Virtual Democracy Café

On Saturday 27 June 2020, a small group of us had a go at a virtual democracy café courtesy of Skype. Not altogether successful because of technical issues and the occasional drop out. Nevertheless, we did manage a discussion of various topics and it was good to meet up during this time of forced isolation.

The conversation started with the future of Salisbury and in particular the ill-fated library scheme. It was always a scheme which looked particularly precarious before the current Covid-19 problems with retail. The idea of shifting the library away from its current central position was not widely popular. Converting the tunnel into an arcade of shops also seemed a dubious proposition. The decline in retail activity during the forced lockdown was probably the final kiss of death for the scheme although the Salisbury Journal reported that it had been paused. In the last few days, Wiltshire Council is one of the authorities which are effectively bankrupt if they were a commercial concern. It was questioned whether the planning application had been withdrawn.

We spent a little time discussing the TV programme on the Salisbury poisonings which were mostly thought to be a good piece of drama. One of the scenes showed an angry meeting of residents and the person who was at the meeting said this was not how it was. There were angry questions but this was not the general tone of the meeting. Well, that’s drama I suppose.

We got onto discussing the future of Salisbury and it was suggested that it was an opportunity to rethink the city and how it will be in the future. Climate was one consideration and would the City take the opportunity to make it more green and do things like pedestrianisation and making it more people friendly?

Against this was the increasing use of cars with people less inclined to use public transport. People have also got used to on-line shopping in a big way and some may not wish to go back to physically visiting the city. More were working from home and this trend was going to increase as will more automation of work.

The effects of pandemics in history on politics was discussed. It sometimes had the effect of forcing political change: shortage of manpower after the plagues for example improved wages for the poorest if only because there were fewer of them. But, it was noted, inequality increased post the 2008 crash so disasters did not always result in improvements. It was noted that the [Overton?] window had moved a little in terms of things like government expenditure. The government had borrowed heavily during the crisis, a policy inconceivable in the recent past. The current government was committed to ‘balancing the books’ and it was likely that the ‘book balancers’ would emerge at some time in the not too distant future, indeed, George Osborne was busy opining to this effect on BBC’s Start the Week recently.

We hope to repeat this next month on 11 July but which medium we will use is currently being looked at. Those on the email list will receive an invitation to join so we hope to see some more people then if you care to join in.

Peter Curbishley

Democracy Café, February 2020

The February 2020 Democracy Cafe saw discussion of two topics:

1. Can we trust things that come out of China?

The latest thing to come out of China is of course the coronavirus and it was this that was discussed first. Given levels of secrecy in China, are we getting the full picture of the seriousness of the situation? Reports seem to suggest that the Government is being more open about the spread of the virus and is taking serious measures to try to contain it.  It was suggested that this was perhaps due to concerns from the Chinese Government that if they don’t deal with the situation it may present a threat to their authority.  This is the view of Richard McGregor writing in the Observer this week. The coronavirus, along with the protests in Hong Kong, may be seen as undermining the authority of the ruling party.

There was discussion of trust in relation to Chinese trade and their economic strategy.  It was suggested that historically the Chinese have expanded their political influence through trade, rather than through military endeavours.  Are we seeing this today in Africa and South America, where Chinese economic expansion is extensive? Does the way that the economic expansion is carried out amount to exploitation, or are there mutual benefits for the countries concerned?  It was generally agreed that the goods that China is exporting are now more trustworthy than they used to be because they are higher quality.  They used to be known as ‘junk’ and tat but know we routinely buy high tech goods from China.  It was suggested that the Chinese economic strategy of government intervention to improve living standards and reduce absolute poverty has been successful in building the trust of Chinese people in their Government but the slowing of economic growth may represent a threat to the consent that they have been given.

It was suggested that whilst discussing this topic we might need to be mindful of how our perceptions of China are shaped by our own media and by opinions coming out of the USA.  Trump’s trade war with China has generated a rhetoric of mistrust, as has the discussion over Huawei.  It was pointed out that trust in governments and the operation of states is an issue in other countries as well, including our own and the US.  Examples were given of how authorities in the UK and the US routinely track transatlantic messages.  It was suggested that “information is the new oil” in terms of its’ value.  The Chinese authorities recognise this value and exert control over social media.

