Extinction Rebellion at the Council Meeting

Yesterday I attended, as a visitor, the County Council’s budget planning meeting. I was supporting a Green colleague who wanted to ask a question about the County’s cycling infrastructure. He was concerned that the transport budget was disproportionately tilted towards the needs of car drivers rather than cyclists. As appears to be rather often the case, he did not get a very clear answer! Somebody, a recently retired Green Councillor, also asked a question, this time about the proportion of the budget that was being allocated to deal with climate change.

As soon as she had finished – whether there was any collusion I don’t know – a demonstration kicked off organised by the Extinction Rebellion group. I must say this was great fun and enlivened the proceedings immensely. It was also well organised. There was a mock trial, plenty of (fairly tuneful) singing, and a people’s convention. Some of the participants glued themselves to the benches. The Councillors took themselves off and the police arrived. After some time it all ended peacefully with the press and the demonstrators ushered from the building. The event also appeared as the first item on BBC Points West in the evening, though the pictures were rather disappointing, and perhaps not enough was made of the main message the protesters wanted to get across. The Council leader defended the Council’s record pointing out that the recently refurbished Shire Hall was now carbon neutral!

Did all this mean very much? There are some obvious points to be made and then some difficult ones. The demonstrators clearly felt that they were not getting their message across by the traditional channels. (On the evidence of the first part of the morning they were probably right.) They had therefore resorted to more direct methods, though it should be stressed that this did not include violence. If publicity was their main aim then at least they got on the local news. Whether any of their specific demands – there was a whole list of them – were recorded and taken seriously, with a view to possible implementation, we simply do not know, though future responses may tell us something.

Now consider the situation of the one Green Party councillor present at the meeting. This is somebody who has committed herself to the political pathway and by dint of what was no doubt a long and arduous process has managed to get herself elected. Her main purpose would be to promote Green policies. The budget debate would be an opportunity to do so. I wonder what she felt about the demonstration. The ‘politicians’, and there are several of them in the County who are forwarding the Green agenda, might wonder whether the demonstrators’ evident contempt for the political process and their attempts to undermine it by direct action, are poor reward for their labour. Presumably they still feel that working through politics might in the end prove to be a more effective method. On the other hand – to say it again – Extermination Rebellion and the like evidently feel that the situation is becoming desperate. The traditional methods have proved a failure. We simply do not have time to go on knocking at the same door from which we get no answer.

I have sympathy for both parties. I wonder what other people feel about this.

 

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As if everything can go on as normal

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Despite all the warnings we go on acting as if everything is normal. I suppose there is always a tendency to hope that if we simply wait it out, then climate change will not happen. In this mood we are on the lookout for some good news and fall upon it like manna from heaven.

I am reminded of the famous moment in 1938 when Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich meeting with Hitler, waving his piece of paper and declaring ‘peace in our time’. He was received with enormous enthusiasm. Who wanted another war? But there came moments, not long afterward, when people began to realise that everything might not turn out well after all. The poet, Louis MacNeice, for one, living in London, suddenly understood that something serious was afoot when soldiers began to fell trees on Primrose Hill. Here is the relevant passage from Autumn Journal.

The night is damp and still

And I hear dull blows on wood outside my window;

They are cutting down the trees on Primrose Hill.

The wood is white like the roast flesh of chicken,

Each tree falling like a closing fan;

No more looking at the view from seats beneath the branches,

Everything is going to plan;

They want the crest of the hill for anti-aircraft,

The guns will take the view

And searchlights probe the heavens for bacilli

With narrow wands of blue.

And the rain came on as I watched the territorials

Sawing and chopping and pulling on ropes like a team

In a village tug-of-war; and I found my dog had vanished

And thought ‘This is the end of the old regime’.

We need moments like that, here and now, at the end of 2018. We may not be facing another world war, but who is to deny that something looms on the horizon that threatens our facile optimism? ‘Peace in our time.’ No, not then, not now. Everything cannot go on as normal. It is time we faced up to it.

The One Who Decides

We, by which I mean Gloucester Green Party members, had an invitation recently to go for training as local government councillors. It was addressed to women members in particular; there is evidently a shortage of women councillors. One of our members said she had, some years ago, been on one of these courses. The course itself was all right but  the more she found out about local government the more disillusioned she became. To put it simply, the real action was somewhere else.

If that was true some years ago, it is almost certainly more true than ever today. In recent years local government has been systematically disempowered. I was reminded in this context of the saying attributed to Carl Schmitt, the political theologian: ‘sovereign is the one who decides’. The big question is: ‘who gets to make the decisions round here?’

