Long she may reign over us

My name is Pravin and I am a recovering ” republican. I used  to believe that only democracy could  produce good  leaders. But this quality is not unique to elected leaders. According to Hegel, a good leader recognises their limit and capacity of people to be responsible. Indeed if the west is anything to go by, people are still denied their responsibility through economic factors. At same time, people in a dictatorship can recognise their power, as in Arab Spring. A good leader therefore is made by something other than his  course to power.

Do we ever get the full picture?

I knew that what started as a weird week became ridiculous when Iran (through its state TV) called for the British police to show restraint and for there to be independent human rights investigations. Seriously! Maybe it was  a touch of shadenfreude that the shoe was on the other foot for a change. But I also think that how the media in other countries have reported on the riots here does raise questions over how British media deal with overseas events.

We all rely on the media to know what is going on in the rest of the world. And it’s how we find out about many of the good and bad things that other countries and human beings are doing. Of course, every media outlet does have its own angle on things – even broadcasters who are legally obligated to be impartial – which matches the demographic of its audience. But do we ever really get the full picture?

I recently spoke to a friend from the Ivory Coast and I was shocked to find out that my understanding of what happened there recently was so completely at odds to hers. Here, the media reported it as how the loser of the recent democratic presidential elections, Laurent Bagbo (sic), was refusing to stand down and preventing the real winner from taking office. This was resulting in a civil war. What she said, however, was that back in the day France had granted independence to many of its colonies, including Ivory Coast, on condition that they abided by certain trading agreements. The previous incumbant stood up  to the French and went against the French yoke. In her eyes, Bagbo (sic) was an anti-colonial hero and his successor came to power in a French-backed coup not a victory for democracy.

Now, I don’t know how true this version is. I have no reason to doubt what my friend is and every reason to believe her. She is fellow Christian after all and we have prayed together regularly. But, like me, she may not have all the facts either. That’s not really the issue. What I want to know is why none of the British media – even Channel 4, the BBC and the Guardian – hardly reported on this alternate version. The truth may be complicated, but both of us received versions that were pretty simple.

Vive la revolution!

It is interesting what is happening in Tunisia at the moment, with a rioting in the streets and the resignation of a dictator after over 20 years. The country is hardly mentioned in the UK news – the last time was when a plane from Germany, or carrying German tourists, crashed there (I think). But it is clear that the country is going through one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments.

I often think that we Brits need some kind of mass violent protest and riot against the authorities and a wholesale change of system. I thought that was going to happen in 2009 when the Telegraph was going drip-drip feeding us with MP’s expenses. Then I thought that last year’s student protests was going to be the start of something big. But as yet nothing. (Of course, if ever something like what’s happening in Tunisia happens here, I will probably lock the doors and hide behind the sofa, rather than be in the thick of it.)

In Hegel’s 1827 essay, The Magistrates should be elected by the People, he wrote about the need for a popular uprising in his home state of Wurttemburg (Germany). But it is amazing how much of what he says is applicable today.

Hegel is writing as a time when there is a clear groundswell of opinion and feeling that the traditional political edifice of the day could no longer be sustained.  He says that “a vision of better, juster times has come to life in the souls of men [and women], and a longing and yearning for a purer and freer destiny has moved all hearts and alienated them from the present reality.” It almost feels as if Hegel were writing in the present, post-credit crunch day. The longer that change and the “satisfaction of hopes” is put off, the more intense will become the “urge to remedy a genuine need, and any delay will make that longing eat more deeply into men’s hearts, for it is not just a fortuitous attack of light heartedness which will soon pass away.”

But it’s not just that the current “political climate” is universally and profoundly seen as unsustainable. There is also a universal anxiety that it may “collapse and injure everyone in its fall”, as indicated by the massive bailouts of banks considered too big to fail and the fear that we are reaching the point of no return in the battle against climate change. It’s almost as if the fear is so overwhelming, so powerful, that “it will be left to chance to decide what shall be overthrown and what shall be preserved, what shall stand and what shall fail”. Hegel argues that whatever “cannot be sustained” should be abandoned and the “dispassionate eye” of justice is the only yardstick to examine what make something unsustainable.

He says that it is “blind…to believe that institutions, constitutions and laws which no longer accord with men’s customs, needs and opinions” can be justified and sustained. Any attempt to “restore confidence” in these elements in which people no longer trust or have faith is likely to lead to a “much more terrible outburst in which vengeance will ally itself to the need for reform and the ever deceived, ever oppressed mass will mete out punishment to dishonesty”. Of course, Hegel is writing towards the end of the French Revolution which saw a change in the French political system from an absolute monarchy to a republic. One can only wonder whether we are going through a similar period, as people call for a shift from free market capitalism to something kinder and to a new form of politics. Is anti-capitalist violence at recent international summits, the rise of the far right with accompanying racial attacks and MPs jailed for fraudulent expenses or punished for lying in an election indications of a vengeance of the masses? One must also wonder whether attempts to regain public trust of politicians and Parliament and reforms of the financial services sector will be counterproductive and that what is required is a renunciation of power, manifested by a transfer of power from the centre to the masses and a breaking up of banks. “To do nothing when the ground shakes beneath our feet but wait blindly and cheerfully for the collapse of the old building which is full of cracks and rotten to its foundations, and to let oneself be crushed by the falling timbers, is as contrary to prudence as it is to honour.”