Trust is an issue for China over its’ treatment of minorities and reference was made to the Uighur people and the appalling way that they are being treated.  Perhaps there is a need to take the Chinese authorities to the International Court over this issue, but which country would be bold enough to do so?  Is it a case that the Chinese regard this as their century and are willing to override the wishes of others in order to become the dominant world power?  This lead to a more general discussion about when do we reach a point that the actions of the state are so bad that we stop trading with them bearing in mind that multinational corporations are so influential.

One thing is for sure, China’s behaviour will continue to be a major talking point in the coming decades.

2. Is positive discrimination a help or a hindrance?

The assertion was made that if someone is appointed to a post due to positive discrimination and they perform badly this reflects negatively on the process of positive discrimination.  Some comments were made suggesting that the best person for the job should be hired and reference to various strategies, such as the anonymising of applications, was made as a way of reducing negative discrimination in the recruitment process.  It was pointed out that appointing the best person for the job often meant appointing someone who fitted in with the predominant culture in the work place and not “rocking the boat” which would preserve the dominance of white middle class male culture.  It was suggested that there will often be more than one candidate who seems suitable and in those circumstances it may be sensible to positively discriminate in favour of a member of a minority group.

The discussion moved on to the importance of creating a more level playing field through a more equitable education system and by raising the aspirations of members of minority groups so that they are more likely to apply for high powered jobs.  Reference was made to the predominance of private school alumni in positions of power.

It was mentioned that there are an increasing number of women heads of state around the world, examples being Finland and New Zealand and Angela Merkel in Germany.  It was noted however, that even when a woman is the head of state they do not necessarily advance the cause of women, as with Margaret Thatcher who did not appoint a single woman to her Cabinet.   

Our next session is on Saturday 14th March at 10am at Salisbury Playhouse. This will not be the same as our usual Democracy Cafe. Instead it will be a TalkShop activity on how we in Salisbury can tackle the climate emergency.

Talkshop event

Talkshop climate event planned

We are planning – on Saturday 14 March – to hold an event called a ‘Talkshop‘. This will focus on what the City might be able to do the mitigate climate change.  Some of you may recall that we were hoping to run Citizen’s Assembly but we were unable to secure funding for what would have been a much more expensive event.

Talkshop is a much shorter exercise and involves people, in groups, looking at various ideas to help reduce global warming in the City.  There are suggested ideas which will be issued on the day but you are free to suggest your own of course.  To give you a taste of the ideas, one is from Todmorden called ‘Incredible Edible’ and where a handful of people starting growing food to share and there are now 70 sites around the town.  Oxford has set up Climate Cafés to enable people to drop in and chat about how to improve the climate.  Successful apparently. 

This is in place of the normal Democracy Café which would have happened on that day but otherwise, the time, 10:00 am and the place, the Playhouse are the same.  It is free.

We are hoping for a good turnout but it is just possible we will have too many in which case you will be invited to stay as an observer.  If you do decide to come, please be prompt!  It is run to a tight timetable and latecomers will find it difficult to catch up.  


Don’t forget it’s the normal Democracy Café tomorrow, Saturday 9th February 2020 at 10:00

 

 

Democracy Café, January 2020

Two topics engendered a lively interchange of views: the assassination of Qassem Suleimani by an American drone was an obvious topic and in the second half we discussed why there was so little debate about the rising levels of inequality.

A lot of the early debate was about whether it was legal under international law. Article 51 of the UN Charter was referred to which is:

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

Legal UN Repertory

The point was made by several that this was not the first assassination, either recently or in history. Russia has often assassinated individuals (as we know only too well in Salisbury*) and as far as the near east is concerned, President Obama authorised a number assassinations by drone in the area. The issue with the USA someone said is that no state was above them. They chose whether to follow the UN or not according to their own perceived interests. This could only change if the veto system was done away with.

