Why don’t we care more about climate change?
The climate crisis is reaching epic proportions. Experts are warning of an existential threat as soon 2040. While we’ve been hearing about the escalating severity of climate change for decades now, we’re yet to see a drastic shift in our attitudes towards it. For the most part, our habits remain unchanged – we continue to rely heavily on energy-guzzling household appliances, cars and single-use plastics, the oil-economy still reigns supreme and our governments have largely failed to meet the commitments they made during the Paris accords.
Some predictions give us until 2025 to reduce carbon emissions to almost nil, before we have to face up to a climate disaster on a scale described by its forecasters as ‘genocide’. While you might be forgiven for thinking such a dire prediction would be enough to spur us into urgent action, the reality is somewhat less climactic.
Recent action by groups like Climate Strike in Europe, Extinction Rebellion in the UK and the progression of the Green New Deal in America mark the beginning of a real, positive change in attitude. But set against the wider context, in which over half of Americans don’t believe that climate change will pose a threat to them in their lifetimes and where climate news rarely makes the headlines, you’ve got to wonder whether this is really enough.
We just don’t seem to care about climate change.
What’s going so wrong? The question is one of both politics and psychology. For starters, our species is hardwired to respond to immediate threats - it’s an instinct that allows us to survive from day to day. We tend not to pay much attention to threats we perceive as distant, instead preferring to divert energies towards addressing the here and now. We often view climate change as something that happens slowly, the effects of which will only take hold in years or decades time. Hence, paying the bills due tomorrow and meeting next week’s deadlines typically take priority.
This may be irrational, but in this case, it’s also completely inaccurate. Over 50% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions currently in the atmosphere were produced over the last 30 years. On average, global temperatures have already risen by approximately 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1880, with two-thirds of this warming occurring since 1975.
And we can’t expect to see a slow-down any time soon. If warming continues at its current rate, we face tripping any number of positive feedback loops which, when triggered, will accelerate the rate of warming exponentially. This could be forest die-off, methane release from melting permafrost, or a reduction in the earth’s global albedo caused by melting sea ice. If any one of these occurs, we’d start feeling things escalate pretty rapidly.
We also find it hard to get to grips with the severity of the threat. For the majority of Westerners, in particular, the danger generally seems to be very far away from home. Having had little direct experience of the kind of drought, extreme weather and flooding that have become commonplace in other parts of the world, it’s easy to believe that climate change doesn’t present a risk to those in the most developed regions.
But again, this may not be true for much longer. The economic impacts of climate change will leave no country untouched, with global GDP expected to fall to 30% below 2010 levels if temperatures rise by 4 degrees. This represents a worse decline than that seen during the Great Depression. If we continue along the current trajectory, we can also expect to see twice as much conflict and a huge reduction in crop yields, leading to food shortages the world over. It’s no longer just those living in vulnerable areas that should be worried about climate change.
There is also a level of uncertainty surrounding the climate change discussion that can easily be translated into an excuse not to act. This ties in with the earlier point about immediacy – we prioritise issues that we know are happening now. Climate predictions vary, and we don’t know with any certainty what the world and its climate will look like in half a century’s time; this ambiguity eliminates a degree of the urgency with which we talk about climate. While it’s true that the very worst case scenarios may never come to pass, we ought to question whether we can really afford to take the risk. If the answer is no, we should be doing everything possible to stop these nightmare outcomes coming to fruition.
Perhaps one of our greatest set-backs so far in the fight against climate change has been the idea that efforts to mitigate it will be inevitably damaging to economic growth. The short-termism that pervades our politics is such that politicians will almost always choose short-term growth over longevity; instant vote-winners over long-term sustainability. As the crisis ramps up, support for sustainable climate initiatives will inevitably gain popularity at the ballot box, but up until now, it’s always been more important for re-election to prioritise economic development and prosperity.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that green climate policy and a healthy economy are no longer mutually exclusive. Fast action will be economically beneficial in a very short space of time - in fact, rapid decarbonisation could add an extra $26 trillion, not exactly peanuts, to global GDP by 2030. The costs of addressing climate change now are almost immeasurably smaller than the cost of inaction would be.
