Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

All those lemmings can still be wrong.

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

One of the many fine things that Winston Churchill never said.

Much though I admire Churchill’s perspicacity, I’m not sure I would have agreed with his rather patrician solutions, for all his advocacy of democracy elsewhere as the ‘least worst’ system. But perhaps ‘events’ are forcing us to confront the difficult possibility that democracy too has its limitations – or at least that it is a great deal more flawed than we in the West have chosen to believe over the past century.

Democracy is normally extolled as a pure virtue, as though the right to collective self-determination is in itself synonymous with good decision-making. Yet there are a number of issues at present of questionable wisdom, that might nonetheless have some legitimate, if simplistic claim to be democratically-based. The obvious one is Brexit, though we might also consider the current presidency of the U.S.A., and also the regimes in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Italy and Russia as part of the same.

But is it possible to advocate democratic decisions where the outcomes are patently malign? I am not primarily thinking of Brexit here, although it still qualifies. If a consenting nation (as with an individual) genuinely wishes to inflict harm on itself, then  as long as there is no damage to anyone else, it can presumably be left to it. But as soon as the decision to do so impacts on dissenting others, then it becomes possible to question the moral legitmacy of the decision.

In reality, there is probably never a situation where such a decision brings no harm to anyone other than its proponents; Brexit is just such an example, because even if it were certain that the move would do no damage to other countries or to the wider integrity of the EU, there are still the 48% (plus?) in Britain who do not support it. And as the present situation shows, when a zero-sum situation of this sort is in prospect, support for the basic rules which democracy needs in order to function (such as respecting the result of a fair defeat) rapidly falls away. And all the more so when there are clear grounds to doubt that the defeat was indeed fair.

Another misconception is that democracy is a single entity when it is not. Almost more important than the basic principle are the means by which it is enacted. While the concept of a majority is simple enough, this is not helpful when there is more than a binary choice at stake. It does not address the problem that has long bedevilled First-Past-The-Post systems, namely that the winner is often the largest minority, rather than a true majority. The side-effects of this have been well-rehearsed, including the fact that binary voting systems effectively totally disenfranchise even large minorities (and sometimes even majorities) – exactly the situation with Brexit. Resentment and dissent are the likely outcome. Conversely, proportional systems often deliver indeterminate results – and while one might argue that this is a more accurate reflection of a difficult reality, it risks simply transferring the real decision-making to unseen horse-trading elsewhere before a result can be declared.

Gandhi observed that truly civilised countries are those that show their weak (and minorities)  care – in other words the compassion that a democratic majority still needs to have for its ‘losers’ if it is to retain any general consent. By this measure, Brexit seems to be leading Britain to a less civilised place, as are other issues in certain other countries.


 

But in a sense none of the above is the real problem with democracy. That is what critical thinkers call the Framing Error. One of a long list of logical flaws, the framing error states that people make decisions based on what they perceive and believe they ‘know’ – which almost by definition is far from being the complete picture of a given situation. This can occur both spatially (we can’t see what is going on elsewhere) and temporally (we tend to draw artificial limits in our minds about where we attribute causality). We compound these difficulties by further framing our outlook with our own psychology, intellectual abilities, and preconceptions.

We then ask people to make serious decisions based on what they think – or think they know. People debate – and vote – in a condition of varying but widespread ignorance, which we all have, but which almost no one acknowledges. At one level it can be argued that this is not important: in a true democracy people should be free to make their votes based on whatever criteria they like, including limited vision or outright ignorance. But when, as discussed above, the repercussions of this right extend to serious impacts on millions of other people, not to mention entire countries, it is hard to argue that there should be no limits.

Faith in democracy rests on the fact that in a collective of millions, outlying views will be rare enough that the ‘sensible’ majority prevails. But as once again in the case of Brexit, one person’s sensible moderate is another person’s extremist. In some parts of the world, this is the stuff of which genocide is made.

Another risk is that ‘sensible majorities’ tend to vote for the status quo, not necessarily because it is the optimal solution, but because it is what falls most frequently within their inevitably limited field of vision – not to mention the innate human aversion to change. But there are plenty of cases where radical action may well have prevented later disaster: had the British electorate not voted against electoral reform and the introduction of elected mayors and other forms of regional representation, it could be argued that many of the discontents that led to Brexit might have found alternative, less harmful outlets. In this case, as with the various causes to which Brexit has been attributed, failure to take a long enough view is a serious impediment to accurate thinking.

Ironically, British democracy, much trumpeted by Brexiters, has never addressed many of the shortcomings discussed above; they certainly seem unconcerned about problems caused by framing errors.

Democracy is normally advocated on the ground of the entitlement that it brings to every person to participate in collective deliberation. But its more important quality is that it also places responsibility for the outcomes on those same individuals.

