at least some politicians? In order to break the myth, held by many, that politicians are ‘all the same’ and ‘in it for themselves’ it is not important to show that we are not all the same? And one way of doing this is by leaving uniforms to the uniformed services. Moreover, I think it important that some politicians are not viewed as ‘part of the establishment’ – not least because many voters, particularly Green Party supporting voters, believe that ‘the establishment’ needs a radical overhaul. So for this reason alone, I will not be wearing a tie at any Dorset Council meeting.

The art of persuasion

Do we need to do politics differently? How effective is engaging people from an opposing political camp in rational debate? If you disagree with me about the importance and priority of taking political action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, how can I make you change your mind? How certain should I be that I am ‘right’ whilst you are ‘wrong’? These are some of the questions that have started to dominate my thinking since I started reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt. Whilst only a few of the ideas he puts forward are completely new to me, his way of putting them together is both very effective, and, for me, very timely.

In opposition to the rationalist tradition in philosophy, the tradition that places our rationality, our use of logical argument, and our pursuit of objective knowledge and truth at the centre of our endeavours, the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Whilst Haidt argues that our ability to reason is not quite as restrained as the relationship of slave to master implies, he does provide a wealth of research that strongly supports Hume’s position. According to Haidt, our thinking is dominated by our emotional response to events and circumstances. Reason has evolved not to help us find ‘the truth’, but to construct arguments that support how we intuitively feel. Most importantly, these arguments aim at engaging the support of our group or tribe and of bolstering our reputation within that group.

Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe the relationship between reason and emotion / intuition. The rider can, with some effort control the direction the elephant wants to go, but ultimately the elephant will go where it wants to. If it becomes scared of something it will be very difficult to control, whereas if it is lured by food, the company of fellow elephants, or even by a human worker that it trusts the rider’s task is relatively easy.

One of my first thoughts on reading this was the extent to which it supports Aristotle’s take on rhetoric – the art of persuasion. According to Aristotle there are three elements to our ability to persuade someone to see things from our point of view. One is the obvious logos (reason). The reasons we present in support of our position need to be coherent, they need to logically flow from one another, and they need, as far as possible, to correspond to the world of experience. However, for Aristotle, just as important as logos is pathos (emotion). Over two thousand years ago, in line with Hume and Haidt, he recognised the if you want to win someone over you need to emotionally engage with them. But of equal importance is a third element, ethos, your character. In the same way as an elephant can be enticed to change route by a worker it trusts, an audience will be more open to persuasion if they trust the speaker. Research has revealed the importance of reputation in the evolution of social life, social coherence, and in making an important contribution to the evolution of ethics, so it is hardly surprising that the reputation or character of a speaker is an important influence their audience.

But Haidt also points to another factor that raises questions about how we do politics. Knowledge and effective discussion making is (and has to be) a group enterprise. In philosophy, rationalists from Plato onwards have assumed that individual thinkers, through the use of their reason, could get to the truth. The claim here is that if the philosopher could only eradicate the distractions of the physical body and the emotions then the world of truth and pure knowledge would open up to them. This line of thinking assumes the primacy of reason, and its ability to penetrate eternal truths. It’s a line of thinking has been revealed to be fantasy. As Haidt so clearly articulates, in reality, throughout our history we have constructed arguments to support what we already intuitively believe – intuitions based on our emotional response to events and circumstances, together with our need to feel part of a group. This means that any individual, even a philosopher, is incapable, on their own, of making good decisions – let alone of understanding ‘the truth’ of any situation. In order to make good decisions and plans we need to have our arguments challenged. In order to even approach ‘the truth’ of any situation we need to approach it from multiple perspectives.

So, what does all this say about how we do politics? Well, for one thing, we need to ask ourselves whether our adversarial approach to national government, our having a ruling party on one side and an opposition party on the other side is a good way forward. I’m not sure whether we could easily move away from party politics, but we should certainly explore ways of not solidifying viewpoints into two opposing camps. Life if far more complex than that. Is it really a good idea, for example, to have important decisions made by a cabinet purposely selected by the Prime Minister to support his overall (and very narrow) political views? Then for members of the majority party to be whipped into supporting this view whilst members of the opposition automatically construct arguments to oppose it. I haven’t got answers to these questions, but I would like to persuade people to start discussing them.

Creating debate within Dorset Council

Earlier this month, at a full meeting of Dorset Council, I spoke against paying six newly appointed Lead Members an additional allowance of £10,000. These new positions have been created to assist certain cabinet members with their portfolio. Whilst I do not think that now, with so many people facing a very uncertain financial future as a result of the Covid restrictions, and with Council itself having taken a substantial financial hit, was the right time to do this, the argument I tried to make was somewhat different. I tried to say that I would feel much more inclined to support these allowances if the new posts were open to all councillors, not just those who are members of the ruling party. The problem with the current cabinet system is that it either dampens debate, or hides it from public scrutiny. This became very obvious at this week’s Cabinet meeting.