A significant area of debate was around the certainty or otherwise of outcomes. By assassinating Suleimani what did it solve? The outcome, especially in such a volatile region, was unpredictable. A replacement would quickly be found and whoever it was could even be worse. It rather assumed that problems were present in one person and so by removing them from the scene, the problems were solved: a dubious proposition. It was about culture not an individual.

The Near East has been a volatile region since oil was discovered in what was then called Persia and protecting the supply was a key component of British foreign policy in the last century.  It was suggested with the gradual lessening of western dependence on oil, its crucial role as energy supplier will diminish.  

Several people made the point that it was another example of the retreat from the attempt to establish a rules based way for countries to deal with one another established after the terrible events of WWII.  The Second Gulf War, the invasion of Ukraine, the attempted murder of Skripal here in Salisbury and now this assassination, all seemed to point to states feeling they were free to act in their own interests and ignore the UN.  

The fundamental question posed was: was it ever right for states to act this way for the greater good?  This prompted the question: would it have been right for Hitler to have been assassinated assuming it was possible?  [There was indeed a plan to do this but it failed.  There was the ‘July plot’ by German generals which also failed].  What in fact was President Trump’s motives for this attack?  Was it to distract from the impeachment enquiry or to bolster his re-election chances?  We cannot know of course. 

There was also a debate about consequentialism.  Since we do not know the future then we need to act on the moral case of the moment.  

It is probably true to say that the majority were concerned at the latest attempt to side step international justice and simply as though might is right.  The decline in the post war attempts at a rules and treaty based approach – not just with the Iranian assassination but more generally – was also lamented.  

Part 2: inequality 

This was about the increasing level of inequality in the UK and the question posed was why has it not made more of an impact politically?  It had not made the impact that climate change has done for example.  It has been a long term policy of the Left but it was felt that Brexit had overwhelmed the recent election debate and matters like inequality faded from view. 

The point was made that wealth was not the same as income.  Income inequality was not in fact increasing someone said whereas wealth inequality was.  Was it off the agenda?  It was part of the policies of various parties, the Greens, LibDems and Labour but not for the Conservatives.  Maybe it was another problem linked to the voting system.  

How was the ‘agenda’ set anyway and was it another example of the media driving things?  The majority of papers for example were owned by wealthy oligarchs.  Although the word itself was questioned the point was that the wealthy were able to set the agenda via their influence. 

The point was made that not all such people were bad and some did good things with their money.  Although this was true in some cases – and the example of Bill Gates and his foundation’s work in tackling malaria was a case in point – the fact remained that fewer and fewer owned the world’s wealth with half now owned by people who can sit on a double decker bus.  Much of this wealth sat in tax havens.

To become wealthy you had to own assets, you could not become wealthy by being an employee although there were some City traders who might disprove that rule. 

The question was raised about the distinction between wealth extraction and wealth creation – were they in fact distinct?  A point to be debated in future perhaps.  

The debate moved on to discuss value extraction and the case of someone who secured a forestry contract for example and sub-contracted the work to someone else who was paid a fixed amount.  Economists might talk about ‘rent’ in these cases but was there equity in the arrangement seemed to be the crucial question.  Some thought yes, and some thought no.  But the issue of risk never surfaced in the discussion since the contractor would be paid in most cases whereas the main contractor took the ultimate risk if things went wrong.  The point was that value was a collective enterprise and the current system did not really reflect that.  

Land ownership in Scotland was instanced as being a live issue and very political largely for historic reasons.  It was an example of the form of wealth inequality.  

Perhaps because this is such a multi-faceted subject we did not come to any firm conclusions and we did not really understand why this topic has so little salience in the political sphere.  

Peter Curbishley

*For those interested in the attempted assassination allegedly by Russian agents, Mark Urban’s book The Skripal Files, Pan Books, 2018, is an excellent read.

 

 

Interesting article published by the chair of Salisbury Democracy Alliance

Mark Potts, who is the chair of SDA, has published an article in the Educational Journal of Living Theories and it discusses his motivation for taking part in the formation of SDA and the Democracy Cafés which have been running successfully now for over two years.

He discusses the divisions following the Referendum and the need for a change in culture and behaviour if we are to see an improvement in political engagement. It is an interesting read and the article can be accessed from this link.