Neither, regrettably, do many Brexiters seem to possess much awareness, much less concern, for the longer-term dilemmas that this throws up, such as how to reconcile two fundamentally opposing worldviews in a coherent national identity. Telling pro-Europeans to “get over it” does not begin to do the issue the justice it needs – and nor do the current Prime Minister’s exhortations to set aside the differences. Historically, the British model that Brexiters and nationalists trumpet is actually the source of the problem: for many years it only feigned democracy, while ensuring that real power remained vested in the Executive and the social class from which it was mostly drawn. ‘Ordinary’ people had no real say – and correspondingly little responsibility. They could safely lay the blame for the nation’s errors firmly at the door of others.

Nowadays, the situation is reversed: in a pendulum-swing from the above, the people have arguably been given too much say – the ability to make momentous decisions without much awareness at all of the responsibility that goes with self-determination, for being informed and able to deliberate seriously before casting one’s vote. And no number of televised debates will do much to rectify a situation where almost everyone is reduced to voting on confirmation bias simply because they have no ability to do otherwise. This is without the routine rejection of what ‘expert’ opinions are available – the only alternative is (and was) to vote largely on prejudice or ignorance.

From a longer-term perspective, this nation’s travails are largely own-goals. Most of the errors of social and economic policy derive from the prevalence of class-derived vested interests, and many of the supposedly democratic reforms have been hobbled by the fact that Britain has a fundamentally flawed electorate that is used to zero-sum, false-dichotomy thinking, a great deal of shouting and confrontation – and now the ability to make decisions without any appreciation of its responsibilities for informing itself and attempting to address its framing errors first.

It’s not easy to know where this leaves us – but I am reminded of a quote from my favourite psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi:

“People without an internalised symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers and exploited by anyone who has something to sell.”

A healthy democracy absolutely needs an active, thoughtful, open-minded and articulate electorate. It also needs a system that adequately reflects the nuances of opinion and shifting alliances that result from having this. These are things that Britain increasingly seems to lack; no matter what the mechanics of the system, I suggest that the country can as a result no longer be considered properly democratic.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria, Travel

Anti-sprezzatura

fabric

Anhedonia is a word that does not seem to be widely known. This is perhaps not surprising as it is a medical term, relating to the inability to feel pleasure: a kind of anti-sprezzatura.

It is a symptom widely reported in people suffering from depression, and they often describe it as feeling ‘flat’, when none of the things that normally give pleasure any longer does so. It goes hand-in-hand with a loss of motivation, and an ability to find life worth living, which is perhaps not surprising either when one thinks about what does motivate people in more normal circumstances.

It is extremely difficult to describe such experiences to those who have not had them. With anhedonia, one simply has no feelings for anything. One is left just staring at the music, food, places, possessions, experiences – and people – that one loves without any feeling of warmth, or indeed any feeling at all. But it is not the detachment of the critical thinker, more a sense that a handful of sand has been chucked into the gears of one’s mind. It is deeply unpleasant.

And at that point, one easily starts to wonder whether life is even worth living: it is bad enough not being able to feel those normal emotions, but it is compounded both by a sense of loss, and an utter inability to do anything about it. There is no point in trying to ‘jolly along’ someone in this condition, let alone telling them to ‘snap out of it’. It just can’t be done, and forced merriment is only likely to make matters worse.

I started Sprezzatura during just such an episode, which has lasted formally (i.e. diagnosed) for over two years, but which I think was incipient for a good while before that. It may seem strange to have started a blog dedicated to living well at such a time – but while the basic appreciation has always been there, amongst all the irrational things that happened during my illness, I developed a renewed appetite for all of the good things discussed in this blog. I was largely not able to derive much pleasure from them at that time, but that somehow made it all the more important to focus on them, to remind myself that they were still there – and starting this blog helped to do that.

I made significant efforts to overhaul my wardrobe (not necessarily a wise thing at a time when one is susceptible to splurging), to revisit certain recipes that I had not used in a long time, and to remind myself about the places (such as Italy) that were normally a source of great pleasure for me.

I’m pleased to say that matters have improved greatly in the last few months: I’m back playing music, making models, and enjoying most of the things I used to, though I feel the path has still not been fully travelled yet. What’s more, finally biting the bullet and making myself travel to Italy again in September proved to be a great tonic. I started to realise that forcing myself to immerse in those things may have been hard work, but it was also part of the recovery process – perhaps a form of re-wiring all of the disrupted mental circuitry.

Indeed, in some ways my appreciation is all the greater for now knowing what life is like without these things. But I also started to wonder whether there is a bigger pattern here. For all that one can catch Stendhal’s Syndrome in Italy, statistics suggest that reported incidence of chronic depression is significantly lower in Italy than in Britain. (There may of course be all sorts of cultural, as opposed to medical reasons why this is so). But listening to a group of British men a few days ago trying to out-bid each other in the bargain-basement stakes, I wondered again what it is about our national mentality that does this.

