Is Britain A Democracy?

The accepted wisdom seems to tell us that it is, but is it?  The British system when examined closely is a strange one; firstly, we have a monarch and we are reminded of this constantly along with the counterpoint, ‘but she doesn’t have any power really’.  This isn’t actually true.

The British system is unusual because it is steeped in vested interests of medieval origin.   In many ways this is the result of not being invaded since 1066.  Since that time, the rest of Europe was often in turmoil, needing standing armies to police their borders, whereas Britain concentrated on becoming a naval power.  As the great historian A.J.P. Taylor said, “The great armies, accumulated to provide security and preserve the peace, carried the nations to war by their own weight.”  Times of upheaval lead to sweeping changes in the way countries are governed, and there was never a comparable crisis in Britain, hence little political change.  Frighteningly little, in fact.  The upside of this is that we have didn’t fall prey to the extreme politics of the first half of the 20th century, but the flipside has been inertia and stultifying inequality.

Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary says about democracy:

  • a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives: a system of parliamentary democracy
  • [count noun] a state governed under a system of democracy: a multiparty democracy
  • control of an organization or group by the majority of its members: the intended extension of industrial democracy
  • the practice or principles of social equality: demands for greater democracy

So, let us examine this definition.  At first glance Britain seems to be a democracy, because all of us who over-18 have the right to vote (my personal view is that the age should be lowered to 16, by the way).  However, if that is the case why do so few bother to exercise it (only 65.1% in 2010).  Ask people why they don’t vote and the answer is usually “They’re all the same…”  It’s all too easy to dismiss such a comment as apathy or political illiteracy, but the issue is more complicated and in many ways it is elitist to disregard such an opinion – it is better to learn from it.   Are the people in Parliament truly representative of the populace?  Only 7% of children in the UK are privately educated, whereas 35% of British MPs are from private education (20% of whom are ex-Etonians).  Does this qualify them to be our ‘representatives’.  If they aren’t, how easy would it be to find more suitable candidates?  The answer is that it should be more easy than it currently is.

I have a real problem with privately funded education and don’t believe any good can come from it.  It creates inequality and ensures that our society remains divided by class; no child is deserving of a better education than another’s child.  This is an example of the class-system at its lowest common dominator and I will listen to no attempt to defend it.

I have always voted, but can understand the concerns of those who don’t.  They echo some of my own concerns.  What I see in parliament are a political class with even fewer exceptions than ever before.  This is demonstrated by the increasing tendency for politicians to overlook the simple fact that the vast majority of people simply want to earn a decent standard of living and bring their children up in a safe and secure environment.  This may not be an ambitious aim by a politicians standards but it is certainly a valid one, and the fact that MPs seem to hold it in such little regard demonstrates how out of touch they are.

How many of you are tired of hearing politicians talking about the electorate in such a disparaging way; the undeserving poor, the underclass, scroungers, under-skilled, uneducated, etc?  It is disgraceful and indicative of the way our democracy is utterly backwards.  If YOU can’t find employment than THEY are to blame, NOT YOU, and THEY should be held to account.  If Britain is supposed to be a democracy, that’s the way it should work.

The Cult of Leadership

ImageAll over the political spectrum there is an obsession with leadership; how do you define it and what are ‘leadership qualities’?  I personally think that there is a more important question; what value does leadership really have? The value of ‘leadership qualities’ are rarely questioned.  We’ve all attended many a meeting and discussion where people have spent hours informing us of the merits of leadership without really pointing out the inherent flaws and resultant dangers, not least to the psyche of those bestowed with leadership qualities. If one takes even a cursory glance at history, leaders can be trouble.  They are human- beings with flaws and quirks which become amplified through the prism of their position.  Every single one of them falls prey to hubris, it’s only a matter of when.  Furthermore, people are all-too willing to overlook their favourite leaders’ flaws, particularly when that leader is reflective of their own ideology and romanticised history.  John F. Kennedy is a prime example of this; a man who certainly started one war (Vietnam – okay he did inherit the problem) and almost lead his country into another (this time nuclear) but is still regarded as a great President. So called leadership qualities are nearly always defined as stereotypically masculine and extrovert.  The problem with these qualities is they don’t play well with others, are resistant to criticism and the opinions of others.  An example of how rigid our definition of leadership is the emphasise on ‘strong leaders’ (Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair) who ‘make tough decisions’ and ‘won’t give into pressure’, whereas more collegiate leaders (John Major, Gordon Brown) are criticised throughout their office for being ‘indecisive’ and not reacting quickly enough. Our emphasis on leaders is also distracting.  It is one of the primary reasons why our politics are so personality based and reflective of consumer culture.  Personality politics skews the issues and has nothing to do with policy at all; it is one of the reasons why politicians get away with breaking electoral promises and having no experience of real life.  Politicians are now ciphers; every gesture they make, opinion they spout has been learned in leadership training. Isn’t it about time that we realised that leadership is an unhealthy way of doing things?  Not only for us but those we elect as leaders.  I propose that we look for another solution – why don’t we govern ourselves?  Could we do a worse job?

