Letter concerning reactions to Brexit

Dear Sir,

Until now I have resisted the temptation to add to the endless verbiage published in the media on the subject of the EU Referendum.  But Mr Whiston’s letter (July 28) pushed me over the edge.

Mr Whiston, backing up Councillor Edwards in the previous edition, essentially admonishes those who supported remaining in the EU to like it or lump it (while attempting to score a cheap party political point against the Libdems). This exemplifies the divisive, confrontational, playground level of debate to which our political system has descended. Comments like this from Leave supporters attempt to close off discussion at a time when almost everything substantial about Brexit remains to be decided. The circular and facile “Brexit means Brexit” takes us nowhere.

If the EU Referendum ballot paper had included a “Don’t Know” box I would have ticked it.  Nothing said by either side of the campaign helped me to make an informed decision.  Both sides used hyperbole, the fear factor and numbers that were simply made up. When challenged about the slogans painted on the side of the Leave bus, Iain Duncan Smith grinned and said they weren’t promises, but ‘proposals’. Ex-Chancellor Osborne’s forecasts, like most of those during his time in office, seem to have been written on the back of a fag packet.

I have spoken to a many people who believe very strongly that the referendum process was misconceived, poorly run and a victim of our destructive, confrontational, spin laden system.

Which means there is no doubt that the decision which emerged from the referendum was a bad decision. I don’t say that because I know what it’s outcome will be, but precisely because I don’t. And, much worse, no one in government does either!

The only thing that is certain is that we will not know the full impact of Brexit for many years. I voted for remain because I didn’t want to abstain and, on balance, it seemed to me that our much vaunted 6th place in international GDP league tables was not entirely unconnected with the fact that we have been a member of the European Union, albeit very much on our own terms, for the last 43 years. My guess was that the economic consequences of leaving would neither be as ghastly as Remain claimed not would it lead to the Shangri La promised by Leave. But, as I say, I really didn’t know.

But time and time again, the message, from many in the Leave camp is that everyone who disagreed with them should shut up and get on with it. These are the same people who wanted to strengthen our democracy and who would certainly not have submitted meekly if the vote had gone the other way.

In a healthy democracy, there must always be opposition to those in power, holding the government to account and, where necessary, directly challenging it and offering alternatives. Given that we have a spectacularly weak parliamentary opposition in the UK at present, it seems it will be up to members of the public to do the opposing. None of us has any choice but to get on with our day-to-day lives but in the meantime no-one can, or should, attempt to silence those who are unhappy with the referendum ‘decision’ and want to ensure we reach the best possible agreement with the EU. If some of us continue to argue that we should never, in practice, leave completely, then that’s democracy for you.

Meanwhile I’m left in the position of feeling that this divisive and misconceived exercise has seriously damaged representative democracy in this country and that no current political party represents me.

Yours faithfully

 

Andrew Cooper

Privatising the Coalition Way: latest version

Here’s the latest version of my Cameron/Clegg privatisation guide. As I explain in an earlier post, this was originally intended to be tongue-in-cheek/satirical. But I’m now wondering whether the coaltion are actually beginning to use it as the basis of all their ‘policymaking’. The last update included an added ‘smear’ box following the news report here accusing Gove advisers of using smear tactics against opponents. This hardly seems like news: politicians routinely smear other members of their own parties, never-mind opponents.

All comments and suggestions gratefully received via Twitter – @andrewzcooper I’m rather hoping that someone will tell me I’ve got it completely wrong. So far no one has.

Click on the image to view a larger version.

coalition privatisation flow-chart 19-2-13 2144

How To Privatise Public Services – The Coalition Way

This was originally intended to be tongue-in-cheek…

Cameron-clegg_guide_to_privatisation

…but as time goes by it seems more and more that Cameron and Clegg have actually adopted this strategy to privatise the NHS, the police, education and – if they have their way – all other public services. Deliberate cherry-picking of negative information, rather than emphasising the overall picture, is a particularly corrosive aspect of the Coalition’s approach.

A particularly disturbing aspect of the government’s approach is that it was not made clear to the electorate during the 2010 general election that they were planning complete privatisation of the NHS. Indeed, Michael Portillo has pointed out that the Conservatives knew they couldn’t spell out their plans as they realised that if they did they wouldn’t be elected.

So we have a Conservative led government, with enthusiastic support from Liberal Democrat MPs (if not from many party members) forcing through a huge unmandated change which it is by no means certain will lead to improvements to the National Health Service.

To me, the fact that our MPs are able to win and abuse power in this way strikes at the very heart of our democractic process. I started this blog to discuss the idea that our system of government is no longer fit for purpose. The example of the coalition’s attack on the NHS demonstrates this is the case.

While you’re here, perhaps you’d like to take my (effectively) one question survey, which you can find here.

What do we need from government?

Hoc

 

Update: I’ve developed an online survey, which you can find here, which enables you to rank the extent to which you think the current UK system of central government meets these needs. If you have five minutes to spare please click the link and complete your answers. The survey is anonymous but I will publish the results here.

Here’s my attempt at describing what we need from government. Have I got this right? What have I missed? What should be changed? I’ve limited the list to my top ten – are there other things you would substitute. (Update: I’ve now added a question to the poll which you can use to add any other suggestions or comments.)