The active avoidance of anything with refinement or quality – of consciously ‘living well’ – seems to be almost a badge of honour. I suspect it has something to do with inverted snobbery and the social order in Britain, where any form of apparent ‘show’ can seem pretentious.

But eschewing things that can genuinely lift the spirit doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. Ultimately, life is what you make it, and I can’t see much benefit in rejecting an honest appreciation of the better things in life, however they are defined. It need not be a matter of money: one does not have to own things in order to appreciate them, and an appreciation of quality is more a matter of how you approach things than the size of your wallet. In any case, it is quite possible to find ways around budgetary constraints – and remember, sprezzatura is as much about what you do as what you have. I am deeply puzzled by a country that sets such store by working hard and earning money, but which generally seems to have little time for appreciating the fruits of its labour.

While ironing a pair of trousers earlier today, no less, I found myself appreciating anew the fineness and craftsmanship of the Italian fabric I had chosen. It is nothing to do with show: it was (until now) an entirely private moment, a minor epiphany and reminder that the good things in life are still there, if only we can remember how to see them.

For people suffering from anhedonia, I would suggest that refocusing on your personal sprezzatura is as good a therapy as it is possible to find, even though it is hard work. And all the more reason to discover in the first place.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A Critical Thinking approach to Brexit – Part 2

After the long discussion in part 1, this is somewhat shorter…

If it is accepted that public debate on the specifics of matters like Brexit is inevitably limited to unprovable matters of belief, one is left with the question of how should it be debated.

Rather than resorting to claim and counter-claim, it would have been much better to establish a set of key principles against which to evaluate competing options. While this partially happened at political level, the difficulty is transferring it to the public arena, and an audience that inevitably has neither the knowledge to evaluate what is being suggested nor (probably) much patience with arcane technicalities.

The proof of this was the failure of Remain to capture public support. And their opposition did not help either its own case or the debate as a whole by being repeatedly unable to convey either a focused, specific definition of what Leave actually meant, or even a set of specific criteria against which its claims could be evaluated.

Add to that a public whose understanding of the issue largely resides in the category ‘unknown unknowns’ (i.e. it doesn’t even know what it needs to know in order to make an informed decision) – and constitutional arrangements that are arcane in the extreme – and we had the recipe for a perfect storm.

Experience suggests that much of the public remains in a state of not wanting to hear what it needs to know either. This is what my book was hoping to address: a relatively non-partisan examination of the physical and psychological state of the nation which is arguably the real problem underpinning the whole issue.

Trying to persuade people whose very position is founded on a rejection of outsiders that they would do well to heed the observations of disinterested third-parties is a good definition of being onto a loser. And so it has proved – no matter that most commentators in ‘friendly’ countries have advised that Brexit is a disastrous move even when seen from a distance, the message fell on deaf ears. So much for trying to advocate the benefits of critical thinking: it seems that you need to be able to think reasonably critically about that too, before you become remotely ‘open’ enough to have a proper debate.

I will end with two things:

Firstly, here is a link to a website that despite its name is an independent media organisation. Its views on the impact of the U.K.’s current position within the E.U. might have been worth considering.

Secondly, given that the debate was not symmetrical – in other words, Brexit was the antagonist as it proposed to change the status quo, and therefore the burden of proof was on it to convince its doubters that such a change was right. This it never did, preferring to rely instead on what it is all too easy to describe as sensationalism and misinformation.

Here are some of the techniques it used to do that:

Hasty generalisation: because there are things wrong with the EU the whole thing is corrupt
Sweeping generalisation: because some immigrants have gamed our systems, that is what they are all doing
Confusing cause and effect: things are bad in Britain because we are in the EU.
Oversimplification of cause and effect: If we leave the EU everything will be alright.
Confusing correlation and cause: because there are things wrong in Britain and things wrong with the EU, the one must be the cause of the other.
Slippery slope: If we stay in an imperfect EU it will be the end of our country as we know it.
Ad hominem: attacking their opponents personally rather than the arguments they were making.
Straw person: misrepresenting Remainers as ardent EU apparatchiks in order to disredit them.
Arguing from one thing to another: Because we don’t like the EU, the EU is therefore abhorrent.
False dichotomy: if the EU is not perfect, then it must be terrible.

This is pretty much the full house of logical flaws – and the Brexit debate seems to have fallen foul of virtually all of them.

The final step of critical analysis is to look for plausible alternatives to evaluate against the main claim. The main one, which seems to be that the EU is a neo-liberal threat/a bullying dictatorship/in the pay of big business/responsible for the decline of Britain/undemocratic, requires answers to certain questions about the current nature and behaviour of that organisation. Here are ten which in my view needed answers:

1. If the EU is ‘anti-citizen’, what is the purpose and effect of social programmes, such as the Social Chapter, the Working Time Directive, the Charter of Fundamental Rights etc.?

