Democracy Café

This meeting (9 November 2019) took place a couple of days after the official start of the General Election campaign which will take place on 12 December 2019. Both topics chosen had a political feel to them – to be expected I suppose – and both were related.

The first topic was should we be able to delete social media history from when we were young? The concern was that rash or ill-considered comments made in someone’s youth could be dragged much late in life to embarrass them. This applies to political and other public figures of course and the point was made that the media was always on the lookout for such remarks. The main charge laid against someone in these cases was hypocrisy and some wondered whether this was said too quickly. Maynard Keynes is credited* with saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’

Someone observed that to change one’s mind shows you have one.

Much of the discussion focused on trust and how to establish it. Consistency was one aspect and being able to see what someone said in the past and compare it with today was a way. Deleting the past would frustrate that of course. Some examples were quoted of well known politicians arguing, before the Referendum, for a second one once details were known are now to be heard saying people knew full well what they were voting for. The question of course is where and when to draw it.  These were not statements made when they were young. 

It was noted that student debates were often on some nonsense subject so to hold someone to things they said then would perhaps be unreasonable. It was also said by several people that we all change our minds as we go through life, cannot politicians do the same? It would seem that time and distance in the past is the key here. If someone did change their mind, was it not justified to ask them why and to give a reason?

The debate moved on to freedom of speech issues and the issue of causing offence was discussed. There is arguably an increase in the number of instances where politicians and others are asked to apologise for ‘causing offence’ to a group, usually a minority one. There was a difference of opinion here with some thinking that causing offence was a real problem and can make minorities feel vulnerable or victimised. Sometimes this hate speech led to physical acts.

Another significant point made by several, was the importance of teaching children to question what they read and the information they receive. They should learn the important distinction between facts and opinions.


The second half of the session switched to the question ‘can a politician tell the truth today and expect to be elected?’ The election had started with some startling claims to spend vast sums on various parts of the economy. Could any politician stand up and say that this may be reckless or unaffordable and would in any event take many years to achieve (the promise of more GPs for example would take a decade)?  Was it possible for a prospective politician to say for example ‘our economy is weak, our debt is 80% of GDP, our productivity is poor and if we want a better NHS and more help for the elderly, we are going to have to pay for it with higher taxes.’  

It was pointed out straightaway that arguably there were a few who did(do) and Shirley Williams and Caroline Lucas were both mentioned.

The discussion moved quickly onto the life led by MPs now and in particular the role played by social media and the tech giants.  A number of MPs – particularly female MPs – were not standing again the main reason appeared to be the constant stream of death, rape and other violent threats they regularly receive.  The life of an ordinary MP was described at length in Elizabeth Hardman’s book Why we get the wrong politicians. She paints a fairly dismal picture of life in parliament and the expense and problems of getting there in the first place.  At the end of the book you get a good understanding of why we end up with such poor decision making, bad laws and poor governance.

Another key debating point was the nature of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and who decides? A lot of what politicians say is about what will happen in the future if they are elected into office. This is by its nature speculative. In this connection, a local MP can make all sorts of promises but they are promises about his or her party and over which they will have little say (unless they become a minister).

Needless to say the Referendum was mentioned and the point was made that our system was based on the concept of an MP being a representative. This had changed into them becoming delegates. So an MP who thought, prior to the referendum, that we should stay in the EU but his or her constituency voted to come out, what should they do? Were they honest to continue carrying out a policy which they believed to be wrong? Some thought they were not. Also, carrying on supporting a policy knowing that it could not be done was dishonest.

The role of the media was discussed and it was suggested that they often focused a lot on the future which, as we’ve said, is essentially speculative. It was here that we touched on the first debate because what politicians say they will do has to be looked at in terms of what they said they would do in the past and did they do it?

Was it the media’s duty to inform? Some would say yes but it was also noted that newspapers were about selling papers and they had to reflect to a large degree what their readers wanted. No doubt if there was a demand for facts then they would be provided. At least conventional media was subject to some kind of control and the laws of defamation. Social media platforms were outside anyone’s control and enabled people to say anything and say it anonymously. Which is where we came in and the role social media is having in the nation’s discourse…

No doubt we shall come back to this topic area in the future.  The next meeting was scheduled for 14th December but it may be too noisy to have a debate in the Playhouse.  We shall meet anyway and see.  

Peter Curbishley

*there are doubts whether JMK said this.

Climate change

Several of us attended a meeting of the Salisbury Area Board in the Guildhall last night (4 November 2019) which was a joint event with Wiltshire Council (WC) and the City Council (SCC). It was extremely well attended with – I estimated – around 110 or so there.

There were presentations by a WC officer and by the Mayor for the City. Each table was then asked to think about suggestions they would like to make and there was a feedback session with one from each table.

Both organisations must be complimented on organising the event and the numbers attending demonstrated real concern for the subject.

