Food, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

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One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.

What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.

As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).

The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.

It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.

But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.

The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.

It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.

One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)

The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.

It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.

To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.

I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.

People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.

To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders.  A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.

Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

All Britain’s problems in one afternoon

I attended an event yesterday that unintentionally illustrated a lot that is fundamentally wrong with this country. I hasten to add that that is no criticism of the organisers, who did an excellent job, and whose idea to run the event was in itself good.

My locality is facing the by far the largest expansion of housing stock in the country, double that of the next largest. Some people are claiming it is the biggest green-field development since Milton Keynes. It entails three ‘garden settlements’ in close proximity, strung along the A120 in north Essex. It will eventually total some 40,000 houses in what are now predominantly very rural areas.

The event was a conference called to created dialogue and share opinion. But…

…as I walked in, it became apparent (in the way it only really can to a native Briton) that those gathered were…err… not exactly socio-economically representative of the local population. The preponderance of country-wear, and the audibly plummy accents suggested that by far the majority of the audience of perhaps a couple of hundred were older members of the entitled tiers of society. Who else could find three hours on a regular Friday afternoon to attend such an event? Most of them seemed to know each other.

I have nothing at all against such people – except that they are, by default, representatives of that sector of society that has run this country as its own private club for at least a couple of centuries too long. They have as much right to their share of the nation and its activities as anyone else – but no more than that. And they most certainly are not representative of the nation as a whole.

They are, however, the people who have tended to do best for themselves out of this country’s extremely un-level playing field – and even by default they clearly intend to keep it that way. This does not make them nasty individuals – but they and their nnforebears are nonetheless collectively responsible for many of the gross inequalities that exist in this country. They were out in their masses primarily to defend their own, often-considerable demesnes.

It was also very noticeable that these are not the people whom one tends to encounter in the streets and shops of this area. Accent alone betrays that; I recognised very few, though I knew ‘of’ some by reputation. I suspect that they keep themselves very much to themselves in the many large rural piles that dot this area, networking amongst their kind, and they tend to go ‘up to Town’ for most of their needs. They represent the fact that this country’s privileged have never disappeared: they just went underground. Integrated into the local community they are not – but they still tend to be that portion that turns out to make its voice known at such events, and to get elected to district councils and the like, where they are well-represented.

They had certainly turned out in droves to object to the destruction of their own little patch of Arcadia.

Speaking to us were a range of planners, businessmen and politicians, including prominent Brexiter, Bernard Jenkin MP who to be fair, managed to squeeze out a relatively non-partisan introduction. The chair of a local district council made a speech. He explained rather abruptly that he has to do what the national government tells him – and that means building lots of houses. He did not explain why we need to have more than anyone else. He also seemed totally unaware that part of his function might be to listen to grass-roots views and convey them in the opposite direction. Local democracy seems not to think it needs to listen to local views, let alone defend local concerns, any more.

A number of competent planners and others spoke, who generally did a good job of explaining both the official and alternative planning policies. But most seemed to agree that the only way it is possible to extract any public benefit at all from developers is to agglomerate to a massive scale, otherwise they simply wriggle through the system’s many convenient loopholes. As much as 90% of the land value uplift from development (which might be used to fund improved amenities etc.) goes nowhere near the public domain of the areas that have such developments imposed on them.

The (new) head of the development consortium spoke authoritatively on his brief, in which he conceded that consultation has hitherto been woeful. One might wonder why. He sounded every inch the developer-magnate who has large schemes on the go all over the place. But the tenor of his speech was very much that the affair was wrapped up between central government, developers and land owners. He grudging conceded that “sometimes things do come out of consultation…” – and I wish his expression of the importance of the ‘collective interest’ had sounded more convincing…

There was absolutely no discussion of the actual nature and quality of what might eventually get built. For ‘ordinary people’ this is actually the prime concern: will the houses be affordable and make good, well-built homes? Will services and infrastructure be adequate? Will a good life be possible in those places? For them it will not be a merely technical exercise of provision. The consensus seemed to judge that there might be an outside chance of making it so, if only the developers could be reined in. Otherwise probably not.

The objection to building in this rural area is easy to understand. The past of record of this Home County sets a very poor precedent in terms of quality, location, infrastructure and architectural merit. What continues to be built on the edge of local towns is the worst kind of dislocated concrete (well, brick) jungle – the slums of the future. Developers latch onto what they believe to be attractive, saleable locations – and proceed to wreck them. Why should we believe that what what comes next will be any different?