Politics & Religion – A Dangerous Combination

Frank Field MP

Religion ought to be a personal matter, a matter of choice, and although many religions have a lot of commonalities, they also clash on a number of issues.  In the twenty-first century, we are a comparatively liberal society, but it has taken a great deal of work, and much bloodletting, to get us to this point.

I must declare at this juncture that as an atheist I don’t have a religion, but respect people’s right to choose their own faith.  I believe that in a tolerant society that is the way it should be.

Despite having the so-called ‘Spirit Lords’ in the House of Lords, our parliament is, by and large, secular and certainly our laws purport to be.  However, every now and then, religion creeps into the debate.

This is happening at this very moment.  Once again, women’s right to choose to have an abortion is being called into question.  This time it is being rebranded as a “Health Bill”, as women’s “Right to Know”.  Implicit in the proposed Bill, is the accusation that Marie Stopes and similar organisations have counsellors who “promote abortion” to pregnant women and that counselling should be provided by “independent” bodies.  The Guardian has a number of theories about who these “independent” bodies would be.

The two main protagonists behind this latest attempt to change the Abortion Act are the increasingly notorious Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and that well-known ray-of-sunshine, Labour MP Frank Field.  Both of these MPs would probably deny their religious views are behind the Bill but they seem to have taken a great deal of inspiration from the conservative and Christian movement of the USA in the way the Bill has been worded and presented to the House.  Furthermore, some months ago David Cameron already hinted that he would support lowering the legal-limit of the time-period of abortions (there was actually discussion of this during the last Labour government).  Thus, it looks like this time the fundamentalists might win.

Nadine Dorries MP

Am I wrong to think that religion has no place in politics or law-making?  Reason and the facts alone should decide how we are governed, not the chosen faith of individual MPs.  Abortion is a complicated issue and those who seek to simplify it on the basis of what the bible (or other religious text) says, are undermining advances society has made through intellect and tolerance of others.  Because that is as that the root of all of this – not the debate about when ‘life’ starts, nor the state of mind of women after having an abortion.  Marie Stopes and similar charities/non-profit-making organisations acknowledge all of those issues.  This Bill is about people who believe that they have access to some essential “truth” that only they, and others who share their belief, have.

For a woman to have an abortion, it is a hard and drastic decision; something that should be HER decision and not anybody else’s.  Putting more barriers in the way is cruel and inexcusable – no matter how holy the MPs responsible feel they are.

You Don’t Need No Education

I had the privilege of attending university as a mature student, prior to that much of my education came via my own huge appetite for books.  There was much attention paid by the previous Labour government directed at encouraging more people to attend university – famously the aim was 50% – and to a large extent the party achieved a great deal through that policy.  Certainly many more people attended universities from a far wider variety of backgrounds than ever before. 

I personally know many graduates whose families are proud of their achievements.   Many were the first of their families to have attended a university let alone graduate from one.  Such achievements set precedents in a person’s family which lead to ever greater educational achievement.  One graduate in a family can encourage others to take the plunge, since it proves that educational attainment is possible despite a sometimes poor experience in education at the beginning of one’s life.

It can sometime hard for people from a more advantaged background to appreciate the importance of this, since educational achievement is often taken for granted.  Neither my mother or my father went onto further education, let alone higher education, they simply didn’t have the opportunity.  My mother was offered a place at highly esteemed local institution (Mabel Fletcher’s) but was unable to take it, whilst my father, despite being highly intelligent also, failed his eleven-plus, despite being entered for it from the age of eight-years-old.  Both were sent out to work by their families as soon as they were old enough – their families simply couldn’t afford delaying it.  My father went onto take an apprenticeship in maintenance engineering and became a highly skilled engineer.

In education there has been a lot of debate over the past twenty-years (or more) about the UK skills shortage.  The most famous influential report to address this was Leitch’s.  In that he identified that the UK has a staggering problem with illiteracy and innumeracy, and stressed that the UK must focus on creating ‘World Class Skills’ in the UK.  Leitch emphasised that in order for the UK to be competitive people should be ‘up-skilled’ to attain a target of Level 2 (GCSE) skills.  At the time, Leitch’s report was welcomed by the Labour government who then went onto to introduce many (some would say way too many) initiatives to enable this to happen.  Peter Mandelson much later headed an initiative to reach on Level 3 targets.

