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.

It’s not been a good week

To say that I am angry is a bit of an understatement. Councillor Maria Roe and myself submitted a motion to this coming Thursday’s full meeting of Dorset Council. This motion called upon the Council to support the Climate and Ecology Bill which is waiting for its Second Reading in Parliament, and (more importantly) to write to our local MPs asking them to support the Bill. This Bill would (amongst other things) require the Prime Minister to achieve certain climate and ecological objectives, give the Secretary of State a duty to create and implement a strategy to achieve those objectives, and give duties to the Committee on Climate Change regarding the objectives and strategy. This Bill is essential background legislation for the successful implementation of Dorset Council’s own Climate and Ecological Strategy.

However, Cllr Roe and myself have been informed that our motion is not considered suitable for debate. This is bad enough, but what has really angered me is that despite asking the Council’s Corporate Director for Legal and Democratic Services twice for an explanation as to why the motion is not considered suitable for debate I have had no reply. This places me in an awkward position because until I have been given such an explanation I cannot be certain how to respond. In the mean time the best I can do is simply repeat the words of Cllr Ray Bryan, the cabinet member responsible for the Council’s Climate and Ecological Strategy: “Dorset Council as an organisation is only responsible for 1% of the county’s carbon emissions and has limited powers to affect the remaining 99% without huge changes to national legislation by central government.” Because the success of our Dorset Strategy is so dependent upon the national strategy, it is surely essential for the citizens of Dorset that this Bill is supported by our MPs.

This assumes, of course, that I will be given an explanation as to why our motion is not considered suitable for debate. The nightmare situation is that no explanation is forthcoming. This would be such a serious threat to democracy that I really do not believe the silence would be allowed to continue. However, even if I do now receive an explanation (as of 10.00am Tuesday morning none has been received) it is too late to do anything about it in relation to Thursday’s meeting – which in itself could be considered an erosion of the democratic process.

Last week I attended a briefing for Dorset Councillors on the post-Covid recovery. At this briefing the Leader of the Council and other members of his cabinet went to great pains to express their view that such things are “non-political”. Really? There are two sides to this comment, both of which I disagree with. One is the implication that there are certain areas of community or social life where the desired outcome is beyond opinion – that this outcome is somehow objectively obvious to anyone who thinks clearly. The other is that politics is a superficial activity, some sort of past-time that whilst interesting is unnecessary when it comes to the really important issues. Any form of socio-economic recovery assumes an understanding of what the healthy or desired state of normal looks and feels like, and this understanding will vary greatly according the political views of the person holding them. A strong believer in the market economy will hold a different view of what we should be trying to achieve to someone like me who would like to see an end to the equalities that our market economy has created.

I have found the death of the Duke of Edinburgh very difficult to come to terms with. Not because it has deeply affected me, but because a great many assumptions are being made about how I feel and what I thought about the man. Whilst I wish no personal harm to members of the Royal Family, I feel no warmth or affection to any of them either. They are an archaic legacy from a past which should be just that – the past. Such privilege should have no place in a modern society. It was bad enough that the BBC changed the schedules of Radio 4 and both BBC1 and BBC2 to news coverage. Yes, both channels! Why both? And took BBC4 off air completely! Again, why? Surely all the viewers who wished to soak up the atmosphere would have been satisfied with just one channel devoted to news of the event. But even worse than this were the comments made by my MP, Chris Loder. In a letter to the queen, published on Twitter, he claimed that “the constant presence of Your Majesty” was a comfort to his constituents. Does he actually believe this? There may well be some residents of West Dorset who are so comforted, but by no means everyone – and by no means myself!

On the need for secular festivals and truth

It’s Easter Sunday. It’s therefore a very significant day for Christians across the world. But should it be a national holiday for the UK? It will be interesting to see how many of the population actually identify as Christians in the census we completed two weeks ago. Ten years ago, only 59.9% of our citizens said that they were Christians, down from 71.6% in 2001. If the 2021 census returns a figure of less than 50% should we continue to regard this country as Christian? Should there not be a complete divorce between the State and church? Any church? Any religion? These, surely, are legitimate questions to ask. If we genuinely believe in freedom, fairness and human rights it’s wrong to force a default Christian structure upon everyone, especially if it’s only relevant to a minority of the population. In a truly fair and open society we should all be free to practice any faith or none at all. No one should be made to feel socially excluded because their thinking finds it impossible to accept the myths being peddled by religion.

The festival or holiday that I have the biggest problem with is Christmas. I want to join in the festivities, I genuinely want to feel a part of what is being celebrated. But for that to happen I need to ‘but in’ to the idea behind it all, and my thinking will simply not accept the concept of God, let alone a God that can have a son through a virgin birth. However, there are very good reasons to have a social festival at the end of December. The winter solstice marks the genuine end of one year and the start of another. What better time to gather with friends and family and reflect on the year past and look forward to the year to come? And a spring festival at around the time of the equinox is a great occasion to stop work for a few days to reflect on the new life bursting forth from nature, from the natural environment all around us. What better time to reflect on our relationship with the rest of nature? If people with particular religious beliefs want to add their own interpretations to these festivals, that’s fine with me. But the festivals themselves could and should be made accessible to any rational person.