Those who are driven by the fear that something must change – those saying it is the only option – will weakly “try to hold onto everything they possess”, like a “spendthrift who is obliged to cut his expenditure  but cannot dispose with any article he has hitherto required and has now been advised to do without”, like cars, foreign holidays and centralised power. On the contrary, they “should not be afraid to scrutinise every detail…the victim of injustice must demand the removal of whatever injustice they discover, and the unjust possessor must freely give up what he possess.”

It is interesting what Hegel ascribes as the “primary cause of all troubles” in the legislature. As far as the members of the legislature were concerned, the majority were happy to follow whoever had the “key to the hayloft, who could tempt them with fair words and more able to conceal his wolfish nature beneath his sheep’s clothing.”

What I think is particularly interesting is the use of the word ‘revolution’ in the context to refer to a sudden, significant change. But at the same time, in mathematics, revolution means 360 degrees or a full circle. In other words, revolutions – while not an every day occurrence – are inevitable. Furthermore, a revolution doesn’t come out of nowhere. As Hegel suggests, it follows 359 degrees.

Rememberance Day – the most ironic day of the year

So today is Remembrance Day. Before I say what I am about to say, I believe in the importance of Remembrance Day, I believe in the memory of all those who have fought and died for our country to protect our freedoms, human rights, liberty and democracy. And herein lies the irony. On the day that we are suppose to look back to the horrors of war and utter “Never again”, we (as in humanity) have never seemed so eager to go to war for whatever reason than since the day was first instituted in the aftermath of the First World War. If we really are going to take Remembrance Day seriously, let’s bring our troops back from Afghanistan, let’s get rid of Trident and our stockpile of nuclear weapons (three words: Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and let’s offer a real, genuine hand of reconciliation (and eventually friendship) to countries such as Iran and North Korea.

I think part of the problem is the way that we ‘celebrate’ Remembrance Day. If you go to church, you’ll probably have it included in this Sunday’s service – although if your church is anything like mine, it will probably be en passant. You may (or may not) be wearing a poppy to show that you are marking the day, but are you really? What exactly are you doing? Donating some money to the Royal British Legion or Help the Heroes, possibly having a two minutes’ silence but otherwise getting on with your day as usual. And let’s be honest, did people die to set us free just so we can be a slave to the system? (I’ll let you decide what the system is.)

Remembrance Day is, for us, what 4th July Independence Day is to the Americans. Former British colonies, such as India, Sri Lanka and Canada, celebrate Independence Day too, to mark the liberation from our rule. So why don’t we really celebrate today? Let’s make it a National Holiday, perhaps an extended weekend (such like Thanksgiving in the US). Let’s have some kind of procession in the street – and not just a military one but a showcase of pluralism, multiculturalism and peace, kinda like Mardi Gras and May Day all rolled into one. And perhaps let’s name it World Peace Day or something.

Which brings me on to my final point. Yesterday demonstration in Central London by students and lecturers against the coalition government’s cuts to higher education and plans to increase tuition fees for 80% of students is perhaps the best celebration of Remembrance Day. It is why people died in the first place, so that we can have the freedom to protest and to express our views.

The Big Society – Does size matter?

I attended a workshop yesterday, organised by the Environmental Law Foundation, on how the concept of the Big Society could help local residents to achieve environmental justice. Of course, there is a still confusion about what David Cameron meant when he coined the Big Society. But I think I heard possibly one of the best definitions of it yesterday, from Steve Shaw, the National Coordinator of Local Works.

Local Works is an organisation that was specifically set up by the New Economics Foundation to campaign for and push for the parliamentary acceptance of the Sustainable Communities Act. This is what Shaw said:

“The Big Society has always been there. It is about the things you want to do but the rules are a barrier and they can only be changed by government. The Sustainable Communities Act comes in as a bottom up process to change. It is the only concrete example of the Big Society.”

I had heard of the SCA but didn’t really know what it about. Apparently, in a nutshell, local residents can submit ideas for local initiatives to their local council, who then pass it up to central government (via the Local Government Association) and the government has to seriously consider each before approving or rejecting. There probably is a bit more to it than that, but effectively it means that the people have a real say as to what happens in their local community.

Personally, I think the confusion arises more from the form of words rather than the content. I don’t think anyone is opposed to the idea of the Big Society – it’s a catchy, vacuous name for social responsibility, even though social responsibility is much more self-explanatory. In positing the Big Society, Cameron was trying to put forward an alternative philosophy to Big Government. The problem is that it is easy to understand Big or Small in relation to Government. But Society is not a specific entity. Big Society is just Society, the adjective is superfluous.

Arguably, the best definition of the Big Society, or social responsibility, comes from Margaret Thatcher (I feel so dirty now). In her autobiography, she clarified what she meant when she said that “there’s no such thing as society”: “My meaning, clear at the time but subsequently distorted beyond recognition, was that society was not an abstraction, separate from men and women who composed it, but a living structure of individuals, families, neighbours and voluntary associations. I expected great things from society in this sense because I believed that as economic wealth grew, individuals and voluntary groups should assume more responsibility for their neighbours’ misfortunes. The error to which I was objecting was the confusion of society with the state as the helper of first resort…Society for me was not an excuse, it was a source of obligation.” This is why you can’t describe society as big, because the obvious question would be: “how big?”

And then, if size really does matter, then everyone knows that nothing gets big by itself. If the government want a big society, it needs to masturbate it and in a controlled fashion, because there’s nothing messier and more annoying than premature ejaculation.