Democracy Café, January 2023

The first café of 2023 was held in our new venue – the Progress Café in Endless Street, Salisbury. Mark, the chair of Salisbury Democracy Alliance, welcomed everyone and explained that the Café was part of SDA’s activities which was to promote deliberative democracy, an issue which surfaced coincidentally in the second topic we discussed.

The first topic which won the vote was about the conflict in Ukraine and how people thought it might end. The proposer of the topic quoted an article in the Global Policy Journal. The background to the conflict it was suggested is that the US wanted to draw Russia into a war in Ukraine which would drain it of resources over time and weaken the perceived intention of Putin to recreate the Russian empire, thus reducing its chances of becoming the dominant force in Asia. The US was also worried by the Russia/China link.

Similarities were drawn with the war in Afghanistan where America and other western countries supplied weapons and military equipment sufficient to keep Russia bogged down there for years. The point was made that these wars are often testing grounds for equipment to see how well they perform on the battlefield. In Afghanistan, the Stinger missile was a crucial weapon which destroyed many Russian helicopters.

The Ukraine war produced two surprises: first the tenacity of Ukrainian resistance and secondly, the weakness of the Russian military. It had been assumed that Russia’s military might would enable it to sweep through the country but the opposite had happened and its gains were limited. Although their army was strong in numbers, it was a conscript army and had weak NCO leadership.

A key point was the actions of the West in the post Gorbachev era. It was suggested that Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan both failed to respond to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Instead of developing something like the Marshall Plan, it gradually expanded NATO eastwards, taking in more and more members, up to the border with Russia. In other words, the invasion was a kind of reaction to this eastward push by NATO.

Another point was that Putin saw how the US and other NATO countries abandoned Afghanistan in some haste. They also failed to respond to Russia’s original invasion of Crimea and were largely mute with its support for the brutal campaign by Assad in Syria. They are likely to have concluded that the West were unlikely to do much if a full-scale invasion of Ukraine was undertaken. In this connection, we were reminded that the Crimean Oblast was handed over to Ukraine in 1954 by Khrushchev.

How will it end? One suggestion was that the voice of the people (by which it is assumed the Russian people) must be heard. How? was the question in a state where opposition is not allowed and the media was tightly controlled. How long the western public will put up with the expenditure in view of other well-known pressures on the public purse at present? Will anyone be held to account for the war crimes?

A theme, which was a kind of leitmotiv to the discussion, was that the media tended to underplay the role and responsibility the US has had in the current war. The deliberate confrontation with Russia particularly with the eastward push of NATO, and the desire to weaken the state and to depose Putin and the policy of giving just enough weaponry to the Ukrainians but not (it is alleged) sufficient for them to win it are all aspects of note. This is not to downplay or excuse Russia’s actions nor the war crimes which it is alleged they have committed.

The second half discussion was on the suitability of our MPs and how they are selected. It would be fair to say that variations of this topic have been debated over the years reflecting, perhaps, the disquiet over poor decision making and some disastrous policy mistakes. The introducer gave a tour d’horizon of the problems as he saw it. He gave examples including the Iraq invasion and gambling legislation by Blair; the referendum by Cameron and more recently Johnson and Truss. In his view, MPs should be properly paid, truly independent and provide evidence and reasons for their policies and decisions. He also suggested their should be regional assemblies although he was reminded there were proposals to introduce these around 15 years ago and the legislation was never proceeded with.

Some suggested that PR was a way forward as this might help smaller or newer parties gain seats. We were reminded that UKIP secured nearly 4 million votes in 2015 but gained not a single seat. Not everyone was convinced by PR however claiming that it risked have candidates who were party hacks and it might prevent independents getting elected.

One problem was that MPs were expected to be all things to all men. One minute they were in their surgery dealing with a constituent worried about a pot hole outside their house, and the next expected to deal with affairs of state.

On the question of pay, the issue of second jobs was mentioned. Some MPs have significant commitments, and sizeable earnings, from this activity and this raises the question, where do their loyalties lie (and when do they get the time to do the job they are elected to do?)? Linked was the question – some might say scandal – of lobbying which was on a huge scale. Isabel Hardman’s book ‘Why we get the wrong politicians‘ which painted a fairly grim picture of life as an MP.

The legal system was mentioned and the jury system where a group was selected more or less at random, to hear a case and decide on guilt or otherwise. Could this not be a model for politics? We were reminded that one of the objectives of SDA is just such an idea – a citizens’ jury. This would review a problem in detail, using experts as necessary, and recommend a course of action. We had tried to introduce this idea with WC and Salisbury City Council, so far without success.

One telling point was made however. We can talk about selection of MPs; lobbying; second jobs, and the poor quality of so many MPs, but the fact remains that it is we who select them at election time. Do we not get the MPs we deserve? How do we encourage the electorate to vote for the right person, although as Hardman points out, we are all too often presented with a candidate already selected by the local party?

We were reminded of Walter Lippman and his phrase ‘the Bewildered Herd’. Lippman had a low opinion of democracy and assumed many people were too disengaged to understand the complexity, made worse by poor journalism.

Peter Curbishley

Books mentioned:

Why we get the wrong politicians, Isabel Hardman, 2019, Atlantic Books.

Putin’s People: how the KGB took back Russia and then took on the West, 2020, Catherine Belton, William Collins.

Mistakes were made but not by me, 2007, Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson, Harcourt.