Democracy Cafe: November

November 2022

We had two lively discussions at our meeting on 12 November 2022 and it was good to see a higher level of participants again following the dip in numbers after Lockdown. The first topic was around the Stop Oil protests who had caused disruption to the M25 recently. The question was around protest and breaking the law. The proposer of the question said there were two main responses: those who were sympathetic or empathetic to the cause (and one assumes the protest) contrasted with those who didn’t who thought they were pathetic people and ‘snowflakes’.

The discussion started off with a debate about climate change itself and the statement that ‘feelings are not facts’. Gas was essential, it was claimed, for the production of fertilizer, the lack of which would result in the deaths of millions for want of food.

We returned to the issue at hand and the fact that if we feel those in power are not listening then we are entitled to take action. However, it was argued, we have to accept the penalty for any civil disobedience involved. In response to the charge about ‘feelings not being facts’, we operate on an emotional level as well as factual and that this was a legitimate part of our response.

Civil disobedience was the cornerstone of our democracy. The series of bills the government was currently pushing through parliament for example the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, represented it was claimed an attempt by government to curtail such protest. The act when it becomes law will mean lawyers and teachers for example, taking part in demonstrations, risked losing their jobs should they be arrested. One person thought that we were slowly moving towards a totalitarian state especially when the new Justice and Courts act has made challenging government decisions a lot more difficult. There were many restrictions in place around Westminster which further prevented the show of dissent.

The point was made that the media are particularly bad at reporting peaceful protests. It was also pointed out that whereas there was considerable coverage of the highly visible M25 protests, the daily ‘under the radar’ lobbying by corporations which takes place in parliament – but which was extremely effective in securing for them advantageous treatment of one kind or another – was seldom reported. Another example of peaceful protest was a visit to the local MP by a group of local Amnesty members to raise concerns about the collection of bills which will have the effect of curtailing or inhibiting protests. It was doubtful if this had much of an effect. The role of the media was stressed because only if they were concerned did the public become aware of the problem.

It was noted that the suffragists formed in the 1866 with the specific aim of campaigning for votes for women peacefully or ‘respectfully’ as they expressed it. Their campaigns yielded nothing and in 1903, the suffragettes were formed who campaigned, sometimes violently, to get them and this was agreed in 1928.

Back to global warming and it was claimed that people concerned about this were not able to come up with the relevant facts. To claim that ‘scientists say’ was not convincing since many of them depended on commercial funding of one kind or another which called into question their impartiality. It was also pointed out that it will be the poorest in the world who will pay the price not the affluent West. Claims of climate disaster of one kind or another have been made for many years it was said but they seldom happened. An example was that Manhattan would be under water by the year 2000.

The role of economic ideology was suggested as a reason for a reluctance to act on things like climate reforms. The prevailing ideology was neoliberal, and protests were seen as a cost to doing business and thus damaged the economy. It was claimed that our local MP, Mr John Glen, as a treasury minister, was dictated to by commercial interests. It was pointed out however that he was the MP for all his constituents.

Finally, the ‘straw man’ argument was noted namely, M25 protests preventing ambulances getting through. This was often claimed but protesters specifically allowed emergency vehicles to pass.

These highly visible protests raise great passions and many are angry at the disruption caused to daily life. People wanted protests to be other than disruptive. The problem was that they then became invisible and the media would take no notice. Since government was in hoc to business and commercial interests and lobbyists, was this the only way to make the voice of protest heard? Demonstrations were not welcome by the current government hence the slew of legislation designed to outlaw any form of protest seen as a nuisance or an inconvenience.

Our second topic was whether the idealism of post war in connection with the NHS and education been overtaken by capitalist thinking? Education for many decades after the war was free but in recent years it has been replaced by fees certainly at the university level. Free education for adults has gone. Chunks of the NHS are being privatised. It was claimed that these services were being ‘contaminated’ by the profit motive.

Why do we have education (for the masses) at all it was asked? The answer, it was claimed, was because the industrial and commercial world needed people for its workforce. This was part of the answer it was true although the push for better education came sometime after the height of the industrial revolution. Increased concerns about superior education – particularly technical – in Germany and USA was also of concern to governments of the day. Another factor was the after-effects of the Great War and the depression. There was a wave of social welfare reforms after WWII with the creation of the health service following the Beveridge Report and the 1944 Butler Act (Education). While it was true there was a fear of civil disturbance by government, there was a number of research and other reports published concerned with how people could lead better lives and fulfil their potential. It did seem that there was a degree of idealism in those post war years.

The debate moved on following a challenge that the premise of the question implied that capitalism was a bad word. The problem was not that capitalism was bad per se but that it was focused on the profit motive. Money dictates what happens someone said. The problems arose if profit became the sole driving force. There was the neoliberalism belief that the private sector was superior to the public and this has led, in education, to the academy movement. It was the profit motive which made them superior it was claimed. The proposition was difficult to test however since few statistics or analyses were available. Academies did not have to follow the national curriculum so comparison was difficult. Nor did academies have to employ qualified teachers.

Britain’s education system was once admired around the world which was not the case today. Finland was mentioned as having an excellent and much-admired system. There were no private schools there and all teachers were highly qualified.

The problems of capitalism was highlighted by the privatisation of the water companies. Little investment had taken place and instead high dividends had been paid out. Rivers had become polluted by sewage discharges and vast quantities were poured into the sea. But, many of those self-same dividends went to pension funds etc so we all profited to an extent. Unfortunately, the activities of a few rogue enterprises tainted the whole sector – not all firms behaved like the water companies. There was a spectrum of companies from the ‘toxic’ to the ordinary firms.

It did seem to be agreed that something had been lost. The idealism of the post war years has been replaced by a focus on private firms and commercial interests whose pursuit of profit was not always for the benefit of the citizen. There was, in a sense, a link to the first debate and the influence corporations have in the parliamentary process. Private firms had been able to influence policy across a range of areas. People were becoming more and more concerned at the lack of progress on climate change and there was also considerable disquiet at the state the NHS was now in. Was the introduction of laws to inhibit and criminalise protest because government was beginning to realise that corporate led policies were no longer working nor popular? A debate for another time perhaps.

Peter Curbishley

Books of interest relevant to the discussion:

Taking Rights Seriously, Ronald Dworkin, 1997, Bloomsbury

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang, 2011, Penguin

NOTE 1. One of the proposed questions we did not debate was the claim that Pfizer did not test its Covid vaccine before release. This was apparently based on a European Commission hearing on 11 October involving the firm. The claim is misleading it appears and readers may like to read this report by Full Fact which explains the context.

NOTE 2. We may be changing venue in the future but our next meeting on 10 December will be in Brown Street at 10:00 as usual. Details in due course.