The first thing to note was that both the WC and SCC contributions were essentially top down. It was what they were going to do. They neither of them costed or showed a timescale in any realistic way. It took Prof. Graham Smith, speaking for his table, to point out the need for a baseline analysis. By this I assume he meant the need to assess what would be needed to achieve carbon neutrality by looking at where we are now and where we need to get to. Looking at WC’s webpage on the subject, there are no statistics, solid plans or timetable for what has to be done between now and 2030. Similarly with SCC’s plans.

Jeremy Nettle emphasised the need to ‘do something now’ and, as he put it ‘it was difficult stuff [and] costs money’. The council has a budget of £56,000 for the work. Both presentations however were short on how people’s minds, attitudes and behaviours could be changed although Nettle did say ‘the hardest thing is changing people’s minds’. It was just a bit light on how.

The elephant in the room of course was that those present could be assumed to be people who accept the threat of a climate emergency and that something needs to be done urgently. In the population at large there are many who do not. There are still many denialists.

One speaker noted the limited powers that local government has in comparison with the national government. In that connection we must mention our local MP Mr Glen who, according to ‘They Work for You’ website, generally votes against climate change policies and is openly dismissive of Extinction Rebellion. DeSmog analysis shows him at 15%, a dismal score. The question of making new homes more thermally efficient was mentioned. Fine but what about existing homes? Making rented homes more efficient was voted down by this government (supported as ever by Mr Glen).

But our biggest disappointment was that neither Mark Read of WC nor Jeremy Nettle of SCC mentioned a Citizens’s Assembly despite several meetings and emails between us and them on this very subject. Cllr Nettle is allegedly in favour and has certainly led us to believe this. Citizen’s’s involvement was left to a request for people to leave their names on a sheet of paper at the exit. This will assemble a wholly unrepresentative list of people – all of whom will be in favour of climate action – and drawn from a narrow demographic.

The approach does seem to be essentially flawed. Without a structured involvement by the citizens of Salisbury, guided as necessary by appropriate expertise and supported by baseline data, the result is likely to be an uncoordinated series of actions which – however well meaning – are unlikely to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. Achieving climate change is going to need robust and grounded policies many of which will be met by indifference or hostility. The forces of resistance are well funded by the fossil fuel industry. Both authorities are going to need a lot of solid support from local people and on this showing, they are unlikely to get this.

Peter Curbishley

[These views do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance]

Welcome

Welcome to the Salisbury Democracy Alliance Webpage.  We are a group of people and organisations dedicated to bringing deliberative democracy to the city.  We aim to provide citizens with the time, space and capacity to engage in free and equal dialogue.  We began in 2017 with the Salisbury Democracy café, which meets at the Playhouse every second Saturday in the month and has been extremely successful.  We now want to create the city’s first Citizens’ Assembly, which will involve randomly selecting a representative group of people to deliberate on an important local issue and make recommendations to our councils. 

We are supported by the RSA (Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce)

There is no membership fee at present and we welcome new members and supporters.

Democracy Café

Democracy Café is held once a month on the second Saturday of the month. It takes place in the Playhouse here in Salisbury starting at 10 am and lasts 2 hours.

Democracy Cafe

The next DC is tomorrow Saturday 9th November at 10 as usual in the Playhouse. With the general election announced the other day, there will surely be lots to talk about. The bidding war between the two main parties is extraordinary: it only seemed like yesterday that the cry was our financial woes, and the need for austerity (remember that?), was due to the Labour party recklessly overspending. Now countless billions are promised.

Is this degree of spending the right answer anyway? Will pumping that degree of money into the economy risk inflation? Are the promises to be believed?

Lots to discuss and it doesn’t have to be about the election anyway.

November’s Bemerton Heath Democracy Café

CLIMATE change and deliberative democracy were on the menu at November’s meeting of Bemerton Heath Democracy Café.

The question revolved around whether a Citizen’s Jury in Salisbury would enhance democratic engagement in combatting climate change.

It was explained that Citizen’s Juries consist of a randomly selected cross-section of the community that then becomes part of the democratic decision-making process – as is happening in Test Valley Borough Council.

There was some scepticism at first about the idea but after rehearsing some of the challenges posed by climate change, it was suggested that Citizen’s Juries may be part of the answer.

The deliberation moved on to the recent demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion. Opinion was divided between whether its actions were counter-productive because they often antagonised ordinary people going about their business, or vital because they high-lighted the threat to the future of the planet in a way that lower profile action did not.

The café is held on the first Saturday in the month at St Michael’s community café in St Michael’s Road between 10am and noon. For more information call Dickie Bellringer on 01722 323453 or bellringer11@btinternet.com

 

 

Democracy Café on 12 October

THE resumption of the democracy café after a short break attracted 18 people to deliberate on two weighty subjects.

The first topic chosen by the participants firstly asked whether the pressure on personal choice in relation to climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the petrochemical industry designed to deflect attention from the fact that the real problem lay with it. The second part of the question asked how we were complicit in the unsustainability of our way of life.

