Common sense or good sense?

Common sense has been much talked about this week, mostly in connection with the wearing of face masks. When step 4 of the government’s ‘roadmap to freedom’ starts, possibly on July 19th, wearing them will no longer be a legal requirement in most places in England. According to the Prime Minister, the decision to wear them will be a matter of “personal responsibility”, whilst the health minister, Helen Whately, said that people will be asked to “make a common sense judgement” about such issues. But what does this mean? I’ve long had a problem with the notion of common sense. People who use the term seem to imply that through its use we should be able to assess a situation and arrive a course of action which is both obvious and common to all. Whilst this may work in a few situations (though to be honest I’m struggling to think of an example) I suspect that for most, and particularly for novel situations like the current pandemic, it simply becomes an excuse to abandon reason rather than embrace it.

In The Myth Gap, Alex Evans argues that “When it comes to how we make up our minds about political issues, it turns out that evidence, facts and data matter much less than the values held by the people we hang out with.” I think that this applies to social issues generally, not just the overtly political ones. For most of us, most of the time, our personal responsibility is directed towards “the people we hang out with” rather than society as a whole, and the purpose of any “common sense judgement” is to endorse our relationship with them rather than challenge it. This process has a lot of similarity to confirmation bias – the process whereby we seek out ‘evidence’ to support what we already believe rather than throw it into doubt. So rather than challenge or strain important social, economic or political relationships through independent rational thought we tend to do the reverse, preferring to agree with whichever argument or course of action is likely strengthen these relationships. It takes a very strong independent mind to do otherwise.

Antonio Gramsci had a similar argument. In his Prison Notebooks common sense is described as that comforting set of certainties that make us feel at home, and that we absorb, often unconsciously, from the social world we inhabit. These ‘certainties’ are the basic realities we use to explain our world and experiences. For example, the dominant view in most western countries, the view adopted by a majority of politicians, and the view the world of business and commerce perpetuate, is one that focuses on both the individual (individual self-interest, individual rights) and the value of competition. In terms of mask wearing it is just ‘common sense’ that the needs of ‘the economy’ are of paramount importance and that the rights of the individual to be free of imposed restrictions are fundamental. But what this ‘common sense’ view of human life fails to note is that throughout human life on this planet cooperation has been of equal importance to competition, and that without human society there can be no individual. We are who we are because of our interaction with other people. As I heard one commentator on the mask debate say, social issues concern ‘we’, not ‘I’.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze made a useful comparison between common sense and good sense. Now Deleuze is not the easiest philosopher to read, but my take on him is that he largely agrees with Gramsci about common sense. Common sense objectifies the experienced diversity of our world, it produces our individualised ‘world view’, and in doing so it essentially looks backward. Good sense, on the other hand looks forward. Its purpose is to foresee, and in doing so it is far more analytical – the formula it uses is “on one hand and on the other hand”. Such a formula could be quite helpful in the coming weeks. Rather than just fall prey to the libertarian wing of their party, rather than prioritise economic growth over social wellbeing, the government should examine the evidence and listen to the experts. It would make good sense to listen to both England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty, and its chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, who have said that they will continue to wear masks indoors (in crowded situations or when people are close together), if asked to by any competent authority, or as a common courtesy if someone else was uncomfortable. At the very least such restrictions should remain. It also makes good sense for shops and other places open to the public to have clearly defined times when masks will be worn. This will allow people who feel vulnerable to shop with some degree of ease. My fear is that leaving the decision about mask wearing to common sense will make a lot of people feel very uncomfortable and will produce a lot of social tension. I hope that good sense prevails.

The walls they are a crumbling

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

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

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

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

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

Dreamland

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

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

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

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

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

A Mission for Dorset Council?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A royal response to Chris Loder

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

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

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

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

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

Individualism and the need for PR

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

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

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

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

A story in need of a name

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

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

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

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

Let me tell you a story

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

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

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

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

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

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

An open letter to Chris Loder

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

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

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

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

The need to exercise democracy

I’ve been reminded of that famous quote about democracy from Winston Churchill this week: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” There is no perfect form of either national or local government, but if we want to avoid the slow creep towards oppression, abuse of power and ever growing inequality we need to nurture the democratic process. We need to guard against its erosion by people who either allow political power to go to their heads or to their bank accounts. Whilst the notion of political sleaze has resurfaced in Westminster this last week, with even the normally loyal Conservative supporting press starting to ask questions, it’s the more subtle erosion of democracy within Dorset Council that I want to focus on.