The next Democracy café is this Saturday 11th January 2020 starting at 10:00 as usual and lasts 2 hours. It is free to attend but if you feel able to contribute to our expenses that would be appreciated.

Democracy Café, December meeting

The December 2019 meeting took place a day after the emphatic win by the Conservatives in the General Election. Boris Johnson was returned with an increased majority of 80. The Labour party is now engaged in what will be an extended period of soul searching and will in a few months, elect a new leader. The LibDem leader lost her seat and although they increased their vote this was not rewarded with any additional seats

It was not surprising therefore when the various suggested topics all centred around the state of politics today. There seems little doubt that the main issue in the election was the seemingly never ending saga of Brexit. Boris Johnson had stuck to his key theme of ‘Get Brexit done!’ and this clearly had resonated with the public many of whom are fed up with the whole issue and want it all over.

The discussion about what happened ranged quite widely. What was the meaning of traditional Labour supporting areas in the north voting for the Conservatives? Many of the traditional jobs in large areas of the north have gone and with it those ideas of collectivism and solidarity. ‘Thatcher’s children’ were now the norm. Many have forgotten the battles of the past such as the Jarrow march it was noted. The achievements of trade unions have also been forgotten.

What do people mean by ‘socialism’ now? Was it some combination of public ownership and controls on capitalism? Someone argued for the complete absence of private capital. People wanted capitalism but with limits and were happy overall with a mixed economy.

Mention of a more equal press drew the only applause of the meeting. It seems undeniable that, although fewer and fewer read a newspaper, the relentless bias of the right wing press did have some kind of effect.

The discussion had focused thus far on the problems experienced by Labour and where they might go in the future to recover. The point was made on the other hand that the Conservatives had their own ideological problems. Their beliefs – dating back to the Thatcher era – were based on small government, low taxes, private enterprise, deregulation, competition and free trade. The effects of these policies were increasingly becoming clear. They have been acutely experienced by the ‘left behind’. To reverse these problems, to retain what Boris Johnson called the ‘borrowed votes in the north, and to rectify a decade of cuts to health, schools and to infrastructure generally, was going to require significant reversal of policy. All this while the next stage of Brexit was in full swing. Will the Conservatives be able to carry out such a change in their core ideology?

Individualism seemed to be a thing which counts now. Many of the public who are interviewed seem only concerned with their own situation not on wider issues. The ‘aspiration of the individual’ is what counts someone said. Or was it to be a member of a fairer society? Did people understand the difference between capitalism and socialism in any event?

Inevitably, we got onto personality. It seems that neither of the party leaders was liked nor trusted. At the Salisbury hustings for example, people laughed at John Glen when he referred to trust in Boris Johnson. Studio audiences also laughed when trust was mentioned in the same sentence as his name. Corbyn was widely disliked and distrusted on a wide number of issues. So is the result of this election a one-off and a result of people’s attitudes to these two men?

An argument developed about immigration – one of the prime political concerns today and one that crops up on the doorstep. Indeed, at the last Salisbury for Europe street event, there were two people with strong and fierce anti immigrant views. The difficulty it was stressed was the difference between genuine concerns about the scale and impact on the one hand and prejudice on the other. ‘White working class people look out of their door and see something completely different’ it was said. It was regrettable that words like ‘swamp’ and ‘flood’ were used however. The point that without immigrants, the health service could no operate, food would not be prepared and vegetables left unpicked was not made. The problem has a long history it was noted, Enoch Powell for example.

We continued along similar lines after a break and the discussion moved on the nature of the current system – a familiar topic for the cafe. Salisbury is a safe Tory seat which means that someone could live a lifetime in the City and not ever be represented. That an MP represents all the constituents cut little ice.

One theme was how well can the public understand the complexity of government? This brought up the issue of the Referendum: do MP’s go with what they believe or what the voters told them? This was the difference between an MP being a delegate or a representative. Large parts of the public seem to want the former.

Proportional representation has its own problems and can lead to a small party wielding disproportionate power. The DUP is a recent example. Now that Johnson has a big majority, he will safely ignore them. But in a sense that illustrates the basic problem: one minute the DUP is influential, a day later, they can be ignored. Whatever one thinks of the DUP – and few this side of the Irish Sea will think favourably of them – how representative and balanced is this system of voting. For three years, the ERG has wielded enormous power and influence over government policy. Now, a day later, they can be largely sidelined.