To summarise the story so far (see previous posts):

  • this list is intended to be about what we want from government, regardless of which party is in power;
  • I’ve produced it as a precusor to thinking about whether the current system of government provides these things and, if not, how we might go about introducing changes;
  • I’m doing this because I think our system of government is no longer fit for purpose and is in urgent need of change.

Just to re-emphasise the point, this is not about government policies themselves which will, of course, vary from party to party, it’s about how policies are developed and implemented. 

What do we want from government?


Ensures that the wellbeing and safety of the population is
protected and enhanced:
 
government which does everything it can to enable
everyone to lead better lives and protect them from harm.

   

Is honest, open and straighforward: government which does what
it promised it would do to win our votes, and tells us the truth.

 

Thinks and acts for the long term as well as dealing
with immediate priorities: 
government which is able to think
beyond the next election and ensures that the interests and 
wellbeing of future generations are taken into account. 

 

Bases policies on evidence, sound reasoning and analysis: 
government which does not act on the basis of blind dogma or 
unproven theories but which acts rationally and shows us how and why
it has reached its conclusions. Government which does not change
things for the sake of doing so.. 

 

Engages the electorate: government which keeps people involved
and informed, shows them how they can influence what is done and
does not act in ways which will alienate voters. 

 
Implements fair and equitable policies: government which 
does not favour the interests of one group over another.
 

Is answerable and accountable to electors: government which
sees its first duty as being to the electorate rather than to 
lobbyists or funders.

 
Is able to do unpopular things: government which is able to develop
and implement policies which are in the best interests of the 
population and are in line with evidence and reasoningwithout being
de-railed by special interests.  
 

Is competent to govern: government which puts competent people in posititions of power and whose leaders do not second-guessor ignore those who have better understanding and knowledge.

 
Seeks out and punishes corruption: government which ensures that its members, and those who implement its policies, are as free from corruption as possible and which detects and punishes corrupt individuals.  

How to think about fixing government

I started this blog because I’m deeply concerned about the actions of our current coalition government. I was also very concerned about the actions of the last government.

I am dissolutioned with all the main political parties but I don’t think they are to blame for what’s going wrong. Instead, I suggest, we need to fix our currently broken system of government. I think the system is forcing parties to act in ways which aren’t in the best interests of the country as a whole or of voters. 

As I point out in the previous post, I know that fixing government is not a trivial undertaking, to say the least, but I hope that some useful ideas might come out of thinking about what might work better. Who knows, perhaps a party which faced up to some of the problems which run through our system and showed how it was going to fix them might actually win some votes.

Rather than just throw ideas around we need a way of structuring our thinking and my structure involves and I’m starting by identifying some ‘whats’. Things we want government to be like and do. For example, some ‘whats’ which occur to me are:

  • Thinking and acting long term, not only as far as the next election
  • Basing thinking on evidence and analysis, not ideology  
  • Being fair and being seen to be fair
  • Being honest and open, even when the truth hurts 

I can see already that some of these are potentially loaded but the devil is in the detail and I want to go on to identify some ‘hows’: ways of making some of these things happen.

Over to you. What do you want from government, regardless of which party is in power? 

All in the mind

Brain
Photo attribution below
Before we get on with the actual task completely re-designing our system of government* there’s an important point which I’d like to touch on.

I’ve suggested that we should structure our re-design by first clarifying what we want the government system to do then identifying the best ‘hows’ for those ‘whats’ taking account of any unavoidable constraints. 

One unavoidable constraint is the fact that the the system of government with which we are concerned will be operated by human beings rather than, say, intelligent machines (there aren’t any) or Vulcans (ditto).

Thanks to our big brains we humans have astonishing abilities. So far as we know at present, these abilities can’t be found elsewhere in the Universe. But our big brains aren’t entirely perfect and some of their characteristics have profound consquences for our system of government.
Two I would like to focus on are firstly the various cognitive biases to which we’re subject (there’s a long but interesting list of them here), and the underlying cause of many of them – the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance. Secondly, I’d like to consider the impact of group dynamics on the system of government.

Cognitive dissonance is about one of the ways we filter information. We find it very difficult to hold two contradictory beliefs about the world in our minds so if, for example, we find out something which contradicts an existing belief we tend to ‘massage’ the information so that it fits or simply ignore it altogether. If you haven’t heard about Leon Festinger, who originally coined the term cognitive dissonance and his encounter with ‘Mrs Keech’ it’s well worth reading this summary of the book that Festinger and his colleagues published on the study.

On my second point, it’s often said that British politics are tribal in nature and I think this is almost literally so. The ability to live and work together in groups, and apply our collective big brains to life, the universe and everything confers a huge survival advantage on humans. But it brings some costs as well, particuarly when combined with cognitive dissonance. For example, in the wrong circumstances group dymamics + cognitive dissonance = genocide. Or, to take another example, they are both a big factor in this.

Having flagged up these topics I’ll finish now and return to the later to consider how, through re-designing the government system, we can limit the damage they can cause. 

* I am not sufficently deluded that I think that can – or even should – actually change every aspect of our system of government, But more on that, and what we might actually be able to change, later. For now, it’s worth noting that we can re-design the system, even if we can’t actually change it, and the thought-experiment involved in doing so should lead to some actual changes and ideas about ways of implementing them.

Photo: Brain t by Dierk Schaefer 

 Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial Share-Alike 2.0 license.