Either there is very little (if any) discussion and debate at Cabinet level (which I find very hard to believe) or this debate occurs in private. On both counts this is very unhealthy. At all the Cabinet meetings that I have attended there are a range of proposals on the agenda for official approval. For each one the cabinet member responsible presents the report and its recommendations. Following this there is the opportunity for other members to ask questions (which usually receive straight forward replies). However, even if a councillor manages to provoke something approaching a debate, by the time it comes to the cabinet deciding on the proposal you get the very strong impression that everything has already been decided. The Chair invites the Cabinet to approve the agenda item, and they do. Simples. Which leads to the obvious questions: Do the Cabinet members not have questions? How can they always be in agreement? The answer to these are yes, they must have; and, they can’t. The problem is that these questions and any dissent are not aired in front of their fellow councillors and any members of the public who decide to attend. I can’t help thinking that this might change if members of different parties were involved in the background discussions.

Also at Cabinet is the opportunity for councillors and members of the public to ask questions on any topic that they think important. These questions get a formal reply from the Cabinet member responsible. And when I say formal I mean the reading of a written statement that more often than not tries to avoid directly answering the question asked. A really good example of this occurred this week when a member of the public asked: “In view of the ongoing crisis in the affordability of housing for younger working people in Dorset, does the cabinet have any plans to build or provide ‘Council Housing’”? This question about the future received a factual statement of the present in reply: “Dorset Council is a non-stock holding authority. It does not have a Housing Revenue Account and therefore is unable to access finance and borrow money to build houses in the same way Councils with their own housing stock can.” This was a classic example of avoiding the question. And there was no opportunity for the avoidance to be challenged.

Whilst only approximately half of local authorities still have a Housing Revenue Account (HRA) there is nothing, as far as I can see, to prevent them from opening one again. Doing so would enable the Council to borrow money cheaply to build their own housing stock, and to have more control over that housing stock in terms of building specifications and cost than they do over other social housing providers. What I find so frustrating is knowing how to get a serious debate started within the Council. In this and many other areas (our response to the climate crisis for example) I feel that any debate that does take place takes place behind closed doors – safely away from any unwanted influence or awkward questions. This is unhealthy. No one, and no political party has all the answers to the problems we face. The decisions we make need to be made after listening to as many viewpoints as possible, after drawing on the widest range of experience and expertise that we have. This is why I am so opposed to the Cabinet system of local government.

BBC bias?

My MP, Chris Loder, seems to have a problem with the BBC. In a letter to the new Director General, Tim Davie, a letter that he has milked for maximum publicity, he writes that “the BBC is now increasingly seen by licence fee payers as anti-British and politically biased; focused on delivering for the ‘on-demand metropolitan elite’, and being out of touch with its core audience who want an independent and impartial national broadcaster.”

Now I am probably being too naïve, but I genuinely have not noticed any political bias. I will hold my hands up to being on the left of the political spectrum, so will probably be accused of exhibiting ‘confirmation bias’, and I have to admit to not having done any focused analysis of their output, but I feel the same when my friends accuse it of being biased in favour of the Conservatives. I am assuming, of course, that Chris considers the beeb to be biased in favour of the Left. Maybe he would consider me to be part of the ‘metropolitan elite’, and therefore being fed exactly what I crave? The only problem with this is that the only metropolis that I have lived in for the last forty years is Stoke-on-Trent – and I doubt that anyone would consider that qualifies. Maybe he would consider me being part of the elite, after all I have to admit to having gone to university as a mature student and to like having my intellect challenged. But again, I have never heard the label ‘elite’ applied to graduates from Staffordshire University. And as for its ‘core audience’, I’ve no idea who these people might be.

He was most incensed, however, by the BBC’s decision (now reversed, thanks to Chris’ intervention of course) to not have ‘Rule, Britannia!’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ sung at the Last Night of the Proms: “Our most recent cause for concern is the BBC’s proposed change to the Last Night of the Proms. To our knowledge, not a single constituent has ever raised a complaint about the lyrics or connotations of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ nor ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. As the national broadcaster, the BBC should have explored the full context of those lyrics within British history. Instead, all the BBC can offer is censorship and ahistorical apologism for doing so.”

This, I find, most confusing. As far as I can tell, the only people drawing attention to the association of the lyrics of these two ‘patriotic anthems’ with colonialism and slavery were the people protesting about the decision not to sing them! They were probably assuming that this was just another example of ‘political correctness gone mad. So Chris may well be correct that hardly anyone has complained about their lyrics or connotations. I for one am more than happy to ignore this annual event and leave it to those patriotic souls who feel good at being associated with those elements of our history. No, the BBC originally decided not to have the words sung, to only have orchestral versions performed, because of Covid-19 restrictions. The reaction came from those flag wavers who were to be deprived an opportunity to believe, for just a few minutes, that Britain is a major power who others should prostrate themselves before.