But first, let’s be clear about what I mean by democracy. We have a representational democracy, which means that for both national and local government citizens elect representatives to make decisions of their behalf. As it is not possible for an elected councillor or MP to know what the majority of the people they represent think on any particular issue it is incumbent on them to think for themselves and then be judged on their decision making at the next election. Democracy only works when those elected fully participate in the process of government. It’s the erosion of this ability to participate that most concerns me.

In last week’s post I wrote about my anger at the decision to not allow a motion (concerning the Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill) that another councillor and I had submitted for debate at last Thursday’s Full Council meeting. Well, I was finally given an explanation for this decision. I was told that it was because “it does not relate sufficiently to the responsibilities of the Full Council and does not directly affect the Council.” This statement echoes Standing Order 14.2(a)(i) which states that a valid notice of motion should be “about a topic or issue related to the responsibilities of the Full Council or which directly affects the council or the district.” This is all a matter of interpretation. I would argue the opposite, that because the Council’s Climate & Ecological Emergency Strategy document clearly states that “The Council has a key role in lobbying government for clear policy and financial support required for the transition to a zero-carbon future and to actively participate in national forums and consultations on policy development” it very much does relate to its responsibilities. But in terms of the erosion of democracy, this decision should have been made by a full body councillors. I should have had the opportunity to make my argument. The decision should not have been made by an officer together with one or two councillors from the ruling party!

Another example of this erosion of democracy concerns the Cabinet system. Rather than Full Council being asked to endorse decisions made by council committees (comprising councillors from all political parties according to the ratio of their electoral success), most local authorities operate the system whereby Full Council is asked to endorse decisions made by an executive committee of the ruling party. On the surface this is a very open process. I can attend meetings of the cabinet. I can ask questions on any of the reports being discussed. Except there is no discussion. No debate. Any question asked gets a very factual response. And when it comes to approving a report, in the vast, vast majority of cases the chairman simply asks if other cabinet members approve, and they all say yes. No discussion amongst cabinet members. No debate. No challenging questions. I really find it hard to believe that questions, or even concerns, do not occur to members of the cabinet. But if they do, when are they aired? When are they discussed?

The recently approved Council’s ‘Member’s Code of Conduct’ clearly states that “councillors should act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner.” If the questions, discussions and debate that result in decisions made by the Cabinet are not taking place during Cabinet meetings, then where and when are they? Assuming that the brains of Cabinet members are working (and I have every reason to believe they are) then these members are not being very open in their decisions. More importantly, without this open debate we have no way of knowing whether Cabinet members are failing to “act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit, using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias”. Let me be clear, I am not accusing Cabinet members of breaking the ‘objectivity’ requirement of the Code of Conduct. I’m simply saying that without open discussion how do we know? How can I, as a councillor representing residents of Bridport, effectively challenge, let alone participate in, decisions made?

I also have growing concerns about the planning system, concerns that, I admit, need a great deal more thinking through. For purely practical purposes approximately 95% of all planning decisions are made by planning officers under delegated authority. If our planning committees heard all the applications received they would be sitting constantly. My main concern here is that many of these officers make very conservative (small ‘c’ – I’m not suggesting any political bias) and safe decisions, particularly when it regards heritage buildings – not approving solar panels and double glazing on listed buildings for example. Planning guidelines, like the Council’s Standing Orders, require interpretation. They are written in abstract terms that need applying in particular situations. They often also need balancing against other guidelines. I’m starting to feel frustrated, however, that these guidelines are not being interpreted in the way many councillors would like, particularly in relation to our climate and ecological emergency. I will write more on planning in future posts.

The value of a healthy democracy is that the electorate genuinely think and feel that they are being listened to, and do not feel that they are being used simply to give politicians the power they believe so many crave. But to allow the heart of democracy to beat in a healthy fashion it needs to be exercised. Politicians, all politicians, need to be allowed to engage in the decision making process and to be totally open regarding any and all decisions they make.