In saying all this, I do not wish to suggest that there are not good elements to religion. Whilst the metaphysics provided by the various religions has been totally superseded by science, and should be discarded by all rational beings, their ethics often captures some enduring human values. If we could all learn to love our fellow humans in the way Jesus of the Christian Bible taught his followers to love, we would all benefit no end. But this is not because a mythical god has instructed us to adopt certain values, it’s because over the course of human social evolution certain values have been found to be invaluable to maintaining social structure and coherence. But such an acceptance also comes with a serious health warning. Some of the social values and ethical behaviour taught and codified by religion is seriously out-of-date. In particular I’m thinking of various faiths’ attitudes to same sex relationships and their enforcement of gender roles and sexuality in general.

Now apart from loving your neighbour, another ethical value (as far as I’m aware) universally endorsed by religion is that of telling the truth. And it’s very easy to understand why. Telling the truth, being honest in your dealings with others, lies at the very core of any stable community or society. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how quickly social life would collapse without it. This has been a particularly dominant theme in my thinking the last few weeks, not least because I’ve just finished reading Peter Oborne’s The Assualt on Truth. This book is a damning indictment of our Prime Minister. It clearly documents the history of Boris Johnson’s distortion of the truth, his falsehoods, and his arrogant dismissal of personal accountability. But of even greater concern than Johnson’s disregard for the truth is how certain national newspapers (I don’t need to name them, you know the ones I mean) have completely failed to call him to account. Had Jeremy Corbyn lied even a fraction of the amount he would have been annihilated by these papers. As far as I’m aware, these papers have not even offered a review of this book. If, as a society, we hold so little regard for the truth, or are so partisan in how we apply it, what sort of future awaits us?

Another reason why ‘truth’ has been at the fore of my thinking is that I’ve been working on an introduction to the problems associated with the concept of ‘truth’ for both the next meeting of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group, and the spring symposium of the national Philosophy in Pubs network. I will write this up for a blog post at the end of the month, but for now let me whet your thinking appetite by suggesting that when placed under close scrutiny ‘truth’, as Oscar Wilde observed, “is rarely pure and never simple”.

Questions, questions, questions

For me, one of the many losses of the last year is that of the free monthly magazine The Bridport Times. I say this in a very selfish way because its demise deprives me of the opportunity to write up and publish my reflections on the monthly meetings of the Bridport Philosophy in Pubs group that I organise. I know that I often refer to this group in my weekly posts, but I’ve decided that from now on I will devote the post immediately following these meetings to this task. Sorry, but there you go. It’s my blog, and if you don’t like philosophical reflection I can only respond by saying that you should!

How we operate, both virtually (at the moment) and actually (when we can all meet again in a pub), is that a member of the group proposes a topic that interests them and prepares a short introduction to provoke discussion. We then discuss. Simples. The topic for our meeting last Wednesday was: What is the link between language and thought? Having read and considered what the person introducing this topic had prepared, three questions came immediately to mind: 1. Do we need language in order to think? 2. What is thinking anyway? Having acquired a language(s), can we think outside of it/them?

In asking the first question I mean language in the widest sense of the term and want to include sign language, music and art in addition to the spoken (and written) word. Which, for me, immediately raises the further question: What do we mean by language in the first place? For present purposes let’s assume that a language is any system of expression and communication where there is some link between a signifier (a word, symbol or note) and that signified (something that can be experienced by our senses). Is a baby crying for milk using language? Is it using its cry (signifier) in order to ask for its mother’s milk (signified)? Or is it simply responding to a sensation of hunger in an automatic way that requires no thought? Is thinking present right from the start of a baby’s life, before it has developed any language? Or is it something that develops as a consequence of interactions with its parents / family / community?

Which brings me to the second question: What actually is thinking? I think it highly likely that all animals have, to some degree and in a variety of different ways, some type of cognitive map that allows them to navigate and interact with their environment. But does having such a map constitute thinking? For me, thinking involves the both ability to ask questions of this map and to imagine alternative maps – maps of an environment that ‘the thinker’ is not actually in at the present. John Dewey, the American pragmatist philosopher, considered “thinking as a means to the end of dispelling doubt, doubt being a mental state that creates visceral pain that people will do anything to eliminate.” Could it therefore be the case that for humans, and other animals to some degree, experience has proved these maps to not always be reliable, and that in order to survive we have had to acquire the ability to question them and to develop means for raising their degrees of certainty?