The operative word in all of this was of course was targets.  The consequence of an emphasis on targets is that it creates an artificial approach to teaching and learning, since sometimes the very activity of learning is unquantifiable.  Educators and students understand this but bureaucrats don’t.

Of course, the new Conservative government, like all Conservative governments before them make a great deal of noise about being very anti-bureaucracy.  The problem of course is that they are also very anti-education, at least for ordinary people and marginalised groups.  Much as the Labour government was way too over-keen on paper-work, at least there was a well-meaning intent present in their education policy.

My worry regarding education in the near future is the cuts.  The Conservatives talk about wanting to make the UK competitive but fail to understand that in order to be competitive the people of the UK need to be skilled.  Education begins at school and if investment is taken away from schools this makes the UK less competitive.  Governmental removal of financial help from community education (often the first step back into education for out-of-work people) further downgrades the UK skills status. The government cuts to college funding, often a source of vocational training today, are destroying the UK economy.  Put up financial barriers between ordinary people and further/higher education and the UK’s economy will inevitably suffer.

The greatest resource of any economy or business is the people in it.  This is the first lesson that one learns in economics and this government’s policies spectacularly fail to pay heed to that fact.   It utterly baffles me why the government cannot understand the logic of this argument.  Perhaps it is owing to the educationally privileged backgrounds of the front-bench, or maybe it is simply that they are intellectually incapable of understanding it.  Personally, I believe that they just choose to ignore it.  Whatever the case, we are heading into disastrous territory if Government educational policies aren’t reviewed.

David Cameron’s Artificial Utopia

Thomas More - Is David Cameron his natural heir? Nah...

Famously Margaret Thatcher declared that there was no such thing as society, but now her progeny David Cameron claims that it not only exists, but it is a BIG SOCIETY.  He knows this because he assures us it’s his BIG SOCIETY.

In his speech Cameron told us that there already numerous things happening in his BIG SOCIETY; people doing voluntary work with the disabled, the homeless, young people – all admirable initiatives, but what he didn’t tell us was how any of this hadn’t anything to do with his Government.  Speaking for myself, I have done lots of voluntary work in the past, but I don’t recall the Conservative Party helping out all that much – indeed, they were more of a hindrance.  The organisations I have worked with are – without exception – all pretty worried by the policies the Government are announcing, and it is in rather poor taste that Cameron is trying to take credit for their work while cutting their budgets.

There will be much written about the BIG SOCIETY, and much of it will be in far more detail than I will go into here, but being an opinionated bore I thought I’d add my voice anyway.  What I take issue with the most is that the Conservative Party did a lot to undermine and destroy many communities throughout the country when they were last in office.  For example, who can forget what they did to the mining communities and the way they casually deindustrialised the North without putting anything in place to compensate.  Being a Liverpudlian I can remember all of this very well and I doubt many welcomed Cameron’s visit here yesterday (as for Phil Redmond, he is hardly renowned for presenting the city in a positive way). 

Furthermore, who can take Cameron’s artificially utopian ideas seriously?  Where is the detail?  Where is the finance to enable all of these initiatives to happen?  Who is going to incentivise people who have been marginalised in communities?  Who is going to educate such people about taking their role in active citizenship?  Does David Cameron care about any of this or is it just a woolly-minded scheme to gain headlines?

When I look at David Cameron I do not see a natural heir to Thomas More, I see an opportunistic, entitled politician clutching at straws.  This is a government dismantling the NHS, ruining state education, destroying the Welfare State – it is extremely ideological and it needs to be stopped. 

The BIG SOCIETY needs to get rid of David Cameron and his unelected Tory coalition.

All That Jargon! Give it a rest…

My first encounter with jargon was when I took sociology in school.  By this time, even I – at fourteen years old – could recognise that some of the terminology used in social sciences had little to do with the application of the English language in normal circumstances. 

Blah, blah, blah...

Some of the roots of the language used in the social sciences can be traced back to Marxism (I myself am a Marxist), others from anthropology, other sciences and philosophies.  People who work in the social sciences are not the only guilty parties of course; lawyers, doctors, accountants and many more have a somewhat childish and over-complicated approach to the English language. 

Of course, this is encouraged in education when one is asked to produce written academic assignments; anybody who has gone as far as Further Education and Higher will have experienced this.  To simply write clear, understandable text is not enough; jargon is positively encouraged.

