Friday 3 July 2020

Liberty. Why do they never..... Think It Through?


 T.S Eliot, in ‘Choruses from the Rock’ laments on behalf of our creator: 

“I have given you the power of choice, and you only alternate

 between futile speculation, and unconsidered action”. 


When I was at university studying philosophy, despite the enjoyment of the intellectual rigour of endlessly dissecting words such as ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, I got frustrated that all this dedication to dissection never seemed to result in anything practical. 

Endless analysis resulting in paralysis. Futile speculation. There must be a better way, I thought. 


When I got into politics, I became equally frustrated that politicians seemed happy to bandy about these same words (words that ivory-tower-residents had spent lifetimes picking to ever-reducing pieces) with absolutely no consideration for what they might actually mean at all. 

Careless word-flinging resulting in some really stupid policies. Unconsidered action. There must be a better way, I thought. 

Between these two extremes of compulsive analysis and careless proclamation there must be – whisper it – a middle way? 


The perils of failing to unpack what we mean by such popularised words as ‘Freedom’ can be illustrated in our agonised debates over the ‘freedom’ of the press. 


Unless we step back and consider what we want our press to be free ‘from’, and whether when we say freedom, we mean equally freedom ‘from’ and freedom ‘to...’, we end up in the pickle we find ourselves in today. 


When a politician goes on about ‘a free press’, the accepted meaning is ‘free from State control’. But if we unpack what it is about state control of the press that we really object to, it is the control of a powerful, unaccountable, monopoly. 


Once we realise that this is what we really mean by ‘free’, it becomes obvious that a state is not the only powerful, unaccountable monopoly. 


Enormous private-sector empires such as Rupert Murdoch’s hold that position too. Perhaps they hold it even more than a state, since although they are not technically a ‘monopoly’, their size means it is impossible for many others to compete, and international finance has made their reach not just national, like a state, but trans-national. We clearly (and naturally) see the interests of the owners of our media expressed through their outlets. 


But bizarrely we still labour under the absurdly anachronistic notion that these are in some way more of a ‘free’ press, because they are driven by an unaccountable quasi-monopoly with an agenda which happens to be a private entity, rather than a state entity. 


Why? Because we have not bothered to unpack what we think ‘freedom’ means when we say, ‘A Free Press’. 


If we have not accurately established our premise, we cannot be surprised when our conclusions are all over the place; riddled in inconsistencies which we then hysterically try to tackle at the point of the symptom, not at the root cause ( a failure to think through what we actually mean by ‘free’.) 


If we go a step further, it actually becomes hard to see what a really ‘free’ press would really look like. Whoever was running it, however noble their intentions, would inevitably be running it from some kind of motive. The motive may be saintly, but it is still a motive, and the fact it is a good motive driving that particular press does not make it any more ‘free’. It just makes it ‘good’.  We should not confuse ‘free’ with our personal notion of ‘good’. That will end up in tangles as well. 


The conclusion we have to reach is that we need to consciously agree, for practical purposes, what we mean by ‘free’:

We may decide that for practical purposes we say all press is ‘free’, or we may decide that none of it is – even insurgent small websites. We will probably decide that ‘some’ of it is. Since we instinctively worry about the ‘freedom’ of a press outlet driven by a huge, unaccountable monopoly, we may well look for size and influence limits on owners in what we call ‘free’. 


But whatever we decide is less important than the fact we have worked out what we actually mean, and that our society’s building blocks are concepts we have actually thought-through, rather than a shifting-sand approximation of an abstract noun that carries convenient emotional connotations. 

Monday 29 June 2020

Beyond the Blue Bird (see below)

I am considering re-starting my blog posts. Why? I suppose it is a desire to be known. Not known as being identifiable by a large number of people, but for those small number who do know me, or read this, better known. What I think. How I feel about things.


That is bizarre when you think about it. Where does this instinct come from? What I feel and think is of little interest to others. They are more interested in what they feel and think. And I do not suffer the delusion that what I feel and think matters in some wider way. What people think seldom matters. What they do about it does. But you don’t do things through a blog post. 


And it is not an instinct all share. One person very close to me likes not to be known. For him, he feels it gives others power over him to know him and about him. A bit like letting other people know your hand in poker. Another friend too said something subtly different, but along a similar line: that having secrets made him feel empowered. 


I am the opposite. I feel I have power when there is nothing left for people to find out. No one has anything over me. Whatever anyone levels at me I can say, yes. Here it is. Next? I don’t feel like my life is analogous to a game of poker. Whatever I have to win or lose is not something that other people can give or take away. It is in my gift alone. 


Maybe that instinct to be known led me into politics in the first place. I would have said that it was a desire to change things for the better. But there are many ways to do that without asking 80,000 people ‘do you love me?’ every five years. There is something in me, and in all politicians, that makes us seek an audience – to what we do, and who we are.