2. If it is in the pocket of big business, what is the purpose and effect of programmes such as the WEEE directive, the CE safety mark etc, all of which add costs to all (but especially big) businesses? Why did it, for example, also impose limits on mobile phone roaming charges?
3. If the EU is a centralising body, what is the purpose and effect of Subsidiarity, and why does it pump significant funds into regional aid?
4. If the EU is undemocratic, why does it require unanimity between member states for all of its major decisions (such as approving Brexit)?
5. If the EU is undemocratic, what is the purpose and effect of direct elections to one of its three main institutions, and indirect elections to the second (via national elections)?
6. Why is the unelected status of the Commission (in effect the civil service) so objectionable when the civil service in Whitehall is not elected either?
7. Why is it unreasonable for Britain to pay to belong to the EU when it has one of its largest domestic economies, and it agreed the formula for contribution calculations? (The other two populous large economies (France and Germany) pay more).
8. Why are the investments made in Britain by the EU, such as regional investment, not considered in your figures when costing the amount Britain pays to the EU?
9. Given that Westminster one the one hand has approved around 95% of EU legislation and on the other has been fined for its failure to meet standards and timescales on vehicle emissions, beach cleanliness and waste electrical goods recycling (to name but three) what evidence is there that Westminster would give equal priority to addressing these issues if not held to account by the EU?
10. What reasons were there for Britain seeking and obtaining exemptions from significant parts of EU legislation, such as the Social Chapter (for many years), the Working Time Directive, the Single Currency, the adoption of Schengen and more? Has the country benefited or the opposite from being outside these schemes? (As an example, is it mere coincidence that the country exempted from WTD is now the country with the longest working hours? What effect has this had?) The website linked earlier passes reasonably impartial judgement on some of these matters.

If Brexiters had been able to answer these questions to the standards of rigour demanded by Critical Thinking (and had the population been able to ask them in the first place) then the case for Brexit might have been a lot stronger. As it is, we are largely still waiting.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A critical thinking approach to Brexit – part 1

For all of the “debate” going on in Britain about Brexit (much of which falls woefully short of any reasonable criteria for being considered to be such), little time has been given to examining the real issues with E.U. membership. The problem here may in many cases be wanton partisanship – but there are bigger matters that all sides of a mature debate ought to be able to agree on.

The principle one is that a position based on fact is stronger than one based on assertion (i.e. belief). It is probably necessary (and wise) to set aside epistemological debates on the nature of knowledge – but the difference between a ‘fact’ and an assertion is that the former is supported by provable (i.e. replicable, thus verifiable) evidence whereas the latter is not. In a sense it is ‘belief without proof’ – a definition best applied to religion, but which is much less advisable when it comes to matters of the national future.

I am not suggesting here (even implicitly) that one side has been more deficient than the other in this respect. A mature position would be to accept that a huge amount of what is being discussed lies in the realm of belief – because in the final reckoning it is impossible for any one individual – most of all the “person in the street” – to be in possession of anything like enough information to be able to assemble a factually-robust overview. Thus we are reduced to arguing over beliefs – which are easily overdrawn and is rarely wise.

Therefore, even as a firm Remainer, I ‘ought’ to be able to accept that cases made for remain that are based on assertion rather than fact do not advance the argument, and may even weaken it. Arguments that draw on factually-robust arguments have little need for weaker ones –and recourse to them might suggest that a better case cannot be made.

The same should apply to Leavers. If I were in this camp, I hope I would equally accept that the case for Brexit is best made on a basis of solid fact. I am intending to be as even-handed as possible here, so I hope it is not too partisan to point out that this case was never made. Part of the reason for this was that proof is impossible to obtain when it comes to things that have yet to happen: we can’t know the future, so the best they could do was predict.

The same was true for Remainers arguing the virtue of their case on the basis of the damage Brexit would do: both cases were predicated on more or less accurate extrapolations of the present – and started from the position of confirming their own existing biases. As such, neither offered a good basis for such a momentous decision.

However, Remain did have one key advantage here: the conditions for remaining in the E.U. were known, as they already exist – though this advantage was blown both by the failure of the Remain campaign to use them effectively – and more so because the vast majority of the electorate had so little knowledge against which to measure the veracity of the various arguments with which it was being presented.

In short, nobody knows what the outcome of leaving will be. We might accept the consensus from the majority of ‘experts’ that it will be harmful – but even they are, in the final reckoning, only offering predictions, albeit ones based on more information and insight than the average member of the public can probably muster. The more honest ones will accept that they too are biased.

E.U. membership is such a complex and diverse matter, that even attempting to reduce it to simple certainties is probably unwise. A more mature position is to accept that membership of the EU is a mixed bag: it has its benefits, but given that it is by necessity a compromise between many different national positions, it is imperfect. It therefore has downsides too. A sensible way forward might involve considered weighing of these issues, rather than bunker-mentality absolutism – but binary thinking is the normal way in Britain. Our traditions and systems encourage it – from our parliament down.