The point was made that democracy is about the ability to challenge the government and Gina Miller was instanced. It was about the right to speak. So in a sense, no votes were wasted as it showed the depth of feeling about a subject.

Conclusion

No definite conclusion but a widespread feeling that things are not right. The damaging effect of a foreign owned right wing press and its influence on voting was expressed. First past the post might, on occasion, produce a strong government which its supporters claim, but it more usually ends up with marginal government and does not represent actual voting. In Salisbury, some felt that they are never represented nor ever can be.

Peter Curbishley

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]

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!

First Democracy Café in Bemerton Heath

SIX people – including the new Deputy Mayor of Salisbury, Cllr Caroline Corbin – joined a Salisbury Democracy Alliance facilitator for the first Bemerton Heath Democracy Café.

The topics for discussion were chosen by the participants and the first question was: Should we have an unelected leader to deal with climate change? The under-lying assumption here was that our democratic system is unable to cope with the pressing threat that climate change poses to the planet.

One of the problems was how you would choose such a dictator? And if it is true that, as the 19th century politician Lord Acton claimed ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely’, how would you ensure that they would serve the country rather than themselves?

After the break the participants chose a topic relating to the extent to which social provision should be provided by the State or charity, which raised several interesting points including the possibility that what is really missing, in the West at least, was a sense of community.

The next democracy café will be held on Saturday 6 July at St Michael’s Community Centre between 10am and 12noon.

Democracy Café

Brief report of the Café which took place on 13 April 2019

Salisbury Democracy Café on Saturday 13 April was packed with new participants as well as many who come every month.

The first question posed was: Are human rights absolute or relative? That generated a fascinating deliberation that touched on the wider question of the nature of ethics in general.

Arguments ranged from those who believed that human rights had to be absolute and unchanging to participants who claimed that because ethical mores shifted over the centuries human rights had to be relative as well.

The idea that moral laws are out there waiting for us to be discovered has a long and distinguished philosophical history, but questions were raised about how they got there in the first place. Divine action was one possible answer but if that failed then one has to ask why a non-divine, materialistic world would begin with immaterial ethical codes waiting for us to discover them. Nevertheless, proponents of absolute human rights were concerned that if they were not absolute, how could they be protected from arbitrary alteration by the rich and powerful?

However, the dialogue took an interesting turn when it was suggested that the use of the words ‘absolute’ and ‘relative’ did not accurately reflect the nature of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not necessarily make claim to the absolute but nor are they quite openly relative. Universal simply means that they apply to everyone and the declaration crystalizes them in a way that prevents easy manipulation while allowing justified changes. A point was made about a phenomenon known as Conquest by Declaration in the same way that Google declared, without challenge, that it had the right to plunder our experiences for its own enrichment. It was also pointed out that it was possible to define certain moral positions, like altruism, in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, making them objective but neither absolute nor universal.

It was an intriguing dialogue, which got us all thinking about things and asking ourselves more questions in a way the democracy café has unique ability to do.

The second question was: Should Julian Assange by extradited to the USA following his forcible removal from the Ecuadorian Embassy? This was a much more confined deliberation, although it did raise questions about the fairness of the justice systems in the UK and the USA. Nobody challenged the justification of extradition in general but concerns were raised about whether or not Assange would get a fair trial in the USA.

Once again the participants in the democracy café proved their ability and willingness to tackle difficult questions in what has become an ‘oasis of reasonableness in a desert of rising intolerance and polarization’.

Dickie Bellringer

We want to have pop-up cafés in other part of the city in order to give as many people as possible the chance to experience deliberative democracy – so if you know of an organisation that would be open to this please let us know.

The aim of the new Salisbury Democracy Alliance – which is advised by Prof Graham Smith and backed by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), Wessex Community Action, deliberative democracy experts Talk Shop and Salisbury Democracy Café – is to create Salisbury’s first Citizens’ Assembly. ocked0