It’s all too easy to sweep the issue of climate change under the rug and turn our attention towards the immediate complexities of everyday life. In reality, what happens to our climate will likely do more to shape our collective future than perhaps anything else. This is truly the issue of our day; it’s time to stop being passive and start treating it as such.
It’s been over 100 years since the first women in the UK won their right to vote. Yet women still face enormous barriers to the corridors of power. Renew's Gwen Jones breaks down the struggles faced by women in power, and the effect it is having on our politics.
The past few months and years have seen a torrent of abuse - both on and offline - directed at female representatives. And it’s not just about Brexit; research reveals an ongoing trend of harassment, aimed exclusively at women in positions of political power.
It’s a growing problem. Most recently, video footage shows so-called ‘yellow vest’ activists hurling violent abuse at Conservative MP Anna Soubry on her way into Parliament. Their actions were later defended by her fellow politicians, including the likes of Nigel Farage.
Recent research conducted by Amnesty International, in partnership with Element AI, suggested that around 1.1 million abusive tweets were sent to the female MPs on their list in 2017. Diane Abbott, the Shadow Home Secretary, received more online abuse than any other British woman that year.
Stuck in the Seventies
Comments on female MP’s bodies, outfit choices and other aspects of their appearances are prevalent across social and mainstream media platforms, and the weight of such judgements is born disproportionately by women. In September of 2015, Donald Trump remarked of presidential opponent Carly Fiorina; “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president.” One male MP comments; “Women in public life are at a greater risk of being objectified…. Nobody would tweet me saying how terrible my suit was, or to tell me that I’m looking fat, or that I should dye my hair. It just wouldn’t happen.”
Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin endured aggressive and persistent sexualisation throughout her campaign, which came to a head when her early pageant photos were leaked, triggering a barrage of comments on her body and sexuality. One site was discovered selling unofficial bumper stickers publicising her candidacy, which read, “Vote HOT - McCain MILF ‘08”. MILF, for anyone as of yet unclear, stands for ‘Mother I’d Like to F*ck.’
Theresa May developed the nickname ‘Kitten Heels’, due to the frequency with which her footwear choices were detailed in major newspapers. And lest we forget the infamous Daily Mail headline, enthusiastically announcing Brexit discussions between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon: ‘Never Mind Brexit, Who Won Legs-It!’, alongside a photo of the two women sitting side by side.
Google the names of Nancy Pelosi, Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice along with the word porn, and the results yield pages upon pages of videos and images that feature the women’s faces in various brutally demeaning sexual scenarios.
Threats to life
Most tragically of all, of course, was the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in June, 2016. While the event should have served as a stark reminder of the dangers of extremism and abuse against politicians, Cox’s name is increasingly being used to glorify this type of violence and threaten other MPs. One of Soubry’s tormentors told her that she should be “Jo Cox’d”. Similarly, a man holding a hunting knife reportedly looking for Labour MP Helen Jones told social workers, “I’m going to go there and Jo Cox her.” Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, also received a letter telling her that she would “join that woman Cox.” I could go on.
The utmost respect is owed to the female representatives who receive this kind of hatred on a daily basis and continue to stand strong in their positions and convictions. But while the treatment of individuals already in the spotlight is troubling enough, perhaps more worrying is its effect on other young girls and women.
A new glass ceiling
The constant fear of backlash limits women’s freedom and willingness to express themselves, both online and on other platforms. Perpetual attempts to threaten or undermine female politicians have also been shown to reduce political participation among women. A recent study by Girlguiding UK found that girls are feeling increasingly excluded from politics by the “outdated and sexist treatment” of female MPs in the press, making them less likely to run for office, join activist organisations, and even vote.