I think this is a question we should ask more frequently. We talk rather glibly about individual sovereignty, that we all have the right to choose, but in how many matters are decisions being made over which we have no control? Politically perhaps we should start at the bottom and work upwards. Is my vote worth much? (Bring on Proportional Representation.) Does local government work? (Change the system whereby all the important decisions are made at Westminster.) Does parliament work? (See Caroline Lucas’s book, Honourable Friends?.) How much is government influenced by big business? (Whose decision was it in the final analysis to build Gloucester’s huge incinerator?). And so on and so on.

‘Sovereign is the one who decides.’ Good point Mr Schmitt.

Starting from the wrong place

 

The old Irish joke – now worn rather thin – that to get where we want to get to we had better start from somewhere else, still resonates.

If you look at the Gloucestershire Vision 2050 Consultation Document, supposedly something to promote discussion about how we can achieve a better County, one is forcibly struck by the feeling that it starts at the wrong place. It wants to know how the County can achieve economic growth, attract more businesses and young people, build bigger cities and even more roads. Even the provision of more green spaces is to promote eco-tourism.

Frankly, this is a business document, drawn up by business people, to promote more business.

What about sustainability rather than growth? How about distributing our resources more fairly? We urgently need more affordable housing, better wages, more active concern about conservation, better (i.e. non-polluting) transport, better social care and so on.

I notice that the original document does not speak of fairness at all. But, if you are thinking about a whole County, prosperity and justice go together. You can’t have one without the other.

 

 

Non-alignment

It seems to me quite often legitimate, even necessary, where truth and justice are at stake, to push issues in the direction of ‘for or against’. Who, or what, in any particular matter is ‘on the side of the angels’. This is often relatively easy to work out. Take for example, the need to improve air quality in our cities. It is not easy to be against this. But of course there are plenty of people – people who make cars for a start – who would rather not do anything about it, and some who are even prepared to run false tests in order to confuse the situation!

Having said this, I wonder whether the right response on some occasions is what we might call non-alignment. Sometimes we need to say: ‘this dispute is nothing to do with me. I am not aligning myself either with the pros or cons, either with the establishment or those trying to resist it’.

Looking back at world history one can see what a good position was taken up by the non-aligned movement during the Cold War (the phrase ‘non-aligned first became popular at that time). There were nations who did not want to be counted as either on the Soviet or the Western side of the argument, and why not?

In terms of current politics, I continue to appreciate the position of the Green Party. If the establishment is Tory and the opposition is the Corbynist Labour Party, I would undoubtedly be on the side of Labour. But the Green Party is the party of active non-alignment. This is better still. It is against economic growth at all costs, in favour of a citizen’s income and so on. In other words it has a clear political programme, but it is different from that of either of the big players.

Collateral Damage

pexels-photo-735833.jpegI think all of us Europeans should have an extended stay outside Europe (not US, Canada, Australia etc.) and preferably in the Middle East or North Africa. We then might generate a little more realism about what we have done and how it is rebounding on us. I have just finished watching the four part serial ‘Collateral’ by David Hare on the BBC. A good title because it is set in London, but about people trafficking from countries where we Brits have been meddling. The plight of people from the ‘stressed’ countries – Iraq, Syria, Libya etc. is heart-breaking, but the drama also shows up the greed and cruelty of those who are trying to exploit them.  Many of our citizens (British i.e.) do not come out well, especially the army, security services, politicians, detention centre staff and the like. And of course this does not just apply to the ‘baddies’. The soldiers who served in Iraq, for example, seem horribly damaged.

I am reminded of that well-known saying that the British don’t really understand their history because most of it happened somewhere else. This was a comment about Britain’ long imperial history, but it might work too in a contemporary setting. The obvious example is the Second Iraq War and its aftermath. The regional chaos subsequent to March 2003, especially but not only the rise of Isis, has been one of the main contributing factors to the refugee crisis and the growing number of asylum seekers. (Patrick Coburn has documented this meticulously: see especially The Age of Jihad.) Even the surge of economic migrants, which we feel is somehow not our fault, can often be traced to the failure of eco-systems, agriculture and industry due to the effects of Western policy. If the West accepts any responsibility for the effects of climate change, this must be the case.

Whatever the final arrangements about Brexit (I am sorry to introduce that word) I hope they do not mean that we think that Britain can ‘go it alone’ or even ‘take back control’. That is a complete illusion. Our history, good and bad, remains our history. Imperialism was a big bad idea. The fight against fascism was ‘our finest hour’. Invading Iraq, along with the United States, was a mistake, just to pick out some ‘highlights’. The consequences are with us still. We shall have to deal with them. Treaties and laws and boundaries won’t change any of that.

More Government Not Less

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The Green Party, like most political parties, wants people to be active citizens, concerned about the way we are governed, expressing their views on public issues and, of course, voting in elections. It becomes particularly concerned when people simply do not care about the big issues because it is obvious that people who try to ignore the political process lose out in the end. Victims of austerity, for example, who cannot be bothered to vote, are ignored by legislators just because they have given away what influence they have. They are then surprised that governments are not working on their behalf. But if we want change we shall have to do something about it.