There was a sense of futility about the proceedings – plenty of people with good ideas for improvements or alternative solutions – all of which will quite clearly be totally ignored by those who have already decided what will happen.

For me, the meeting was torpedoed at the outset by the chairman, who opined that there was no point in discussing what we could learn from good practice from other countries “since this is Britain”. It would have been much more worthwhile to spend the time dealing with that point alone.

And I came away with a saddeningly familiar sense of being a foreigner in my own country. No doubt they are all lovely people – but many were so obviously from a privileged clique, whose very enduring existence damages the wider social fabric of this nation. I could probably ‘assimilate’ if I wanted to – but I don’t. On the other hand, I feel just as disconnected from the voiceless and often coarsened ‘masses’ who were barely represented yesterday afternoon, and who would no doubt have perceived me as part of the ‘County’ clan. I will be against that wall just as quickly as the rest, should the revolution come.

I actually take my lead from the relatively classless, social-democratic societies of the near-continent – and there is no home for that, even today, in this country.

The conference was well worth attending – but I came away with the strong impression that between the entitled stake-holders (some of whom were known to be ‘interested’ land-owners), the technocracy of the professional developers – and the jungle of impenetrable procedure and legislation that they have created, the whole thing was one great stitch-up. Pretty much a good summary, when seen from a lay-person’s point of view, of the whole of this country.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Thinking European

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How do you change a culture?

Chris Boardman, the Olympic cyclist, is charged with doing just that: reducing Manchester’s chronic traffic congestion and turning the city into Britain’s cycling capital. As he realised, the problem is only partly practical: what is really needed is a change of mindset:

“Three hundred miles from here, 50% of the kids ride to school every day, 30% of all journeys are by bike – in The Netherlands, parts of Germany, in Denmark. Take anyone from here and stand them there and they’ll say, “I prefer this”, he said. When people see, they understand.

Recent reports suggest that while the government is proposing new legislation on air pollution post-Brexit, its track record is dismal, and it was one (admittedly of several) taken to court for missing reduction targets.

Nottingham recently received a £5 million grant from the EU with which it employed a Dutch company to improve domestic insulation and cut energy bills for the recipients by 50%, much to their satisfaction. There is no equivalent national programme in the U.K., except for those in receipt of benefits. You are reading this correctly – there is absolutely no programme to improve the performance of some of the worst-insulated mass-housing stock in Europe – simply because our government has not deemed it important enough.

Such neglect is all too frequent in Britain: in too many cases, domestic provisions for even such essentials as workplace rights are half-hearted in the extreme – as are assurances for the future. This is not a nation that takes the lives of its ordinary citizens particularly seriously – and it is having seen superior approaches – and mindsets – on the continent, that persuaded me that European governance is on balance preferable to our domestic alternative. The evidence suggests that collectively, other countries are doing many of these things better.

An inability to see is, I suspect a major problem. For those struggling in difficult circumstances, horizons narrow; the cause of the problems may not be visible, and attention is focused on the pressing need to survive.

Yet as Boardman points out, when people are shown alternatives, they do not reject them. The problem in Britain is that this rarely happens. It is relatively difficult for people here to observe ‘ordinary life’ elsewhere. The cost and hassle of leaving the country mean that it only happens on special occasions – and both the nature and context of the typical holiday mean they are unlikely to provide much insight into the daily-lived reality of other places. The linguistic/cultural divide (whether perceived or real) makes it worse.

Yet my experiences suggest that Boardman is right. On several occasions I instantly destroyed my students’ prejudices against public transport simply by putting them on that symbol of European urbanism, a (Strasbourg) tram. I achieved a similar effect by ‘parking’ others in ordinary homes and school life in Switzerland for a week. And yet others came to more understanding by virtue of my taking them to the European Parliament and talking to people there. It works: there were rapid shifts of perspective.

But the real shift needed in Britain is far bigger. This nation has come to the point of Brexit because 150 years of a national mindset have ‘taught’ it that it is both superior to the rest of the world and apart from it. Reading Simon Jenkins’ A Short History of Europe recently showed how inaccurate this perception is, seen from a longer perspective – and how damaging it can be.