It might be more sensible, too, to accept that a view on this depends not only on what you are looking at, but where you are looking from. What appears to one person or country to be a problem may be nothing of the sort to another. The failure to acknowledge this has been a major source of difficulty: with both sides claiming absolute virtue, there was little chance for a mature, considered debate ever to happen.

In particular, the apparent inability of many in Britain to accept the proposal that the EU is a partnership of equals prejudices any views they subsequently take of that enterprise, in a way that does not necessarily happen elsewhere. It is what has always informed the British presumption for special treatment.

Another classic flaw of reasoning is to embody diverse groups as though they are a single individual. Claiming that ‘the British People’ think anything in particular may be convenient, but it cannot be true since 60-plus million people never think as one. The same is true of ‘Europe’ and the E.U. All those claims about the malicious intent of that organisation ignore that fact that it is made up of thousands of individuals, and the idea that they all have a single, united agenda is probably incorrect. It is probably overdrawn even to suggest that its (relatively few) leaders all think the same either. Dealing with that is the whole point of politics.

In the final reckoning, people’s real intentions are known only to them – and attempting to second-guess them, let alone claiming to ‘know’ them, is pointless.

‘Thanks’ to the Facebook page set up to promote my new book, I have heard from a lot of Brexiters recently. I expected this, and did not block comments – though one might think that people who cannot respect the right of others to differ without needing to sabotage it, make a pretty clear statement about themselves at the outset. If they find people like me struggling to accept their views, they could first start by examining their own approach. They fall desperately short of the standards necessary for mature democratic debate, and on that score alone, I find their supposed desire to re-establish Britain as a self-determining democracy hard to accept. Regrettably, the majority of respondents had not taken the trouble to inform themselves that the book is not even really about Brexit before they started shouting. Few were willing to do any more than wield slogans. They do not seem to understand that making a point means more than who can shout loudest, or be the most aggressive.

There were, however, two who were prepared to debate the issue. I applied the basic precepts of critical thinking to their arguments – conceding points whose logic seemed sound, offering alternative interpretations of contentious material as necessary, and supplying references to third-party sources where I believed factual inaccuracies had occurred or unsubtantiable claims had been made.

Only one person did the same in return. He then supplied a link to this article which refers to a now-declassified document FCO 30/1048 apparently showing that Edward Heath deliberately downplayed the implications of Britain’s joining the EEC in 1973 and suggesting that it would be “too late” to reverse by the time public opinion caught up thirty years later.

I have no reason to doubt the existence of this document. But it needs to be evaluated for credibility using the normal ‘CRAVEN’ criteria:

Corroboration or conflict with other evidence
Reliability of the report (factual accuracy)
Ability to see (what it is claims to have witnessed)
Vested interests of those reporting
• (Relevant) Expertise of those reporting
Neutrality or bias in their agenda

On this basis, the article falls rapidly apart. Not necessarily because it is lying, but because the source (The Daily Express) is known to be biased towards Leave in the first place – and the language used in the report is clearly not impartial. It ‘leads’ the reader towards certain conclusions, which impartial reporting never does. The more strongly it does this, the more it weakens any claim to objectivity. In this case, analysis of the language used shows it is blatant.

Secondly, there is no attempt to identify, let alone discuss, alternative interpretations – such as the possibility that Heath genuinely believed that it was in the national interest to join the EEC, but that he also knew public opinion would struggle with it when memories of 1939-45 were still much fresher than they are today. It is not as though governments never have hidden agendas – even well-meaning ones…

Finally, the source has pre-judged the article and arrived at a conclusion before it begins: the whole point of the article is not to arrive at the truth, but to convince the reader that a certain interpretation is correct. This is the diametric opposite of how mature debate is conducted.

In case Brexiters reading this conclude that I am simply deploying a subtler than usual form of argument against them – well in a sense, yes I am. (Acknowledging the inevitability of bias is the first step to allowing for it). But I also accept that the other ‘camp’ does the same – it is one reason why I very quickly gave up reading the New European: it is just as partisan as the pro-Brexit press. Even if one argues that some counter-balance was much-needed, the effect has nonetheless been to reinforce bunker mentalities on both sides.

Regrettably (I mean that), those individual Brexiters with whom I engaged soon showed that they could not handle reasoned argument. One resorted to ignoring everything I replied with; he then re-stated his opening gambit that “the EU is corrupt and that is all there is to it”, before disappearing. The second appears to have rejected my response to the ‘evidence’ he supplied, and has also disappeared. This does not lend much credibility to any claim they might have had to having a supportable position; in the end, both resorted to assertion rather than counter my arguments. Why does anyone believe this is adequate? This is not a good basis for the formation of public opinion, let alone national decision-making.