The truth is that we cannot cut government out of our lives, especially when living in a modern state. People complain about the ‘nanny state’ but it is not state action which is the problem but the wrong sort of action. Frankly, I am happy about government, and feel that those who complain about the nanny state are mostly those who want all the benefits that the state can provide but are irked by its equally necessary disciplines. I would like to see the state collect more taxes, particularly from wealthy tax dodgers and corporations. I love the BBC and am pleased to see the license fee being efficiently collected. I approve of every penny I am asked to contribute to the NHS, a wonderful addition to our society, and sufficient reason alone to live in this country and not the USA. I am delighted that we have laws prohibiting unduly long working hours, drink driving, child labour, air and water pollution and the like. I am on the side of law and order and wonder whether we should spend more on policing, not because I have fascist tendencies, but because a lawless state, even in a small way, tends to lead to the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

Of course there are bad laws – some of the ‘austerity laws’ fall into that category in my opinion – and of course we have the responsibility to try and get them changed. But again, let’s not ignore the system. Let’s make it work better.

 

 

Not heroes but humans

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I have been reading with great interest a biography of Nikita Khruschev, the man who, despite his many personal failings, tried to turn the Soviet Union in a better direction after Stalin. Khruschev believed in the great Enlightenment values – rational planning, mass education, scientific and technological advance, socialism and Progress (with a capital ‘p’). He promoted these ideas again and again, but the end product was disappointing. The Soviet Union became a by-word for corruption, inefficiency and medocrity. Interestingly, when Khruschev’s schemes faltered, he tended to appeal to human nature. He claimed that everybody, from the government official to the lowliest party member to ‘the people’ themselves, could do better. He was fond of pointing back to the achievements of the Russian Revolution and the defeat of fascism in the Great Patriotic War, but he was constsntly frustrated by the results of his own well-meaning efforts. People just let him down.

Maybe, after all, Khruschev, was right. Many today, in the same way, look out on a world of warfare, poverty, massive displacement, and environmental destruction and then look around for someone to blame. What is the root cause of the ignorance, superstition, rivalry and exploitation – the sheer wickedness we encounter? Well, perhaps it really is human nature. The ideas that stem from the Enlightenment are grand and impressive, and like most ideas can work well enough in a utopian environment, but they are difficult to make work well on Planet Earth, particularly if they do not include a realistic assessment of human capabilities. It is not that I am trying to diminish or downgrade humanity. Quite the reverse. But when ideologies are promoted at the expense of people and those ideologies have within them an unrealistic estimate of human nature, then the trouble begins. Humans are not infinitely anything. They are not infinitely good, or adaptible, or educable, or productive or, for that matter, wicked or useless. They are…humans. We must understand what they are if they are to thrive: people who lead ‘ordinary’ lives, who need the support of others and who look to the future with hope.

What does this mean for the Green Party? We too have some big ideas: more care for the planet, more social justice, more democracy. But good ideas like these will not, on their own, achieve much. We need people more than anything, people who are not heroes, or great thinkers, but who know, despite their limitations, that there is something worthwhile to be done. Come and join us.

 

Local Productivity

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A viable community, like a viable farm, protects its own production capacities. It does not import products that it cannot produce for itself. And it does not export local products until local needs have been met. Wendell Berry

I think there is a danger if local amenities depend entirely for their profitability  on visitors and an even greater danger if big businesses are only in the City (I am talking about Gloucester here) to extract profit. A similar issue is one of local productivity.

To what extent are we dependent here in Gloucester on imports; not imports from abroad but from London or Birmingham or Bristol? Do we produce any food, clean water, electricity, building materials, furniture or clothing within the city boundary? Some, perhaps. There are allotments and vegetable gardens, occasional windmills and an assortment of solar panels; some folk collect rainwater and others (very few, I suspect) make their own clothes and build their own furniture, though nobody spins or weaves or makes bricks.

We are now so far down the track of dependence that the whole subject hardly seems worth discussing. Of course we don’t live like that! Is Gloucester some sort of desert island on which we have suddenly been marooned? Yes, but that’s just the point. The modern city is part of a vast complex machine which provides us with everything that we need. But what if the machine stops? What if there were no electricity? What if we were cut off from our food suppliers? Is it not time that we made a move in the direction of becoming more self-sufficient? Full self-sufficiency is admittedly not something that we can easily achieve in this complicated world, but we can make a start.

This is not just a matter of survival. I believe we would be much happier and healthier if we grew our own food, built our own outhouses, brewed our own cider, made our own clothes, entertained ourselves more, walked more and lived more.