Brexit

It has only been 48 hours since the result to vote Leave was announced but it feels like it was years ago. The worst of my dismay and despair has faded. The winners’ euphoria will take longer to fade but fade it will. But, as this drama unfolds, doubtless there will be further spikes of emotion and some on the Leave side are going to experience their share of disappointments as inevitable compromises are made. A referendum should never have been held but, now that it has, we have to learn to live with it. But it’s time to move beyond sour grapes and offer what are hopefully some constructive suggestions.

Democratic politics is not just about deciding an issue by the vote. What happens after the vote is just as important. That means, the losers must respect the verdict but neither should the winners treat victory as licence to ride roughshod over the interests of the losers. That is especially the case when the margin between defeat and victory is as a narrow as it is, in this referendum.

Democratic politics should not seek to do away with divisions but to manage them. That can be done by conversation, argument and debate, which is endless. To regulate this, at intervals of several years, elections are held, to allow opposing sides to contend for power. Disagreement is far less likely to turn violent if those on the losing side know that they will have an opportunity to take power, some time again, in the future. This strikes a rough and ready balance between the need to get things done but also to make sure opposing sides are heard and their interests accommodated. I discussed this at greater length in an earlier post and don’t feel a need to repeat myself here.

As for referendums, they can be dangerous devices because they seek a yes/no answer to questions that admit no yes/no answers but can only be asked and discussed again and again, not with a view to finding the final answer but a provisional answer, one that will do for now, not for all time.

Referendums can be a ploy to end a discussion by the majority using the vote to shut down the minority, once and for all. Doing this shuts down an essential safety value of democratic politics: the faith that minorities have that defeat in a vote is not once-and-for-all, and that they will have an opportunity to have another go. But this means that those backing the winners on any given occasion are prepared to be the losers another time.

Referendums provide an opportunity for demagogues to deny any need to balance the interests of losers and winners, deny the need to manage disagreement. They promise instead that it is possible to take decisions in which no one loses and everyone gains, and all it takes is a simple yes and no, just once, to end disagreement. My previous post argued that the Leave campaign relied, in large part, on just such demagogic promises, promises which are bound to be unfulfilled.

Technically, our own referendum was a mere vote on whether we wanted to be a member of the EU or not. But it was much more than that. It was a vote on two opposing ideas of what it means to be British, and where a British identity stands in relation to a wider European one. These ideas have profound implications for what sort of society we want to be, and who should be included in it. These questions cannot be settled by a question with a yes/no answer but, to my mind, that is what some members of the Leave crowd have sought to do, to drive alternative conceptions of being British out from the field of ideas altogether. If they think thi referendum will do that, then this is a terrible mistake. The Remain camp, though defeated, has not been routed.

Therefore, two things need to happen. First, the Leave camp must not ride roughshod over the interests of the Remain camp. Second, and in return, Remain respects the verdict. Some reassuring noises have been made from people like Chris Grayling on the Leave side, noting the size of the Remain vote, 48 per cent or just over 16 million people, means their interests have to be respected.

I remain cautiously optimistic that elements of the Leave camp will reach out to the Remain side to find some common ground. For this to happen, it means accepting some degree of compromise, and ditching the uncompromising Farage, whose demagogic instincts are implacable.

Whether this is feasible depends on whether Leave can wrest itself free from the populist expectations it has created. Readers of the Sun will have been left with the impression that we ‘took our country back’ on Friday morning. The realisation is bound to dawn upon many of its readers that we have not in fact done any such thing; indeed, might not be able to do any such thing, in the sense this phrase has been understood. The confounding of such expectations that the Leave camp has done so much to stoke up will surely come back to haunt them.

Remain could do its own bit, irrespective of what happens on the Leave side. It should drop any call for a second referendum, for the same reasons as I argue for saying that it should never have been called in the first place. Referendums are not the tools to settle questions such as the ones we are discussing. Leave voters have something to say and it should be silenced with the blunt instrument of a referendum. Remain needs to make some acknowledgement that the motivations of Leave voters were complex and cannot just be narrowed down to a mindless hatred of foreigners. It should drop talk of London ceding from the rest of the UK, because if you don’t want to live alongside people who are not like you, then how can you complain about Leave voters who voted in order not to live among people who are not like them?

Apart from Northern Ireland, where the vote has split along confessional lines, I don’t think the impact of the vote will be violent. The next Tory Prime Minister will have unprecedented challenges on his or her hands, managing not only the consequences for Britain’s relationship with Europe but also for its component nations. What began as an intra-Tory feud about our place in Europe has spread, throughout the United Kingdom, and threatens to unravel the union itself. A movement that was once written off a one of permanent opposition is on the cusp of finding itself in government. The referendum propelled them there but their victory does not end the argument. So long as the argument carries on, their victory is by no means final. Interesting times lie ahead.

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Taking Leave of Leave.

The EU referendum moved from the fringe to the mainstream of UK politics in the space of a generation. Twenty years ago, a single-issue party, the imaginatively named Referendum Party, sponsored by a nasty piece of work called Sir James Goldsmith, huffed and puffed but could not bring the political establishment’s house down. The party lasted three years, before disbanding in 1997, after a series of desultory electoral tallies.