(It is a form of vanity. Not bad in itself – that attribute, like all attributes - can be used for either good or bad. The important thing is self-awareness of what your attributes are. This makes it more likely you will be able to direct them to what you think you want to become. Self-awareness of course, is an attribute in itself… and, like humility, if one is sufficiently lacking in it, one can think oneself very rich in it…) 


When I was a politician, I felt that if people were going to vote for me, they deserved to know as much about me, what I thought – and more crucially, how I thought, as possible. But politics was frustrating because its nature prevented openness. Saying honestly what you thought and who you are usually resulted in such distortions that at the end of it all, a more dishonest picture of ‘you’ was portrayed than if you just kept silent. 

I admit it. Freedom did feel good... 

But I am not a politician any more. On that day when I was to finally go to bed with either victory or liberty, I remember realising that the prospect of liberty made my heart beat faster and made me feel more alive than the prospect of victory. Which was a good thing, because that is what I got. After my liberation from service was announced, I was asked by the local BBC political correspondent what I thought about ‘everything’. I recall the delicious surge of joy when I realised that what I said didn’t really matter anymore. And as I remember, I said as much. 


But as I started to etch out my new life, I began to realise that liberty is not just constrained by a job. Loyalties, consequences, perceptions, all of these curtail saying what you really think; doing what, in absence of consequences, you’d really like to do. And of course, when I thought 

about it, they do on a daily basis. I cannot in practice tell my meeting acquaintance that the thing they are telling me about is of no interest to me whatsoever, if I want to maintain work and friendships. We are always constrained in acting by the consequences of our actions. It is a word much bandied-about, but it is hard to imagine what real liberty looks like.


But that is probably a blog for another time. 

Monday 30 March 2015

Twitter ate my blog!

Am I the only one who has found that the rise and rise of twitter (and to an extent) facebook has eaten their blog? Despite the best of my intentions, I have ended up posting minute by minute stuff on Facebook and Twitter. Does this say something about our ever diminishing attention-spans as a society? Or just about me not being very good at managing the blogger app on my iphone...?   Who knows.  But be warned - this blog may not be updated as much as it should be. A big blue bird came and ate it up.

Monday 30 June 2014

Lamplighters progress!

In politics you get very used to promises and pledges; there's always a lot of talk and if something goes wrong, the emergency response is often to have yet another meeting or 'write a report '. It always reminds me of a certain scene in The Life of Brian ( fans will know which one I mean). Recently the national papers exposed not just my thighs in a picture of me in my old work outfit of a red swimming cozzy, but the fact I used to work on Cornish beaches as a surf life guard. In that line of work, talk cannot replace Action. So it is especially good to see actual physical action happening in re-opening the Lamplighters Pub. In a welcome break from paperwork, Cllr Wayne Harvey and I rolled up our sleeves and got busy in renovating the pub. Still a long way to go, but great to see Kathie and Dominic Gundry-White actually getting something done and bringing our pub back to life! 

Thursday 3 April 2014

Goodnight Irene! Stadium Victory!

Celebration - but we couldn't be sure for another 13 days...
After a hearty celebration two weeks ago, when it was announced that the Judicial Review brought by TrasHorfield had been dismissed, we found it wasn't the end of the story.

Our petition, attracted over 13,000 signatures of support for the Memorial Ground being sold for a Sainsburys, housing, community facility, parking and memorial park, in order to enable to building of a new Stadium for Rovers in South Gloucestershire.

The reasons why the petition was so popular were clear: This was not just about Bristol Rovers fans, in fact, I received some very kind words and support from arch-rivals, Bristol City - they know what it's like to have a major and exciting infrastructure project that will benefit the whole city stopped by a minority group, skating on the edge of legislation to impose their view.

It was also supported by people who wanted to see Bristol give out a loud signal that this is a city open for business, a place worth investing in, and not a backward backwater where any good and exciting idea or investment is met with a muttered 'not in our backyard'.

It was supported by people who want to see major music acts come to our city, who want to see major sporting events - like our own Lee Haskins defend his title to a huge home crowd...

...and it was supported by many who want a transport revolution in our gridlocked city of fumes, knowing that the Rovers Stadium would play a huge part in boosting the business case we need to win, to get a full Henbury Loop Line. 

Contrary to what you might think, many traders on Gloucester Road also supported it - they are not competitors of a supermarket, and the extra footfall and parking space was something they saw as a positive.

After the decision was announced, Trash then appealed, the appeal was dismissed by the judge, and thankfully, Trash did not take this decision further to the High Court. That is a relief. To do so would have been painful and very costly for all involved - and those who are always winners in these situations, and who tend to defend and like judicial reviews - the lawyers - would have been the only ones certain to gain.

No, we had already spent enough public money on this, and so it was with joy and relief that decency and common sense - having been approved by the democratic planning process, then by the judicial process, finally prevailed.

It's impossible to name everyone who was so brilliant in getting Rovers the home they have wanted for over 30 years - but David Thomas is a hero, Angela Betts, Nigel Currie, our Councillor Claire Hiscott, George Maggs, Nick Higgs who was superb and unwavering,  the 13,000 who supported our petition... 

And personally, a very warm thank you to all those who posted such lovely, and supportive messages for the campaign, both on the Rovers fan-page and on twitter. It really made the world of difference and really helped keep morale up. Thank you.

So, A huge thank you and well done to all those who campaigned so hard, and to those thousands who signed the petition. This is your victory  #UTG