I’m not for a moment claiming to be unbiased on Brexit. But if attempts to engage with people on a mature, intelligent basis routinely fail in this way, then the nation has real problems. As a former teacher, I deeply regret that that profession seems to have failed profoundly in its work of developing more thoughtful, considered individuals within our society.

The whole point about critical thinking is accepting that no one is perfect: we all have biases to set aside before we engage, and even trying to be objective is hard work. But it seems that attempting this – or even acknowledging the need for it – is several steps too far for many people.

My own bias will of course continue to inform the view I hold – but I believe that I have based those views on the firmest evidence I could obtain (including visiting the European Parliament numerous times and talking to MEPs of different parties – even Eurosceptics, to counter claims of presentational bias), and considered allowance for uncertainty.

Unfortunately, the majority of those who might want to change my mind seem to have very little idea of how to go about it. Jeering and sloganising will certainly not work. Quite why they think it will is beyond me, and I can only assume they are unable to do better. It is certainly not the way to restore the democracy they claim to want.

In the end, everyone who failed to attempt reasoned debate on this issue is partly responsible for the tragedy that I think is now the likely outcome. We will probably all be the losers as a result – but infinitely more so if we can’t raise the national debate to better levels than this.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Into the future, looking backwards…

As 2018 staggers uncertainly towards the finishing line, the image of my nation that keeps impinging on my thoughts is of a Tardis wobbling across cardboard space-time in an early BBC special effect.

Brexit-fatigue may be growing, but that vexed issue seems to have provoked a wider spate of introspection about the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything – and a general dissatisfaction with the state of our country.

The throwing of my own life into the blender a couple of years ago, just at the time when I thought I knew how the near future was going to pan out, was ample reminder not to take too much for granted. Falling out of a teaching career at the three-quarter mark due to stress-induced illness necessitated a wholesale re-appraisal of the future. There is not a lot of point of putting one’s energy into bringing back the past; much better to try to build a positive future.

The issue of EU membership has cast a harsh light on a binary division in human psychology, namely how we deal with uncertainty and the future. The matter was thrown into relief recently by the news that our ancient town is to ‘receive’ a new development of 300 houses in the next couple of years. Small fry compared to some places no doubt, but this will add around 25% to both the building stock and the local population – enough to make a significant impact on a small and historic place.

The reaction of people locally is indicative of a wider human fallibility, particularly in relation to how it deploys time. There had been warning signs for some time – with only limited reaction from the wider community. Now that a major impact is inevitable, people are asking why something could not have been done to stop it.

Given that – as far as one can tell – the human experience of Time is fairly consistent between individuals, in that it only really moves in one direction, one wonders why humanity so often still gets caught out. Hindsight is a wonderful thing – but one might have thought we would learn from the experience. It often seems not.

Actually, the problem seems to be that bit of Time which has not yet happened. People seem remarkably resistant to thinking in any disciplined way about the future. There may be very good reasons for this – not least the fact that as Keynes said, in the long term, we’re all dead. And perhaps not even the so very long term: beyond youth, a human life speeds past. Maybe that’s why people shy away from thinking about it.

Or maybe it is an acceptance that anything so unknown cannot be reckoned for. But while that is undoubtedly partly the case, denying the ability at least to influence the future seems to me very defeatist. While much does indeed remain unknown (and neither is it easy to allow for unintended consequences of any particular course of action), doing nothing is hardly better. A proportionate, realistic, but optimistic attempt to affect things for the better seems to me a much more sensible approach – while always accepting the significant degree of uncertainty involved.

What seems to me even more unwise is to seek solace in the past. Nostalgia is big business, and it affects a huge amount of human activity. The Christmas season is predicated on it – goods times past that may or may not be entirely illusory. What it is, in reality is sentimentality – an emotional response from the less rational part of the brain to the inherent uncertainty of the future – and sometimes even the present. It is more comfortable to deal with the apparent ‘knowns’ of the past – even when they may be more fiction than fact. At this time of the year, especially with the prod in the temporal ribs that passing New Year inevitably brings, it seems just more comfortable to reside in the past. And more generally, people become more resistant to change at times when change is most rapid.

More curious still is the extent to which this propensity may be culturally determined. One of my permanent frustrations with my country is the extent to which the national identity is so predicated on looking backward. I cannot think of another developed country, at least in Europe, which relies so heavily on past (supposed) glories for its sense of self. From the heritage tat we shamelessly flog to tourists (and each other), to the companies that know the best way to ingratiate their high-tech trains with customers is to paint them in heritage colours and call them GWR or LNER, this country is only ever dragged into the future looking longingly backwards.