The effect this will have on our national politics, and on our political discourse, is overwhelming. If women’s voices continue to be silenced, this precedent will undoubtedly be allowed to continue - or worsen. Appropriate action must be brought against those who perpetuate this kind of hate; while protecting freedom of speech is crucially important, those using this right to incite violence against women should always be held to account.
We still have a long way to go before the political realm can truly be considered an equal playing field. It is essential that we encourage young women to become politically active, and to overcome deliberate attempts to keep them out of power. We also urgently need to establish reasonable debate between MPs and the public, and make sure that there is less room for this kind of discourse.
Renew's Gwen Jones discusses the tragedy of the Notre Dame fire - and why it is important we learn from it.
The first time I saw Notre Dame Cathedral was in the summer of 2008, during my first visit to Paris as a child. Like so many girls my age, I’d been dreaming of the City of Love for months before I ever got to see it for myself.
The cathedral represents something integral to the Parisian dream, emblematic of the lavish excesses of French bourgeois society. Built between 1163 and 1345, Notre Dame stands in the heart of the city, on the Île de la Cité. At the time of its construction, its immaculate design and masterful construction were a symbol of humanity’s highest capabilities. Notre Dame was, and will always be, a monument to progress - and to civilisation itself.
While, admittedly, its grandeur was likely somewhat lost on me at the time, I can still remember the feeling of reverence that comes from being in the presence of something so much bigger, older, and more significant than yourself.
At the time of writing, the internal structure of the cathedral has been all but completely destroyed. The blaze, first reported late yesterday afternoon, burned for most of last night, as over 400 firefighters battled to extinguish the flames. Parisians watched and wept as the cathedral’s spire finally collapsed. While its main structure - including the two iconic front towers - has now been saved, the timber frame, spire, roof and countless treasures inside have gone up in smoke. With them, a piece of history.
There is something deeply evocative about the destruction of a historic monument. A part of this comes from our unwillingness to accept such tokens of our history as impermanent. Notre Dame, built in an era of thatch, wattle and daub, was built - uniquely - to last. Made from stone, heavy timber and lead, the building was expected to stand the test of time. Indeed, the cathedral’s eternality seemed almost absolute, having survived both the French Revolutions and two catastrophic world wars.
Last night, this illusion was shattered. As the cathedral’s roof was slowly reduced to rubble, so was what it had come to represent - the eternal endurance of human civilisation. However painful, yesterday’s tragedy presents us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on our own mortality; we can afford to take nothing for granted, and our position in the world is infinitely more fragile than we may like to believe.
This level of humility is essential if we are to make responsible choices - the future is in no way guaranteed, and we must appreciate that the consequences we reap tomorrow are contingent on the decisions we make today.
In this opinion piece, Renew leader Annabel Mullin breaks down why entitlement is such a big problem in our political life.
Throughout my time in politics, I’ve had a really big issue. It’s one that won’t go away and that irritates me in every realm of the political spectrum: entitlement.
It doesn’t matter whether it is about votes, being present in a meeting or a system that is kept the same without renewal. Entitlement runs through our institutions; it plagues our political system.
I’m sure that it didn’t start with the expenses scandal, but that’s certainly a good place for me to start. The system was abused by so many, whether or not Sir Peter Viggers actually claimed for the £1,645 floating duck island. The fact that there wasn’t some expenses filter (such as MP’s consciences) seems totally extraordinary. The argument that they were allowed to claim doesn’t really wash when many people struggle to get to the end of the month on their salaries. When Emmanuel Macron recently tried to change fuel tax allowance in France, he was told by a voter, ‘I can’t get to the end of the week’. The same is true for many in the UK.
Our political system itself is deeply flawed. The two-party political state has generated a lazy and bloated political spectrum, built of covert coalitions, that rarely create competition apart from in the (too few) marginal seats. A system that feels entitled to your vote because you live somewhere, because you are BAME, because you are female and young, etc, totally sucks.