But what I find most concerning about all this is the amount of time and energy he has devoted to the issue. He no doubt feels that this what his constituents want him to do. He has said, after all, that he consulted with us via the local press – though I know of no one who has referred to this consultation. Or at the very least, he feels that this is what will make him attractive to the rural Conservative voter of West Dorset. However, what I want to know is: will he devote the same amount of time and energy to fighting for something really important? Will he, for example, support the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill to be laid before Parliament?

Human kindness and economic migrants

The BBC News website recently reported that a “group of Conservative politicians has called for tougher action against the rising number of migrants crossing the English Channel”. The 23 Tory MPs and two peers told ministers that they must do “whatever it takes” to address attempts from migrants to enter the UK using small boats. In a letter to the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, they said that the “current surge in illegal immigration must be addressed urgently and radically through stronger enforcement efforts. It is strikingly clear that, rather than a ‘hostile environment’, invading migrants have been welcomed”. This last phrase echoed a comment from Nigel Farage a few days previous when he described a small group of adults and children landing on a beach in Kent as a “shocking invasion”. Comments on the Conservative Facebook page are even less benevolent, with repeated calls to stop economic migration, take back control of our borders, stop treating them like royalty by putting them up in our best hotels, and return them to their country of origin. Why do we feel so threatened by fellow human beings fleeing from war, persecution and / or starvation that we term their arrival an ‘invasion’? Why do we want to create a ‘hostile environment’ for them? Why does their arrival provoke so much anger and hatred?

In his recent book, Humankind, Rutger Bregman presents an argument that, if the above example is anything to go by, is struggling from the very start:

There is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic. It’s what the Dutch biologist Frans de Waal likes to call veneer theory: the notion that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation. In actuality, the opposite is true. It’s when crisis hits – when the bombs fall or the floodwaters rise – that we humans become our best selves. p4

He goes on to point out that:

The doctrine that humans are innately selfish has a hallowed tradition in the western canon. Great thinkers like Thucydides, Augustine, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Luther, Calvin, Burke, Bentham, Nietzsche, Freud, and America’s Founding Fathers each had their own version of the veneer theory of civilisation. p17

However, using a number of real examples, like a group of six British schoolboys who successfully lived as a group of castaways for more than a year after surviving a plane going down somewhere in the pacific without exhibiting any behaviour predicted by Lord of the Flies, and overturning the results of several famous psychological ‘experiments’, like the Stanford University ‘prison’ and Stanley Milgram’s ‘shock machine’, Bregman makes a very convincing argument that we human’s are not innately selfish at all.

With regards to the above reactions to the so called invasion of the Kent coast by a number of economic migrants, Bregman’s argument begs a number of questions. First, assuming that he is correct in his analysis, why do so many people seem unable to be in touch with their ‘kind nature’? Why do so many people seem unable to feel any empathy for the migrants? Why do so many people seem unable to appreciate the situations that compel these migrants to risk their lives to get here? Maybe it’s this selfishness that’s the veneer; a hard crust built up by many years of capitalist ideology covering a deeper kindness. Maybe it will take some kind of disaster or trauma to allow this kindness to break through.

Perhaps it’s that we reserve our kindness for people that we are in close contact with. That without this contact we treat others in a less benevolent way than we do our ‘home’ group. It’s a well known social phenomenon that no matter how prejudiced we may be towards a certain group, if we inadvertently get to know someone from that group we soon think that they are different from the group – that they are ‘ok’. This may be related to the sociological concept of ‘othering’, a process whereby we define our own ‘normal’ identity by distancing ourselves from ‘the other’; where we understand or give meaning to a society or culture (say Britishness) by creating an intrinsic difference between it and other societies. Such a process, by definition, excludes members of other societies or cultures from our own – effectively making them aliens that must be kept from the gates. In which case, perhaps we need to get to know, have real contact with those fellow humans we regard as ‘others’? That if we do, we will quickly discover that they are just like us.

Or maybe Bregman is wrong, that human life is really like Hobbes described it: a ‘state war of all against all’ where life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’, a condition that we can only soften by giving up our liberty to a monarch or state. Such a condition would also vindicate the premise of capitalism, that we are all motivated by self-interest and that if allowed to work through this will be for the benefit of everyone. The main problem with this view, however, is that all the anthropological evidence suggests otherwise. The accumulation of wealth and power, and the dominance of self-interest, only became an issue some 20,000 years ago when human hunter-gatherer tribes started to farm and create fixed settlements. Prior to that any emergent self-interest was kept firmly subservient to co-operation and the needs of the group / tribe. In other words, our ‘natural’ condition, human life as lived for 85-90% of our evolutionary past, was pretty much as described by Bregman.