There are some countries, of course, whose past is something to be best forgotten, and in that sense future-orientation may be more a necessity than a choice. Neither is resistance to change a purely British phenomenon. But I cannot help thinking that a country that still yearns so strongly for the past is one that has run out of good things to say about its present – not to mention any new ideas for its future. And when we do have new ideas,  we crow incessantly about them, a self-consciousness which suggests we know that somehow they  don’t sit easily.

My attempts to persuade my neighbours that the antidote to yet another Lego-clone housing estate on their historic doorsteps is to push for something that makes a confident statement about the future, seems to be something that most simply don’t want to consider. It seems the whole point of living in a historic town is to pretend that we are still living in an arcadian past when present-day problems didn’t exist – even though they patently do – and whose future we would rather not think about. When it comes, for example, to suggesting that judicious modern architecture can work even in a historic setting, the response is a knee-jerk No. Completely unbiddable. I wonder whether it is deliberate, or just the conditioned response of a lifetime lived in a change-averse culture.

I’m sure people are sincere when they say they are more comfortable with tradition – but they never stop to think about why. Why reject the benefits of modernity? Where would we be now if prehistoric people had done that, let alone those who built from new the heritage that we now venerate?

Meanwhile, the contemporary problems of the place – traffic congestion, affordable/sustainable housing, maintaining local services and the rest – remain unresolved because of the fear of thinking radically. It seems many would rather cling to an imperfect past-orientated present, rather than contemplate a future that is different, but which could be a real improvement.

Yet time waits for no one. No matter how we seek to deny the fact, or dress it up in historic garb, the future is the only destination we have. That means facing up to uncertainty, not to mention the pressures of modern life that many appear to want simply to disappear. The problem with it is that failing to live in the present (and anticipate the future) means that sooner or later that future is likely to come along anyway and kick the unprepared firmly in the arse. It has happened in the development case I mentioned above – and in the many other communities whose apparent preference for ‘traditional’ architecture gave unsentimental developers all the pretext they needed to churn out yet more estates full of tweely-named meagre little Lego boxes whose main purpose is to enhance the bonuses of those at the top – and which, of course, they will never have to live in themselves. Clinging to the past often simply makes the present, let alone the future, worse.

Another line of approach of Nostalgics is to claim that a preference for the present is a betrayal of the past, that it is somehow disrespectful not to venerate the legacy of previous generations. It is probably true that a civilisation that has no shared memory of whence it has come is indeed placing itself at risk of future mistakes – but sentimentalising and editing the past in order to make it artificially palatable is not at all the same thing – and is equally unwise. To continue with the architectural example, while conservation may be desirable, selecting only the superficially ‘pretty’ bits is dishonest, and does the opposite of creating a genuine heritage: it manufactures a shared lie, whose only effect is to reinforce the misconception that the present was a better place than the present.

The British yearning for nostalgia does serious harm to the nation. Sentimentalism smothers more realistic appraisals of the options for the future. Necessary change is avoided, or reduced to a minimum. Difficult decisions are avoided – or sent underground, difficult conversations not had, democratic compromise replaced by shouting matches. Ironically, excessive reliance on cost-benefit analyses and psephology (designed to make the future look like the past – certain and secure) increases the risk of delusion and error. Meanwhile, opportunists leap to fill the void with changes intended only to benefit themselves.

Quite apart from the damage being done to the genuine architectural heritage by the vast swathes of pseudo-heritage development, it seems to me that the issue of the moment – Brexit – is grounded on the same illusion. Most of the case for leaving the EU has been built on a return to some era when Britain was Great(er than it is now) in a way that is nothing more than a denial of the reality of the modern world. And try as we might to make this illusion reality, the only real effect will be that sooner or later the Future will once again come along and kick the nation in the arse too. Arguably it already has: one of the few explanations I can find for why this country has such unique difficulties with the idea of the EU is that it prefers to live in the past, rather than looking to the potential of European co-operation (done properly) to create a better future. I suspect the different balance that I have sensed elsewhere has a significant effect.

This is not to suggest that other nations are not respectful of their pasts too: one only has to look at the care with which the Swiss and Germans for example, preserve their heritage to see that. But they seem much less afraid of mixing it with the present, and of adapting it to modern needs. In fact, some of the most impressive conservation I have seen has been that which blends it judiciously with the ultra-modern. It is possible to respect and appreciate the past without wanting to live in it.

The other half of the binary choice is to rush open-armed indiscriminately into the future. That is probably just as unwise, as the truth is rarely found in extremes: ill-considered, ideological progressivism is probably just as risky as uncontrolled regressivism. But realistically embracing the future seems to be a much more constructive way of spending our time on this planet than yearning for that which has already passed.

Nations that get this right seem to me to have a generally healthier attitude towards Time as a whole. They seem to have a generally more can-do, less defeatist attitude. They make considered decisions that (can) lead to healthier societies. Those that seem to prefer living in an increasingly imaginary present, built mostly around a fake version of their supposed history, seem to be in a form of denial that says little other than that they are culturally bankrupt: tired and out of ideas. “It can’t be done here!” is a familiarity cry in this country. Why not?