No one is entitled to anyone's vote. You earn votes. You should gain them because you offer the best option. And the voters aren’t allowed off scot-free here - they’ve become so disenchanted they can’t be bothered to vote. It is a catch 22 situation, and the trust has evaporated.
I can tell you of countless meetings that I’ve been in with those who think they have right to be there because they exist. Men and women fall into the trap of thinking that one election win, a media ‘love-in’ or their own press entitles them to a hearing.
Entitlement is smothering long-term reform and renewal. So many people go into politics to help improve their communities and they become exhausted and frustrated by the realities of an entitled political system. It spits them out.
As a political party, you earn respect and you earn your vote. No more, no less.
Monday 15 April 2019: The Independent Group and Renew reached a joint agreement that Renew will support The Independent Group at the European elections.
Renew have said that they welcome the opportunity to give their support, backing and friendship to The Independent Group. Renew have therefore begun preparations to wind up operations as soon as the Electoral Commission gives ‘Change UK - The Independent Group’ the all-clear to run in the elections. We look forward to this new chapter as an integral part of an exciting new pro-EU venture.
The Independent Group acknowledges the worthwhile and meaningful endeavours of Renew, and the hard work and dedication of their board members, staff, regional coordinators, policy working groups, supporters and candidates since inception.
Forming a new pro-EU party, particularly during the last two years, has clearly been arduous and challenging, and The Independent Group acknowledges the energy and ambition of Renew in standing up for decent values and honesty in political and public life.
Given the urgency of preparing for the European elections, The Independent Group is grateful for Renew’s pragmatic and generous approach in cooperating under shared values, interests and ideas. The Independent Group has welcomed applications for MEP candidacy from Renew approved candidates.
Commenting on Renew’s decision to support The Independent Group, Interim Leader of The Independent Group, Heidi Allen MP, said:
“I take my hat off to the Renew party who have worked incredibly hard to achieve what many would consider to be an impossible feat, a party born not out of Westminster but in the country. Their values mirror the collaborative approach in The Independent Group, so I am pleased we are working together in the national interest.
“Both Renew and The Independent Group have said that British politics is broken and it needs to change. We are looking forward to working together with them and their supporters in order to change British politics and make the positive case for Britain’s membership of the European Union.”
Annabel Mullin, Leader of Renew, said:
“In keeping with Renew’s commitment to honest, open and practical politics, we are happy to be working with The Independent Group. Due to the Brexit threat, it is essential that the pro-European vote is not split on May 23rd. This strategic move will ensure that voters are presented with a clear, pro-European choice at the ballot box.
“I know that Renew’s work at the grassroots levels can help The Independent Group’s established MPs build a better political system. Renew was founded in order to change the conversation on political reform and provide millions of disenfranchised voters with a voice. We can now do that with The Independent Group, who can provide invaluable expertise and leadership at this crucial time.
“I hope this move will provide a platform for doing politics differently.”
For further information or media bids please contact:
Stuart Macnaughtan on 07930 164 897 or firstname.lastname@example.org
James Dilley on 02032894160 or email@example.com
Notes to editors:
- Heidi Allen MP is the Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire, Interim Leader of The Independent Group and Spokesperson on Welfare and Pensions. She came to politics from business, having worked for 18 years in a variety of industries.
- Annabel Mullin co-founded Advance Together, a local political party which recently merged with Renew. She is a magistrate and is completing a PhD at University College London in criminology. Before this, Annabel worked in mental health in the NHS and worked as a police officer. She has also spent time working in financial services. Annabel has three small children and lives in South London.
- More information on The Independent Group is available at our website: https://www.theindependent.group
- You can follow The Independent Group on Twitter: @TheIndGroup
In this opinion piece, Renew's Scotland coordinator Roberta Buchan muses on the things she has learnt in life - and how women everywhere can be better represented in politics.
“I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child - ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end”.
That was Michelle Obama in the preface to her book Becoming. I write today from a perspective distant from that childhood question. Looking back from here, I see a kaleidoscope of snapshots associated with the theme of being a woman in this world.
