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 It was questioned whether the planning application had been withdrawn.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.

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

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.

DSCF0831

Participants in the democracy café 

August meeting

Over 20 people attended a lively discussion at the August 2019 meeting of the Democracy Café in the Playhouse. Many familiar faces and some welcome new ones. We are delighted to see new people coming to these cafés which keeps us from becoming stale.

The topic chosen by vote for discussion was ‘has the Right commandeered the language of Brexit? How can we reframe the debate? This topic was put forward by someone who is reading George Lakeoff’s book one of which is ‘Don’t think of an elephant! know your values and frame the debate.’ Chelsea Green Publishing. Framing is crucial since it is difficult to change the course of any discussion if the agenda has been framed in a certain way. See a blog post from the Salisbury Compass site.

Recent examples were given. One was the notion that low taxes make us better off. A second is that when we leave the EU we shall be ‘free’. The right in our society have, it was claimed, commandered social media and have successfully promoted a number of soundbites. Some of the language is quite subtle, for example the change from ‘social security’ to ‘welfare’. The former was based on the notion that we all pay into a system which is there for us in time of need, whereas the second implies simple payouts. This language change was crucial in the post 2018 crash austerity period when there was a concerted attempt to cut ‘welfare’ and to (successfully) demonise those in receipt of payments as ‘scroungers and skivers’

In this context, it was noted that the £850bn (not £500bn as was said) bailout to the banks was not called ‘welfare’. It was given the name ‘quantitative easing’.

The importance of education and understanding what we read in the press was important. A book on how to read a newspaper is RW Jepson’s Clear Thinking: An Elementary Course of Preparation for Citizenship 1936. [1948 version]

As well as language – as in words – was the fact of presentation and how the politician puts it across. The example of Blair with his easy charm and broad smile was widely believed. Similarly with Boris Johnson with his blond hair and optimistic statements. These attributes were as important as the words used.

On the media, the fact that substantial parts are foreign owned is a factor it was claimed. The Daily Mail; Daily Telegraph; The Times and the Sun are among those papers owned overseas.

A big part of the debate was the fact that the Right seemed to be most successful in their use of the soundbite. They were able to encapsulate their ideas into short phrases which resonated with people. In the Brexit debate for example ‘freedom to make our own laws,’ ‘taking back control’ and ‘not being ruled by unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ are all examples of pithy and highly effective soundbites. Similar soundbites were mentioned during the post Reagan/Thatcher era in politics to sell the idea of free markets and small government. The question was raised: why has the Left failed to come up with its own short statements of what it stood for? ‘For the many, not the few’ was the only one anyone could think of. The tendency for longwinded explanations and factual rebuttals do not work. Back to Lakeoff and his argument that facts do not persuade, going for emotional appeal does. Which raised the question, how do you counter lies without lying yourself? People promoting Brexit had been much more successful in pressing emotional triggers, immigration for example.

This led to a discussion on the need for a debate which focused on nurture rather than competition.

Walter Lippmann’s ‘bewildered herd’ or ‘bewildered masses’ was mentioned and did rather sum up our debate quite well:

Bewildered herd is the masses that are tamed through propaganda and mass media in order that the machinery of democracy is kept properly oiled.

The bewildered masses must be subdued, tamed and injected with the popular opinion of the upper class of politicians, leaders of corporations and others belonging to the elite class of intellectuals and wealthy in order to govern a nation and circumvent any defect in democracy.

The single function of the bewildered masses is to be spectators, not participants, in the democratic nation.

Urban Dictionary

Finally, the Full Facts website was mentioned and asked for it to be linked to this discussion.

Part two was a discussion around ‘is liberalism dead?’ The debate started with someone who had heard a radio programme in which it was revealed that among the 18 – 34 age group, 20% would not vote. However, this did imply that 80% would which is higher than the current level of voter participation in most elections. Perhaps too many choices was a problem it was suggested. Climate change had generated considerable interest and activity among the younger generation and Extinction Rebellion was mentioned.

Was activism stronger in the ’60s say? It certainly seemed to be a time of protest and there was arguably a sense of utopianism. The NUS was strong. Now this seemed to be gone, perhaps a victim of the Brexit saga and people feeling drained. It was also noted that life was easier for young people then with no student fees to pay.

It was noted that social liberalism was quite strong, the acceptance of seat belts and crash helmets wa instanced so maybe there was a need for a more nuanced approach.

There did seem to be a desire for strong leaders to solve their problems. So it was not a question of being anti-liberalism, more a case of looking for competent leadership. The idea a ‘nuture’ surfaced again rather than looking always for a dominant figure. Dictators start with benign intentions but always end up by being totalitarian. Some said we should worry about any dictator claiming ‘I will save the world.’

The idea was put forward of ‘freedom under licence’ ie within the law. But this raised the question of which freedoms and who decides? It also gives the impression of freedoms being granted by the powerful rather than being more fundamental. It is surprising that no one mentioned the UN Declaration or the Human Rights Act in this connection.

The debate got onto the political system and capture by the corporate elites. Millions spent on lobbying and the revolving door corruption was mentioned.

Two interesting debates without any clear conclusions but a lot of useful points made.

 

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.