Driving using only the rear-view mirror is not a good idea: it seems to me like a recipe for a rapid demise.

 

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Irresistible force meets immovable object? Not at all.

The calls from certain quarters for the nation to unite behind the PM’s Brexit deal is being treated with the disdain it probably deserves. Not because the sentiment is not necessary, but because it trivialises yet again the causes of the division. It represents nothing more than the diminution of the reasons people hold the views that they do, and treats them as little more than superficial differences that can be easily abandoned for the sake of patching up the nation.

It also relies on the assumption that the disagreement is symmetrical in ‘weight’: the irresistible force and the immovable object, perhaps. In a sense, that is why Leavers have been reduced to telling Remainers to ‘get over it’. There is simply no better argument available to them, as indeed there is not in the opposite direction; nothing that can trump the very different values of the opposite camp. It is stalemate.

But the two cases are not symmetrical. The belief of Brexiters that pro-Europeans should just get over their difficulties betrays a fundamental failure to appreciate or care for the nature of identity – of which, given their own claims, one might have expected them to have a better understanding. Nationalism (insidious or otherwise) is based on the call for people to identify profoundly with an identity bigger than themselves, to the extent that the two partially merge. And yet Brexiters simply fail time after time to appreciate that for pro-Europeans, what is being “untimely rip’d” from them is their own version of exactly the same thing.

Here, in one nation, Brexit has exposed two utterly incompatible readings of what our national identity is, or should be. The one cannot but exist at the expense of the other; the only fully practical resolution would be to divide the nation physically in two. And the only less drastic, less satisfactory – but more practicable – alternative is to hold a new vote now that the specific terms of the proposed settlement are known. Mrs May’s greatest error of many, is to fail to appreciate this; if she was really as concerned for the national interest as she claims, she would recognise that a new vote is the only real hope of reconciling the issue – and if that means that two years’ difficult negotiations, let alone the time and expense, are not after all needed, then so be it. A useful purpose will still have been served.

But I fear that is not likely to be resolved or patched up for many a year to come. I have had numerous encounters with people where (not at my instigation) the very first line of conversation sought to establish which camp I was in; that is the depth of division that has been created, and which I suspect will linger for decades.

Neither is the argument as practically symmetrical as some would claim. I challenge any Leaver to show what negative effects Britain’s membership of the EU has had personally on them. They have always had the choice simply to ignore most of the doings, let alone the cultural aspects of pro-Europeanism. While some may rail against the arrival of metrication, for example, the practical effects were small. Undoubtedly there are some whose livelihoods were affected by EU policy. But that argument is easily reversed – and while one might potentially feel sympathy with fishermen subject to quotas, one also needs to reflect on the reason those quotas exist in the first place. British domestic policy on this matter has shown relatively little inclination to deal with issues like the depletion of fish stocks, let alone the environmental aspects of the matter.

On the other hand, Brexit, if it happens, will cause significant real impacts on every single individual in the country. There will be no ignoring it. The increased cost of living, the lower incomes and opportunities, the increased difficulty of physical access to the continent – not to mention the cultural and identity loss for those to whom such things matter – will all be very real and immediate. If Leavers don’t understand this, it is nothing more than a product of their own insularity and limited vision; if they simply don’t care, it betrays the hollowness of their own vision of national unity.

In practical terms, living under the aegis of the EU, even for those who did not like it, had little negative impact on their lives – at least not in ways that were distinct and separable from the damage done by the domestic mismanagement of this country in recent decades. It arguably also balanced any negatives with benefits that were often larger in scope than locally-minded objectors might perceive. Clean air legislation, for example, is not easily appreciated from a determinedly local perspective.

On the other hand, the prevailing of their world view will have significant a personal impact on me and those like me. It will actively deprive me of things that I hold very important, and will make – indeed already has made – the leading of my life more difficult. Why I should suddenly forgive that gratuitous imposition I do not see.

That – apart from any of the bigger arguments – is I suspect why calls for reconciliation will not work, and why this will not be forgotten lightly.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

It’s a bit late for that Now! Announcing my third book.

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I’m pleased to announce the publication of my third book, It’s a bit Late for that Now! Britain’s relationship with the continent (before and after Brexit).

To speed things up, I’ve decided to put my money where my mouth is and self-publish this one.

The book is pro-Europe, not specifically pro-E.U., and addresses long-term issues that will be important whatever happens in the political arena. I hope it will be of interest no matter which side of the argument is preferred.

You can purchase print-on-demand copies direct from the publisher here

You can purchase the e-book edition here

You can  read the first fifteen pages online for nowt!

In the next couple of weeks, the book will also be available via Amazon and to order from bookshops.