I remember Blair’s babes, but I have mixed feelings due to the mixed message.
I remember a courageous young woman stepping out from a studio audience and crossing the studio floor to join a different group to what was expected of her. I recall my surge of delight and admiration.
I remember a picture of a canal barge covered in flowers, an expression of love and grief of friends at the loss of a young mother and MP. I have no words.
I recall another glimpse of the young mother who crossed the studio floor, now elected to represent her local area. She has had the courage to share in a blog post some of her painful struggle from self-doubt to self-acceptance as a woman and parent. She is finding her way.
I also recall a friend feeling she had to resign from her role as Councillor in impossible circumstances. But the image in my mind is of her standing, radiant, on some stairs in the sun.
I think of my own dreams and ambitions in my youth and middle years. Not so much specific career ambitions as an innate sense that I could do anything I wanted to do if I put my mind to making it happen. I have no idea how I came to have such an extraordinary (as I see it now) notion. But it surely must have been instilled by my mother. In my formative years, I was brought up in a single-parent family. Only in adulthood did I recognise that not every girl grows up with such an inner conviction.
The feeling faded gradually over those middle adult years, which is just as well. I have a son and grandchildren now who need space to grow into their lives.
Thinking on what these snapshots express for me, it is the full spectrum from dramatic to mundane that a woman’s life in politics or any other setting embraces. The examples I mention are all women with young or adult children. But irrespective of this I maintain that the full spectrum is manifest in the lives of women active in public life.
Returning to the quotation from Michelle Obama’s Becoming, I hear in it a message that enabling a young girl to find her way in life calls for letting her do so, not pushing her into a narrow idea of how she should be thinking. I think we should be doing the same for all children and young people.
My present involvement in politics is behind-the-scenes. I get satisfaction from doing what I can to support and create a context within which others can come forward and stand for election to represent the people on behalf of a party whose values I feel at home with. I know there are opportunities out there for women and men to become elected representatives and they will make discoveries, learning a lot in the process.
Sometimes they will face calls for collective action to bring transformation to the system and institutions of our UK politics. This is something fundamental that Renew stands for. I have hope that an increased proportion of women actively involved will help to bring the necessary change.
A small but significant practical example: Renew leader Annabel Mullin brought her children into the office over the school half-term break and posted a message about this on social media. This is a practical example of how things change if barriers are not put in the way of women's involvement.
Women's full integration into the public political sphere - and with it the potential to transform the institutional mindset - calls for doing away with a false dichotomy in how we view and what we expect of women and men. Jane Garvie of Women’s Hour recently pointed out that a passing comment on how hard it must have been for a successful woman singer to have pursued her singing career with young children at home would never have been made about a successful male singer. How true that is.
The efforts and courage of all of us must be brought to bear on dissolving barriers for women. Then we’ll see how the pace of change will surge.
Six million people signed a petition asking the government to revoke Article 50 - the mechanism by which the United Kingdom leaves the European Union - and stay in the EU. Leave activists talk of betrayal of the electorate. Had voting in the referendum been mandatory, would the past three years have seen the turmoil, discontent, and anger on both sides of the debate? Here Ciara Murray analyses the Belgian case to better understand how this might have played out in the UK.
Voting was made mandatory in Belgium in 1893, a mere sixty years after the creation of the state as a mechanism to avoid abstentionism and contain the emergence of radical political parties. Prof. Stephanie Wattier, professor of constitutional law at the University of Namur in Belgium, points out that without mandatory voting, the historical and ongoing conflicts between the French- and Flemish-speaking communities could give rise to dramatic electoral results and uneven vote distribution. Any imbalance in voter turnout between the communities would fuel accusations of political dominance of one community over another and in turn charge extremist parties’ discourse and propel them to greater vote share.