Continental nations’ bloody histories have given them a greater appreciation of the importance of European stability, while Britain’s apartness has given it both a failure of such understanding and a complacency that has led to the lengthy and profound neglect of its domestic affairs. Not to mention an enduring, cynical temptation to profit from continental disunity.

The venom accompanying Brexit is out of all proportion to any adverse impact that the EU has really had on many people’s lives – but not out of proportion to the genuine problems they are encountering. These problems are home-grown – and they are not simply practical: the biggest of all is the mindset that for so long said that Britain didn’t need to evolve or adapt, that it was simply entitled to the best, and that nothing really needed to change.

We only have ourselves to blame for the breakdown of the social contract in Britain. While national elites are primarily responsible for the neglect, the rest of the nation repeatedly endorsed their policies at the ballot box. We failed to maintain the national vehicle, and the British charabanc now sits smoking on the hard shoulder, from where we can watch the modern vehicles of more careful countries speeding past.

For Britain, change is a concept so difficult that it is to be resisted at all costs. Small-c conservatism is so deeply embedded in the psyche that we mostly don’t even notice it is there – at least until we are put in a context where people clearly think differently. That was my experience on the continent – and I repeatedly came back to Britain feeling I was returning to a tired, dull backwater. At the time I was criticised for my supposed lack of patriotism – but all I was doing was observing problems that the nation was choosing to ignore.

It is no surprise that those who are struggling tend to look backward rather than forward. But ironically, by voting for the status quo, they stymie the one thing that might help them: genuine, enlightened change. They are too set in their ways, believing what they have been told, that this is the natural way of things. They rarely question why it is like this, or how the system actually works, that keeps it so.

It is part of the reason why the country’s workforce failed to adapt to economic change: it was trapped in a regressive mindset which expected opportunities to be handed down from its betters as they always had been – which of course largely failed to materialise from governments that simply did not care enough to put meaningful support in place. The result has been whole communities still hollowed out of any economic purpose, three decades after that process happened.

The culture of despondency and dependence is embedded – and the only perceived antidote is exclusivity, of aspiring to buy oneself out of the masses, rather than improving mainstream life. There seems incomprehension that if so much of the nation’s wealth were not in the hands of so few, it would be very possible to improve the mean standard of living for everyone. And yet the tax rises that could address this are – we are told – political dynamite. All despite the abundant evidence from Scandinavia and elsewhere that higher general taxation results in better welfare provision and more just, contented societies.

Britain’s entire mindset is so ensnared in webs of hierarchy, elitism and privilege that it simply does not ‘get’ the notion of social democratic egalitarianism that, while far from perfect, is much more established on the near-continent. It seems congenitally unable to take meaningful steps towards enlightened empowerment such as those Chris Boardman referenced in The Netherlands.

Getting people out of traffic jams and onto functioning public transport is just one example. But it seems that this is just too demanding a position for most Britons, who continue to support domestic policies that opt for the minimum-effort approach of pandering to the vested interests that got us into this mess in the first place.

If the EU is responsible for any part of Brexit, it is a long-term failure to appreciate that Britain is less like the continent than it seemed to think. It should have made greater efforts to give people from outlying parts easy access to the rest. Subsidising Channel crossings would have helped, as would a greater programme of cultural exchange. In fairness, this would have been mediated via domestic governments – and the likely reaction of the British one to such intervention does not require much imagination. British governments have had too much vested interest in preventing British people from ‘thinking European’.

Likewise, such programmes can only work if the intended recipients are receptive in the first place – and therein lies the real problem for Britain: it is trapped in a loop of self-referential self-justification that no amount of outside influence seems able to dent – and the nation is about to dive head-first back into another cycle, rather than grasp its best opportunity ever to lay such shortcomings once and for all to rest.

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

A new solution for Brexit?

At the risk of bogging down this blog (blogging down???) – which is meant to be about the quality of life – in repeated political discussions, I want to offer one more observation about the UK’s current Brexit predicament. I am ‘justifying’ it on the grounds that the political climate is a determinant of the quality of life that its recipients enjoy.

This is to propose an alternative resolution to Brexit, which as far as I am aware has not been discussed elsewhere.

I have no doubt that it will be criticised as being biased from the start, so I had better concede that it is a Remainer’s solution – but I defy critics to come up with a more sustainable one, that does not poison the longer-term climate in this country with perhaps-dire consequences.

My starting point is that the pro/anti EU argument is not symmetrical.