At the heart of this topic was the claim that the industries were claiming the moral high ground by making us feel guilty for our actions while at the same time claiming that they were part of the solution, not the problem as such. The point was made that those who campaign for action on climate change are often accused of being hypocrites because they drive a car or fly from time-to-time. A classic example was Piers Morgan who repeatedly asked a members of Extinction Rebellion if she had a television. This, it was suggested, was part of a wider tactic often used by populists in a range of scenarios that seeks to show if you can’t prove that you are not a hypocrite then you must be one.

Not everyone was convinced by the central claim, however, arguing that incremental changes could make a difference. An example was given of a recent story about an ordinary chess player taking on a grandmaster. While the ordinary player could only think two or three moves ahead, the grandmaster could think 10 or more moves ahead, so had an obvious advantage. When asked how he could improve his game, the grandmaster said that instead of thinking tactically or strategically, think positionally. In other words a move that improved ones current position would help your overall play.

Another suggestion was that incremental changes made by individuals could help to change the momentum of change over the years. An interesting argument revolved around the idea that you needed to create the right economic, political and regulatory framework to enable individuals and the petrochemical industries to make the right choices – and as part of this thread the ideas behind nudge-theory were mentioned. There was some scepticism about creating the right political environment because, it was suggested, MPs wouldn’t be selected to stand for election in the first place unless they already held certain entrenched views, including those on climate change.

Another thread in the deliberation revolved around whether or not it was right for the UK to take unilateral action on climate change when the rest of the world didn’t, although this was countered by the examples of Germany and Scandinavian countries which were, it was claimed, already far ahead of the UK in developing sustainable energy.

After the break the café changed the subject to transhumanism, the process by which humanity can be, or maybe in the future, augmented physically and mentally by technology and genetic engineering. The question arose following two BBC Four documentaries about eugenics, which pointed out that eugenic ideology – the idea that you should ‘improve’ the gene pool by encouraging the breeding of people considered to have desirable traits and discourage breeding of those considered to have undesirable traits – actually started in Victorian Britain.

There are, or course, many problems with transhumanism, particularly with instrumental arguments relating to the undesirability of eugenics and, as far as mental improvement is concerned, the problem of defining intelligence. However, the question was couched in terms of a thought experiment in which the participants were asked to imagine that transhumanism would not be used to further eugenic ideology and that we were able to define intelligence. The aim was to find out whether transhumanism in itself and without any side issues, was a development that we should welcome. However, there was widespread scepticism about the validity of the thought experiment and whether you could indeed separate transhumanism from questions about eugenics and intelligence. It was argued that you could not separate these ideas from a sense of subjective superiority inherent Western liberal culture. And the thought experiment itself was symptomatic of that very subjective superiority.

Another argument was that even if, as suggested in the question, the technology for transhumanism was freely available to everyone, there would still be pressures on people that would impact on their personal choice. And although it was suggested that that genetic engineering could be beneficial in curing congenital diseases, it was impossible not to be concerned about the possible misuse of the technology for eugenic ends.

It was suggested that once the technology was out of the bag you couldn’t put it back in, but it was pointed out that there was a national bioethics committee that did make judgements on these sorts of questions.

Yet another strand in this deliberation related to disability, which was one of the central issues raised during the BBC documentaries with the chilling implication that physical and mental disability was in some way undesirable. No-one in the café thought this was a good idea and, indeed, it was pointed out that in many cases disabled people claimed a uniqueness and a valuable view of life that was unavailable to able-bodied people. A classic example of this is the Deaf Community, which has a distinctive and valuable culture of its own that, it argues, should be valued in its own right. Underlying this question was the more fundamental one of who decides what is good or bad, which brought us back to the point earlier about the pressures that individuals might be under to choose a particular ‘improvement’ which might in some future society no longer be seen as an improvement.

At the end of the session we decided to have a vote on who would choose to be immortal. In all 12 voted no, two yes and two don’t know. After the vote it was asked whether people might change their vote if they knew they were going to die tomorrow!

Bemerton Heath Democracy Cafe

 

OCTOBER’S Bemerton Heath Democracy Café tackled two topics – assisted suicide and the future of physical books.

Discussion of assisted suicide arose following the acquittal of a pensioner charged with a ‘mercy-killing’ murder of her husband who was suffering from a terminal illness.

The deliberation revolved around the conflict between faith and compassions. It was considered that life was in God’s hands, but it was difficult not to feel sympathy for someone who had helped her husband to commit suicide for entirely compassionate reasons.

There was, however, resistance to legalising assisted suicide because of the fear of abuse.

How we value life was also discussed and whether anyone had the right to judge what made a life worth living.

On books it was feared by some that electronic devices were taking over from physical books. It was pointed out that the latter were making a comeback, but the conversation also took in the freedom afforded by digital and online creativity.

Bemerton Heath Democracy Café takes place on the first Saturday of the month between 10am and 12noon in St Michael’s community café in St Michael’s Road.

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Participants in the democracy café