There is a clear parallel between the Belgian case and the Brexit crisis the United Kingdom is currently undergoing. Leave activists emphasise that the result of the referendum was democratic with 17.4 million votes in favour of Leave; Remainers point out that this number only constitutes 38% of the eligible 45.7 million eligible electorate. Both sides can agree that discontent fuels higher voter turnout among those discontented demographics and can skew the vote.
Professor Wattier emphasises that one of the key reasons for bringing in mandatory voting in Belgium was to avoid the rise of extremist parties. This past decade’s political turmoil in Belgium, with far-right separatist parties dominating the vote in Flanders and setting the discourse nationwide, is testament that this approach does not always work as intended. If the UK’s past political decade is anything to go by, something similar would have happened here, with UKIP and right-wing ideologies controlling the political direction of the country without a single representative in Westminster.
We would not be having the same conversations had voting in the referendum been mandatory in 2016. Parliament would perhaps feel more tied to the result of their constituents’ votes, especially if mandatory voting was brought in for parliamentary elections. More broadly, you can’t pander exclusively to the group you believe will be more likely to turn out to vote when you know everyone will turn out to vote.
Mandatory voting makes sense for referenda where the outcome can determine the direction of a nation for a generation. But the Belgian case demonstrates that it may not always be effective in staving off extremism in election results. It does seem, however, that compulsory voting would avoid a large amount of biased and politically-motivated speculation claiming to represent the nation’s true mood and opinions when less than half the electorate uses its vote.
Risk management writer Carolyn Cobbold describes how partnership working and community engagement helped to create Europe’s largest coastal realignment scheme, improving the environment, economy and resilience to climate change of a fragile stretch of Britain’s south coast.
The low-lying Manhood Peninsula south of Chichester is one of the most vulnerable areas of the UK when it comes to coastal, fluvial, surface and ground-water flooding. But by tackling the problems head-on and by encouraging partnership working, its local community has turned climate change risk into an opportunity.
In the late 1990s my friend and fellow Manhood resident Renee Santema, a Dutch spatial planner, and I were becoming increasingly concerned that a lack of long-term integrated planning was putting our coastal communities at risk. Climate change was likely to worsen existing water management and infrastructure problems. So, rather hotheadedly, we began making tea and holding meetings in village halls to encourage local residents to positively face up to their future together. Raising funds from businesses and organisations in the UK and the Netherlands, we organised a five-day workshop on the peninsula with 28 experienced Dutch and British engineers, environmentalists and planners. We briefed the participants, who stayed in dormitories in a local hostel and worked for free, with extensive background material provided by the area’s local communities and local and national authorities. We tasked them to brainstorm in mixed disciplinary groups and come up with ideas about a sustainable integrated planning approach for the future. The only restriction given was to not discount any idea, however radical!
Two decades on, many of their ideas have now been implemented as part of one of the UK’s first integrated coastal zone management plans.
Medmerry, the largest open coast realignment scheme in Europe when it opened in 2013, was a direct result of the 2001 and 2008 Going Dutch workshops. The scheme won the Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award in 2014 and dozens of other awards for outstanding achievement in engineering, the environment and community engagement. But more importantly, it has created a more robust and sustainable sea defence for the area as well as creating 183 hectares of intertidal salt marsh, a habitat increasingly under threat globally due to sea level rise and development. Birds, as well as land and water-based wildlife, have benefitted as have local residents, who now enjoy cycle, bridle and walkways in the beautiful new coastal reserve. Meanwhile, the local economy is enjoying an influx of additional tourism.
As a result of the GoingDutch workshop, the Manhood Peninsula Partnership was formed in 2001. Meeting four times a year, the MPP brings together local councils and other stakeholders in the area, including businesses, landowners and local residents, and national agencies including Natural England and the RSPB. Over the last two decades this partnership working has led to better drainage and flood risk mitigation, improved environment and wildlife habitats, cycle routes across the peninsula, a visitor destination plan and related tourism initiatives.
All this from listening and talking with open minds, exploring new ideas, ignoring existing boundaries and working together with no party politics, lubricated with tea!
