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 Café

This meeting (9 November 2019) took place a couple of days after the official start of the General Election campaign which will take place on 12 December 2019. Both topics chosen had a political feel to them – to be expected I suppose – and both were related.

The first topic was should we be able to delete social media history from when we were young? The concern was that rash or ill-considered comments made in someone’s youth could be dragged much late in life to embarrass them. This applies to political and other public figures of course and the point was made that the media was always on the lookout for such remarks. The main charge laid against someone in these cases was hypocrisy and some wondered whether this was said too quickly. Maynard Keynes is credited* with saying ‘when the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’

Someone observed that to change one’s mind shows you have one.

Much of the discussion focused on trust and how to establish it. Consistency was one aspect and being able to see what someone said in the past and compare it with today was a way. Deleting the past would frustrate that of course. Some examples were quoted of well known politicians arguing, before the Referendum, for a second one once details were known are now to be heard saying people knew full well what they were voting for. The question of course is where and when to draw it.  These were not statements made when they were young. 

It was noted that student debates were often on some nonsense subject so to hold someone to things they said then would perhaps be unreasonable. It was also said by several people that we all change our minds as we go through life, cannot politicians do the same? It would seem that time and distance in the past is the key here. If someone did change their mind, was it not justified to ask them why and to give a reason?

The debate moved on to freedom of speech issues and the issue of causing offence was discussed. There is arguably an increase in the number of instances where politicians and others are asked to apologise for ‘causing offence’ to a group, usually a minority one. There was a difference of opinion here with some thinking that causing offence was a real problem and can make minorities feel vulnerable or victimised. Sometimes this hate speech led to physical acts.

Another significant point made by several, was the importance of teaching children to question what they read and the information they receive. They should learn the important distinction between facts and opinions.


The second half of the session switched to the question ‘can a politician tell the truth today and expect to be elected?’ The election had started with some startling claims to spend vast sums on various parts of the economy. Could any politician stand up and say that this may be reckless or unaffordable and would in any event take many years to achieve (the promise of more GPs for example would take a decade)?  Was it possible for a prospective politician to say for example ‘our economy is weak, our debt is 80% of GDP, our productivity is poor and if we want a better NHS and more help for the elderly, we are going to have to pay for it with higher taxes.’  

It was pointed out straightaway that arguably there were a few who did(do) and Shirley Williams and Caroline Lucas were both mentioned.

The discussion moved quickly onto the life led by MPs now and in particular the role played by social media and the tech giants.  A number of MPs – particularly female MPs – were not standing again the main reason appeared to be the constant stream of death, rape and other violent threats they regularly receive.  The life of an ordinary MP was described at length in Elizabeth Hardman’s book Why we get the wrong politicians. She paints a fairly dismal picture of life in parliament and the expense and problems of getting there in the first place.  At the end of the book you get a good understanding of why we end up with such poor decision making, bad laws and poor governance.

Another key debating point was the nature of ‘fact’ and ‘truth’ and who decides? A lot of what politicians say is about what will happen in the future if they are elected into office. This is by its nature speculative. In this connection, a local MP can make all sorts of promises but they are promises about his or her party and over which they will have little say (unless they become a minister).

Needless to say the Referendum was mentioned and the point was made that our system was based on the concept of an MP being a representative. This had changed into them becoming delegates. So an MP who thought, prior to the referendum, that we should stay in the EU but his or her constituency voted to come out, what should they do? Were they honest to continue carrying out a policy which they believed to be wrong? Some thought they were not. Also, carrying on supporting a policy knowing that it could not be done was dishonest.

The role of the media was discussed and it was suggested that they often focused a lot on the future which, as we’ve said, is essentially speculative. It was here that we touched on the first debate because what politicians say they will do has to be looked at in terms of what they said they would do in the past and did they do it?

Was it the media’s duty to inform? Some would say yes but it was also noted that newspapers were about selling papers and they had to reflect to a large degree what their readers wanted. No doubt if there was a demand for facts then they would be provided. At least conventional media was subject to some kind of control and the laws of defamation. Social media platforms were outside anyone’s control and enabled people to say anything and say it anonymously. Which is where we came in and the role social media is having in the nation’s discourse…

No doubt we shall come back to this topic area in the future.  The next meeting was scheduled for 14th December but it may be too noisy to have a debate in the Playhouse.  We shall meet anyway and see.  

Peter Curbishley

*there are doubts whether JMK said this.

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.

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]

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.