The bottom line is that I haven’t got a definitive answer to any of these questions. But I do believe that if human life is going to survive on this planet we need to start not just seeing others as our fellow human beings, but to genuinely start feeling positive towards them; we need to ditch the self-interest and righteous indignation and start to foster a sense of global co-operation. If you have a view on this, whether you agree with me or not, you are more than welcome to debate the issue at the next Bridport Philosophy in Pubs (virtual) meeting on August 26th. If you want to join us please email me through this site and I’ll send you a link. And don’t worry if you are not from Bridport – that’s one (the only?) advantage of virtual meetings.

Dorset Council’s Climate Emergency Strategy

This morning I ‘attended’ a meeting of Dorset Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee. I am not a member of this committee, but because they were considering the Council’s recently published Climate and Ecological Emergency Strategy, and because I do sit on the panel that has supposedly produced this strategy, I wanted to ask that committee a question – and in so doing make a public statement regarding both my frustration at the speed with which the Council is actually committing to any climate action, and my belief that they have got their methodology ‘arse about face’.

I say that the Climate and Ecological Emergency Executive Advisory Panel has only supposedly produced this strategy because in effect the work (the very good and very professional work that has gone into its production) has been done by council officers. And whilst in theory the panel has been consulted, I for one do not feel that the opinions of the panel have counted for much. No, the direction and methodology of the panel has been largely supplied by its chair, as has most of the decision making. Despite feeling quite impotent during this process, I have resisted the urge to speak publicly – until now. I have done this out of respect for the request that we keep our discussions confidential until we are ready to publish. Anyway, my question was:

This Council has already agreed that we face a climate and ecological emergency. Does this committee consider that this strategy document fully acknowledges the urgency that is normally associated with an emergency? The methodology that has produced this document is expressed in its Forward: “while other councils around the country may have chosen to set deadlines for carbon reduction and then work out how they’ll achieve them, I’ve always wanted us to do the investigation and information-gathering first before setting out our strategy. This ensures that our action plan and timetable is both realistic and achievable, as well as ambitious.” Such caution is far from ambitious. We have never faced such an emergency before. As we have no relevant experience, we cannot know what actions are realistic. But we do know what needs to be done – the IPCC (the International Panel on Climate Change) have been telling us for years. It’s no longer about the science or evidence, it’s about the political implications of the science and evidence – it’s about the political leadership that this council is prepared to give. This Council should have, by now, clearly laid out what needs to be achieved across the Dorset area. It should have set the challenge and be provide the leadership to meet the challenge.

I can illustrate what I mean with two examples. First, the Navitus Bay windfarm project. In September 2015 planning permission for the wind farm was refused by the Planning Inspectorate, due to the visual impact effect the development would have had on the region – a tourist area which included a World Heritage site (the Jurassic Coast). Had it gone ahead, it would have supplied approximately 85% of the electricity for the whole of Dorset – a short fall that could easily have been made up through the use of solar panels. This would have allowed Dorset to be supplied by 100% renewable energy. I will avoid a detailed discussion now about the reasons why this application was rejected. Needless to say I do not think them valid. But that’s not the point. Five years down the line there is a lot of talk about resurrecting this project. This is where the Council could (should) show political leadership. It should state openly that it wants this, or a very similar project, to go ahead. Rather than following its current methodology of only committing to projects that are “both realistic and achievable” it could commit to projects where the realism and achievability are questionable, but do all in its power to make them real. There may be a lot of obstacles in the way of turning such an idea into an actuality, but without the political will these obstacles will never be overcome.

Second, UK building standards need to be changed. Local planning authorities like Dorset Council need to have the power to require all new developments to be built to the highest standards of energy efficiency. All new builds need to be net zero carbon. If they are not they will need, at some point in the future, to be retrofitted to make them so – a process that will be far more expensive than making them so in the first place. Because these changes need to be brought about by Westminster, demanding them of developers now is neither realistic not achievable – at least in the short term. However, the Council could make a very clear and unambiguous statement that they need these powers for the long-term wellbeing of their residents. They could start speaking and working with other local planning authorities, and could devise joint strategies for bring the necessary changes about. My point is simply that unless they commit to such an action plan, unless they make bold and ambitious statements of intent, they will never find the ingenuity and creativity to realise them. Not all of the commitments will be actualised, but that’s not the point. It’s far better to aim high and fall short, than to only aim at something you know you can reach. Or, as a fellow councillor commented after the meeting: “if you aim for the stars you stand a better chance of climbing out of the gutter than if you only aim for the pavement”.

So, did my question to the committee change anything? No. Despite the chair of the committee almost admitting that he agreed with me, the committee unanimously approved the document. The next step will be Cabinet next Tuesday, followed by a public consultation. Meanwhile the time we have left drips slowly away.