For more on Going Dutch, see http://peninsulapartnership.org.uk/abd/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Going-Dutch-book-a.pdf
For more on Medmerry and the MPP see https://peninsulapartnership.org.uk/
Brexit has brought politics in the UK to a grinding halt. This is no coincidence - the fundamental flaws that exist within our system mean that really, it was only a matter of time.
In perhaps an irregular pearl of wisdom, renowned ex-Tory Anne Widdicome made the following statement whilst speaking on BBC Newsnight.
‘We have the worst Prime Minister since Anthony Eden, the worst leader of the opposition in the entire history of the Labour party, and the worst Parliament since Oliver Cromwell’.
As brusque as they are forthright, the words are a stark representation of popular opinion. Venture out onto the streets of Britain and you’d struggle to find a single soul who still believes that our political system is anything other than a failure.
With just days to go until our second attempt at Brexit day, chaos has become normality, and Parliament’s inability to decide on a way forward has plunged the country into a biting constitutional crisis.
From the outside looking in, our current parliament appears intrinsically unfit for purpose. But make no mistake – the situation in which we now find ourselves is the product of a handful of untimely elements which, when combined, have resulted in this most perfect of storms.
Whilst the country remains heavily divided over Brexit, millions still undeniably want to Leave the EU. By now, many of them have been convinced that a no-deal is the best option, despite what was promised by the original Leave campaign. In any representative democracy, MPs have a duty to be responsive to the demands of their constituents. While the role this actually plays in their decision making is tenuous, the majority of MPs at least want to be seen as having loyalty to the folks back home.
After all, an MP has it pretty good; it’s hardly surprising that most are unwilling to risk the good wages, hefty pension and subsidised cafeteria that go along with the position. This generally means avoiding actions that will upset their constituents and result in them losing their seats.
An MP’s loyalties are also inextricably tied up with their party. This introduces the first in a web of complexities for MPs in deciding how to act. More often than not, MPs owe their position in office to their respective parties and in return for their election they are generally expected to toe the party line.
Conservative MPs in particular must factor in an additional loyalty – to their 2017 manifesto. The latest Tory manifesto commits the party to leaving the EU. It even explicitly states that no-deal is preferable to a ‘bad deal’, whatever that looks like. Of course, it’s possible to argue that there is no mandate for enacting manifesto promises given the Conservative’s failure to win a majority at the last election - though this is but an argument.
In a well-informed democracy, there should be no conflict between these commitments. The interests of citizens, businesses, party and nation should all be in alignment, with MPs able to take the whip and get on with the urgent business of looking important. All well and good, save for the fact that the Brexit decision was anything but well-informed.
A non-negligible number of representatives are now grappling with the pressure to back a no-deal when they most likely wouldn’t have otherwise. As well as being answerable to their constituents’ immediate demands, MPs are also bound by a duty to govern in the public interest. Once again, if the electorate is well-informed, there should be no friction between the two. But in today’s chaotic situation, this just simply isn’t the case. Take the example of an MP in a post-industrial Leave-voting area, faced with the choice between abiding by their constituents demands – to Leave the EU, potentially without a deal - and avoiding a scenario that they know (or at least believe) would have crippling repercussions for the region.
Let’s be generous and assume that the majority of MPs are genuinely trying to do the right thing. What’s one to do when faced with a dilemma of this kind? The most obvious place to look first is the party leadership. Here lies the crux of the current predicament; the nation’s two major parties are both simultaneously in crisis.
The Prime Minister has lost control of her fractured party, which, in spite of her most desperate rescue efforts, has split almost entirely down the middle. The anti-European minority is both large and vocal and has the backing of major donors and the media. Her approach has been to seek a compromise which, in an attempt to appease both warring factions, has failed to provide a version of Brexit that satisfies anybody. MPs, meanwhile, have been whipped against supporting any other option.
