Democracy Café: January 2022

Sadly, the café had to return to meeting via Zoom

The latest outbreak of the Omicron variant meant we had to abandon plans for a meeting in Brown Street and return to meeting electronically. Before the discussion started, we had an update on our other activities namely, our attempt to encourage the City Council to consider a citizens’ assembly, which does not look promising at present. The second issue concerns allowing electronic access to meetings which the City Council is also reluctant to agree to. This would enable those unable to attend meetings for whatever reason to listen to the debates. Wilton Town Council has agreed to this but Salisbury City Council … One comment was that lack of involvement was a problem for councils and one they should be concerned about. It was generally felt we should not accept the decision.

The Café

The winning topic was Are we all doomed? This question arose from a book by Rutger Bregman Humankind, (Bloomsbury 2021) which, as its title suggests, looked at the human condition and our place in the modern world. There were two dichotomous views: the Hobbesian notion of life being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short versus Rousseau’s ideas where he suggested that the the state of nature was not that bad and that people were self-sufficient, sympathetic to others and fairly peaceful. They are broadly innocent and aren’t capable of being malicious. Clearly, a fascinating discussion had they both been on Newsnight.

The immediate comment was are we not a too either/or society? and why do we struggle so with nuance? The second point was why was it so important whether we are doomed or not: do we have the right to live forever (as a species that is)?

Things went wrong it was suggested when we settled and ceased to live a nomadic life. This seems to imply that things were good when we were nomads or hunter gatherers but this may be some way from the truth. This new ‘civilised’ existence showed the unique strength of humankind and our ability to act cooperatively. This idea was questioned however since it has been shown that elephants and ants are among species which also act cooperatively.

A settled existence enabled the growth of religion and it was the view of one participant (who admitted to being a vicar’s daughter) that Christianity has a lot to answer for with its belief that we are all evil and need to repent. Sin and redemption is a feature of several religions. This led onto the idea that however good or bad we are, we may still be doomed because of climate or a passing asteroid.

The idea that civilization is simply a veneer was mentioned and Bregman has instanced Lord of the Flies by William Golding (who used to teach in Salisbury). It was pointed out however that the real life example of boys stranded on an island (the inspiration for the story) was that they did manage to coexist. Indeed it was suggested that several examples of evil doing are often fictional.

The discussion moved onto the idea of the availability heuristic. This was about how we perceive things and how we are poor for example at assessing risk in a statistical sense. For example, the fear of random paedophiles attacking or abducting a small child is an ever present among parents whereas the actual risk is vanishingly small. Part of the problem is that news media focus on bad news ‘if it bleeds, it leads’. This led to a reference to Stephen Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature (Viking, 2011) which argued that we are less likely to die a violent death today than at any time in human history. It was argued that despite this argument, people remain fearful and as a result, inclined to be more violent. It also led to a desire to ‘protect our own’ behaviour seen in the pandemic where we are concerned at our own country’s rate of vaccination but less concerned about other country’s rates. Brexit was also mentioned in this connection.

A weighty topic and perhaps the time limitation of Zoom meant we did not really give it full justice.

The second topic was the legal decision concerning the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol. Four of those indicted for criminal damage were found not guilty by a jury this week and this had generated a great deal of vigorous debate. Colston was a well known slaver and there have been unsuccessful attempts for years to remove the statue.

One speaker spoke forcefully for the decision calling it a ‘Magna Carta’ moment and a demonstration of the limits of state power. It was in effect a show trial since only four of those present were on trial whereas there was an extremely large crowd present. It was a good example of common sense by the jury and of the jury system. It contrasted with those countries – the majority – who have a constitution where to a large extent, that flexibility was not available. English law had incorporated Druidic and Saxon law, elements of Roman law – still a key factor in Scotland – to meld it into the system we have today. A written constitution can be difficult to change it was argued.

Not everyone was convinced by the peon to the English legal system and it was seen as an example of British exceptionalism. There have, after all, been many examples of serious miscarriages of justice over the years. One comment was that if the case had gone to a magistrate, the likely result would have been quite different given the background of so many of our magistrates. Plans to introduce the Police and Crime bill was an example of a government none too keen on free speech and protest. There was pressure on the Attorney General, Suella Braverman, to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal but on what grounds is not yet clear. On the matter of statues, the statue to Lord Pembroke in Wilton was mentioned who’s wealth came partly from slavery it was claimed*.

There was a brief discussion on the legacy of slavery which has begun to surface recently. The book Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (Penguin 2021) was mentioned which discussed the continuing effects of slavery in British society.

Peter Curbishley

*A book on the history of the Pembroke family is Earls of Paradise by Adam Nicolson (Harper Press, 2008) is a fascinating read.

The Suella Braverman link is to some investigation I did into her views on the use of torture and also to an Observer piece which examines some of her career claims which have proved difficult to verify.