The present situation is that the U.K. is a member of the EU. While sceptics might not be happy with this situation, it nonetheless means that this country can influence EU policy: that is an undeniable fact, and it is now clear that it would end with Brexit. This is why Brexiters oppose May’s settlement. Ity is also fact that EU actions will still affect Britain after Brexit, at least if we want to trade with, or travel within it. It is also worth remembering that the U.K. historically has not opposed the vast majority of EU legislation, and has initiated quite a lot.

One might ask objectors what material negative impact EU membership has on their lives. No doubt they would come up with a long list, from the imposition of ‘foreign’ laws through to the use of metric measurements – and of course immigration. While one should not dismiss such objections, it is necessary to separate those which have some traction from those which are mere myth, the genuinely practical from the ‘merely’ ideological – and attempt to address the former. One might expect (though without much hope) that in the interests of national reconciliation, Brexiters would accept this. If they don’t, they should be ignored with the same compunction that Remainers have so far been.

But what of the practical negative impact EU membership has on the daily lives of euro-sceptic Britons? Apart from minor irritations, I suspect the real answer is ‘very little’ – particularly when offset against demonstrable benefits which even many leavers accept, such as free trade, ease of travel or reduction in mobile phone roaming charges etc, which arguably benefit everyone irrespective of their political viewpoint.

This is not to deny that there are certain groups on whom specific legislation has had an impact, such as certain types of farmer or fisher. But it is necessary to balance the impact (loss of freedom for unrestrained fishing) against the long-term benefits – let alone ecological imperative – from preserving fish stocks. People do not always take a bigger view even when it comes to self-interest.

The reality is that people who do not like their European citizenship are largely free to ignore it in their daily lives – and the fact that this is so gives the lie to the claim that the EU is overbearing.

On the other hand, if the UK leaves the EU, the wishes and rights of the 48% (plus) who are pro-Europeans will be materially affected. Their daily lives will be impaired by the loss of the practical advantages mentioned above, which they choose to value using exactly the same rights as Brexiters use to ignore them – not to mention the matters of identity and citizenship which Brexiters are free to ignore, which will be forcibly removed from Remainers. This is not something that any Brexiter who truly values the integrity of their home nation can afford to dismiss. Reconciliation will not be possible unless a resolution can be found to which Remainers can also subscribe – which is why the call to “get over it” is so objectionable.

There is only one solution that can come close to keeping nearly everyone reasonably content (as most were before the accursed referendum) – and that is something close to the status quo. This might appear to be a non-solution – but remaining in the EU is the only way to provide pro-European Britons with the status they desire. However, this is not to deny that around half of the nation is unhappy with that status, even if they overstate its real impact. Therefore, within any proposal to remain need to be concrete proposals to limit the EU’s role in Britain: in effect to create formal ‘special status’ within the EU for the UK, somewhat similar to the special status that Northern Ireland has within the UK in recognition of the divided loyalties of its inhabitants.

The basis for this could of course be the existing opt-outs. But the possibility should also be explored for formalising the process by which these are preserved or even extended in future. The most obvious of these concerns freedom of movement. The U.K. already has derogation from the process of ‘ever closer union’ – and this probably needs to be beefed-up for the sake of sceptics.

This is not my personally-preferred solution: I have never seen why the U.K. should expect to belong to the club on terms any different from the others, and I tend to believe that had it signed up properly at the start, more of the full benefits of membership would have been apparent in this country. But I have to recognise that many would see mine as an extreme position; it is necessary to compromise. The foregoing is a position which even I as a strong pro-European could live with for the sake of the key elements which I hold especially dear: retention of European citizenship, freedom to travel, the single market, perpetuation of peace in Ireland and the ability to be involved and represented at European level.

As before, sceptics would remain free to ignore the existence of much or all of this at anything other than an ideological level. Indeed such freedom might be bulwarked by the guarantees of special status.

While the EU might also be unhappy at the prospects of special status for the UK, it too needs to accept the reality of British public opinion, and concede that its best hope for longer-term reconciliation is to accommodate the present crisis, while stopping the UK from drifting off into isolationism. Brexit has indeed made a special case of this country.

Whether this is a compromise that Brexiters would accept remains to be seen. But if they won’t, it would blow a further hole in their claims to be defending democracy, let alone the preservation of their beloved nation.

 

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.

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.