Labour is also split, though nowhere near so critically. It should be easy for Labour MPs to vote with their party; but Labour faces another obstruction. Corbyn’s renowned Euroscepticism has meant he has failed to provide decisive leadership, particularly to pro-remain MPs. The leadership of both parties is unusual – in their inability to govern and in their political convictions. Their combined leadership is as unfortunate and it is unprecedented. Circumstances would likely be different, were either of the more typical creed.
Perhaps most importantly is the responsibility of the corruption and recklessness of the media in bringing about the Brexit shambles. Free press is indisputably essential to the health of a democracy, and it is the responsibility of news outlets to hold politicians to account and champion the interests of the people. The reality is starkly different –media companies spread fear, disinformation, and engage in illegal activity and politicians cower in fear. Even when the phone hacking scandal emerged, there was no major reform of how our national media is run.
Brexit and its aftermath are undoubtedly a product of some very unfortunate timings. Despite this, though, there is something that feels somewhat inevitable about our current circumstances. While the situation today may not be typical, the knowledge that our system is even capable of producing such an outcome should be enough to get us thinking about how things could be done differently. Let Brexit be a lesson; radical reform of our politics is long overdue.
In today’s fast-moving short-term political games, James Dilley argues for the long view, incorporating history and philosophy to better understand Britain’s identity - as well as our own individual identities.
After the fireworks of 2012’s Olympic Opening Ceremony had faded away, the New York Times wrote this:
“Britain presented itself to the world as something it has often struggled to express even to itself: a nation secure in its own post-empire identity, whatever that actually is.”
Yet in 2019 this perspective reads like ancient history. Ever since the EU referendum cast our future into doubt, the United Kingdom’s place in the world has become utterly uncertain. It seems like our leaders don’t know what our country should try to be, or how even how to help us become it.
Rather than being “secure in [our] own post-empire identity”, millions of Brits are profoundly insecure. Just as many seem unhappy with the increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse makeup of our towns and cities, millions more are angry with what they see as a nostalgic cry for the quaint Britain of yesteryear from Brexiteers.
It is no longer enough to talk of past glories and put on a good show as Danny Boyle did for us in 2012. That summer is long past, and a cold winter of discontent followed the closing of a competition in which London undoubtedly did itself, and the country, proud.
But perhaps we never had enough of a conversation about what the UK should be in the first place, way before 2012. In my opinion, that comes down to our failure as individuals to philosophise on what it means to live a good life and engage honestly with our collective history.
I think, therefore I am (British)
Our education system hammers facts and figures into our minds from the moment we can walk. Yet, despite their many redeeming features, our schools often fail to hammer introspection into citizens who could commit to finding out about themselves before they discover trigonometry. An early-years focus on philosophy - a discipline which is all about how to live and how to die - might go some way to filling this gap. And, were our society to bring up individuals better able to look inwards at their own souls, perhaps this same awareness could then be applied to the heart of our nation.
An awareness of Britain’s heritage is also crucial to this story. Although history curriculums in the UK have modernised with some success in recent years, many people here are still shockingly ignorant of our past.
In particular, the UK’s colonial history, contrary to what that New York Times journalist suggested in 2012, remains a pressure point for our country. Whilst some play it up with fond ‘memories’ of gunboats and The Raj, an increasing number of citizens understandably view the British Empire with anger and disdain. In a diverse country such as ours, it is absolutely right that we have a conversation about what that imperial history meant and means for all of our citizens. Like in Spain, where the legacy of the dictator Franco and the Spanish Civil War continues to cause deep divisions, the UK has not adequately dealt with its imperial past. It’s difficult to have an honest conversation about it, particularly when its aroma is disingenuously wafted by Leaver politicians in an attempt to define our post-Brexit future.
If political renewal is to succeed, then, we would do well to make better use of our shared history to understand what we can become today. But the use of that history for positive growth will be determined by our ability to introspect and empathise with one another as philosophers. Only then can the UK renew its identity for good.