And finally, can we step outside of language in order to examine it more objectively? Or are we condemned to being trapped within language and being forced to examine it from the inside? And perhaps more fundamentally, if our thinking is always trapped within language will we ever be able to fully understand language? Can we understand what thinking is by thinking about it? Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his later work, saw language as a game. Language games, he argued, were rule governed, but these rules were not fixed and differed from language to language and over time. But more importantly, he argued that there was no ‘meta-game’, no game of games, no point of view outside of our language games from where we could stand back and appraise the relationship between language and reality.

Personally I warm to Wittgenstein’s notion of language games, but am forced to admit that I can answer none of the questions I asked above with anything approaching certainty. In fact I would probably go further and say that none of the questions raised within our Philosophy in Pubs group can be answered with certainty. However, that by no means devalues their asking. I think more can be gained by the asking of questions than can be by the supplying of answers. If you think like this, if you value a well-formed question more than a clever answer perhaps you could consider either joining our group, or one of the many others scattered across the country. If you would like more details, contact me.

Beware the ides of March

My initial plan for this week’s blog was to raise the question of political leadership. What makes a good political leader? This question has been lurking around in my thinking for some time but was brought out of the shadows by The Guardian reporting that Boris Johnson’s “personal approval rating has surpassed that of Keir Starmer for the first time since last May”. I have no idea how accurately this poll reflects actual public opinion, but I think it very obvious, and deeply frustrating, that Starmer is failing to expose, and bring to the public’s attention, the not insignificant shortcomings of both the incumbent Prime Minister and his government. Surely this cannot be too difficult a task for someone with Starmer’s skills, a barrister with experience of clinically exposing the flaws in other people’s arguments?

That was my plan. But on reading this morning’s news a number of other items have emerged which I find even more disturbing. One is the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ that started its passage through Parliament yesterday. This bill is obviously aimed at groups like Extinction Rebellion. Under its many powers, if passed, police will be able to stop a protest if the noise of this protest will “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or “on persons in the vicinity”. Really? Can you think of any major protest, a protest that has helped bring about major changes to civil rights or equal opportunities legislation for example, that has not had these results? What exactly is the point of a protest that does not? This is a potentially very serious erosion of a citizens’ right to protest in a democratic state, and must be opposed.

Another was the Metropolitan Police’s reaction to vigils that took place to highlight the violence so frequently perpetrated on women by men, vigils that were a reaction to the sad death of Sarah Everard. Had the officers in charge of policing these events no sensitivity? A serving police officer has been arrested and charged with the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, and they respond by forcefully breaking up these totally peaceful events? They allowed a photograph of a police officer pinning a protester to the ground by the neck onto the front pages of the morning papers? Have they no concept of how their response simply appears to endorse male-on-female violence?

Yet another was this morning’s report on the BBC website about how a Post-Brexit UK plans to reshape its foreign policy so that it’s aligned with “the UK’s interests and values”. What are the UK’s interests and values? More to the point, whose interests and values are they? I doubt very much that they are my interests or values, nor any of those of the 48% who voted against our leaving the EU. Or, on a more philosophical point, how can a collective such as the UK have a definitive set of interests and values? Sorry, this is an issue that always sparks a reaction in me. In philosophical jargon it’s termed the problem of collective intentionality. Put very simply, the issue is that because only individual people have things like values it’s very problematic to talk about a collective having them. At best we can talk about the majority view or opinion. At worst it becomes shorthand for the value of those in power who somehow have come to the opinion that they represent the whole population.

This same report went on to suggest that there will be a foreign policy shift of focus towards the Indo-Pacific countries. Please, can someone explain the logic of this? We have been historically and culturally part of Europe for about two thousand years. We have a major market for goods and services right on our door step, one (in terms of international trade) that involves the absolute minimum of travel (and hence the minimum of carbon emissions and financial cost). So instead of aligning ourselves to the EU, an alliance that also provides major security benefits, we choose to shun them and focus on trade with countries on the other side of the globe – countries that we have few cultural or historic links with, countries that alliances with will do little (if anything) to improve our security, and countries that the trade of goods with will involve the maximum amount of carbon emissions! So, someone, anyone, please explain the thinking behind this.

The final nail in the coffin of my morning mood was the line that this review of foreign policy “also paves the way for an increase in nuclear warheads”. What the fuck? So just in case we haven’t got enough to worry about by shunning our close allies and opening up alliances on the other side of the world, and in the process maximising our carbon emissions just so that we can ensure that the rise in global temperatures will make many areas of the Earth uninhabitable (producing massive food shortages and flows of migrants who will be unwelcome in the UK), we also initiate a nuclear arms race so that we can protect our shores from those global citizens who may want some of our food or a place to live! And (nearly finished, honestly) the prime minister leading this government is still more popular than the leader of the opposition? What hope do we have? Yesterday was the Ides of March. Draw your own conclusions.