Since I have worked in the community for many years, I have encountered a lot of – what I like to call –  jargoneers (there I’ve invented more jargon).  Government, local authorities and those who work in education (I myself have recently completed a Diploma for Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector) are particularly guilty of using jargon to excess, and this I have always felt is divisive.  This is further exacerbated by an over-reliance on acronyms.  All of this tedious behaviour results in barriers between jargon-users and those they are supposed to be serving.  If I was more of conspiracy theorist I would suspect that this is indeed the plan; to separate the uninitiated from the elite in order to preserve established power-structures.  Of course, I’m not nearly as hysterical as that, and so I think the answer is simpler.  I think it that people who invent jargon are immature and that only very inadequate people need to use too much of it.

This always distressed me about Marxism.  So many people I know have been put off reading his work owing to his use of very complicated language, although admittedly he had to explain even more complex economics.  This defeated the object, and it is also true of many other left-wing writers and radicals, who have a tendency to over-complicate.  Simplicity without patronising is far harder I think, and the message is what is important.

The use of jargon may impress colleagues and a few intellectuals, but it isn’t going to reach anybody else.

The Blame Game – or – When Is A Quango Not A Quango? When It’s Five Tory Quangos

We’re still in the early days of the ConDem administration and they are already blaming the Labour Party for all their woes, the main issue being the budget deficit.  The reasons are obvious; to prepare the electorate for Osborne’s nasty swingeing cuts which, true to Tory fashion, will hurt lower-earners and those on benefits, while allowing the top 5%  to enrich themselves. 

Quick to blame Labour for problems but willing take credit for Labour's hard-work

Apportioning blame on Labour has always been one of the Conservative Party’s ploys – they did it throughout the period Labour were in office, even during their own administration from 1979-1997.  Perhaps it naïve to expect them to behave any differently – accepting responsibility is not the strong suit of ‘the ruling-class’; they even send their children to boarding-schools.  Labour are not any more responsible for the deficit than any other party – in fact, the Tories put into place many of policies that created the problem.  Their obsession with all thing monetarist; rampant consumerism, business models based on debt, the cult of laissez-faire private enterprise – none of these could ever be considered typical Labour touch-stones, and these are the things that have caused the deficit. 

Somewhat typically they are blaming ‘socialist’ policies for that.  Funny enough, I didn’t notice a lot of socialism going on under New Labour and being a Marxist, I would have.  Labour are being criticised for investing too much into public services, an emphasis on Big Government, creating too many quangos (the Tories themselves have created five new quangos this week to replace one of Labour’s), and finally that old chestnut, ‘benefits culture’.  David Cameron famously declared that he didn’t care if he’s being paid to be a politician or not – big of him when one considers he doesn’t really need the money (he’s a multi-millionaire anyway and he married into more wealth).  Thus he, like most of the members of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, is independently wealthy and has income from outside interests.  The Conservatives don’t need public money and despise those who do.  Nor do they use public services; they don’t need the NHS, state schools, public transport or any of the things that the rest of us rely on.  Furthermore, when most of us are made unemployed as a consequence of their policies they would rather we perish and die than receive any state benefits.  If that sounds a bit strong – think about it…

While the Conservative Party are happy to blame the Labour Party for all the bad things, they are still willing to accept the credit for Labour’s achievements.  An example of this is the Labour Party’s achievement in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.   Labour did not, and still do not, have the same baggage as the Tories in respect to Northern Ireland; Tony Blair, for all his faults, showed great determination in making the peace process happen, and chose the right ministers for the job.  In an effort to acknowledge the suffering the conflict had caused, Labour also commissioned the Saville Report to look into the killings during Bloody Sunday in 1972.  This had been long overdue, and in fact took 12 years to complete.  The cost was £191m, and this alone is an illustration of how complex an undertaking the investigation was.   

It is unlikely that a Conservative administration would have given the green-light to such a report, and even more unlikely that the peace process would have been as successful as it has been; the Tories have been traditionally associated with the Ulster Unionists and henceforth may have been considered too partisan during negotiations.  Although Major managed to make some inroads, his antipathy towards Gerry Adams and other republicans was well-known.   As for his predecessor – Thatcher – she was the most ‘orange’ PM of the modern age, but surprisingly did have meetings with republicans – in secret. 

When the Saville Report came out early this week, Cameron was quick to use it to generate some good publicity for himself by issuing a public apology to the families of the innocent victims.  He was right to do so, of course, but in week of constant point-scoring over Labour, he might at least have credited the previous administration with setting the process in motion.  This is not a time to play party politics, and Cameron shows poor taste in doing so.  Furthermore, it is unlikely that any of the guilty will be brought to book over what happened in Derry.  If Cameron had any commitment to the process, this is something that should at least be considered.  I doubt it will happen though.