Now, in four days time, Britain might vote to leave the European Union. Sir James is not so much turning in his grave but perhaps on the verge of rising from it. This is an extraordinary development. How did this come to pass?

The answer is quite straightforward. First of all, Cameron put the issue to a vote. This was something that he did not have to do. He called it because he did not anticipate the 2015 General Election would leave him with a comfortable majority, securing his leadership against the pretender to his throne, Boris Johnson. Had he done so, he would never have promised it.

But, more importantly, his decision has provided a lightening rod for the conflation of two issues – sovereignty and immigration. The Tory Eurosceptic right hated the EU but the public, thought suspicious and sceptical of of it, did not share the Eurosceptics’ fanaticism. What has changed is the link between immigration and the EU. Plenty of people who do not have an issue with the EU do have an issue with immigration. This, above all else, has moved the issue from the lunatic fringe on the right to the mainstream.

I am going to vote to remain because I do not believe the demagogic promises of people like Farage, Gove and Johnson. I call their promises demagogic for three reasons. First, they are promising that Brexit will only produce winners and no losers. All gain, and no pain. Second, disavowals by Gove and Johnson to the contrary, the Leave campaign is relies much heavily much on scapegoating outsiders for our problems, leading to the false promise that turning our backs on foreigners will solve our problems. Third, and to cap it alll, there is the vain hope that there will be no need for politics come Brexit, like dealing with people you don’t like, having to compromise and trade-off, settle for second-best, manage competing demands and ration scarce resources. Those are demagogic promises. It’s what Utopia might look like or maybe Planet Earth after the Second Coming but it’s not what the UK will look look after 23 June 2016, whichever way it votes. Let’s add a bit more detail.

First, the Leave campaign promises no losers, only winners, if we Leave. The Remain campaign is warning that there will be plenty of losers it we vote to Leave. The Leave campaign denies this.

We have no way of knowing how plausible the various claims made about the impact on our living standards leaving the EU will have. They cannot be tested in a laboratory beforehand or with controlled experiments. We are going to be forced to make a decision against the background of ignorance. We don’t know what costs or what benefits leaving will bring.

One thing is for sure, and that both sides can agree on, is that our political and economic relations with the EU are hardly marginal or peripheral. Voting Leave will surely disrupt these relationships – how could they not? From that, it stands to reason that there will be costs if we leave. In the long term, perhaps we will all be better off out. Who knows? But, in the meantime, there will be losers and some are going to have to pay. It is a lie to deny otherwise.

But deny this truth is indeed what the Leave campaign has done. One example will suffice. I smelled a rat when Leave claimed that they would match EU subsidies to deprived English regions like Cornwall, payouts the EU will surely cease if we vote to Leave. In making such a promise, they conceded, in a back-handed way, that there are benefits to EU membership and that leaving will cost Cornwall and other deprived English regions. They try to assuage this fear by promising they will match the spend. Since the Leave Camp’s leaders have all defended austerity and attacked public spending, then why should such promises be believed?

Still, having made such promises, they will be bound to keep them. After all, there must be no losers. But, can they assure us that they can keep such promises? How do we know if the economy will allow us to replace lost EU subsidies?

In the last analysis, Gove, Johnson and Farage, white, upper-class males of independent means, are staking their political careers but, if they whole thing goes belly up, they will not be the ones who pay for their principles by joining a dole queue. But we might. They are gambling but we are the ones being asked to put the chips on the table. In short, there will no doubt be costs and benefits to leaving but none of us have any idea of whether we will be the ones to enjoy the benefits, or pay the costs.

Now for the second issue, the scapegoating of outsiders. Now, I don’t think those voting to Leave are by definition racist. Nor is criticism of immigration or even of immigrants racist, by definition. And few in the Remain camp argue that we should do away with border controls. Further, immigration is a real concern of voters and democratically elected representatives must at least listen to these concerns, even if they don’t have to put the matter to a referendum – which, for all intents and purposes, this referendum has become, a vote on immigration.

To my mind, I accept the analysis of the majority of economists that immigrants contribute more to the country than they take out. That said, there is no doubt that not everyone experiences it that way and that some have lost out, especially those on low pay. Immigration has produced winners and losers. To deny this to fall into the same dishonesty of the Leave camp – there can only be winners and no losers.

On top of that, there is the fact of cultural difference and conflict. These conflicts are not, contrary to the claims of some pro-immigration campaigners, conjured out of nowhere by the tabloid press.

That said, there is no doubt that such antagonisms that do exist are being harnessed for political ends. There can be no better example of that than Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster. The fears this poster is meant to play on are real enough. But it is the trademark of an ethnic demagogue to play these up these fears.

This style of political ‘argument’ is akin to the politics of ethnic mobilisation in sub-Saharan Africa, fanning fears of the other, inciting ones own group’s worst instincts rather than the better angels of their nature. In this case, the people Farage seeks to mobilise are white. This has all the poison brew of ethnic politics: a sense of group victimhood combined with entitlement at the expense of other groups, self-righteous intolerance of other groups, refusing to acknowledge any contribution outsiders make, feeding chauvinism and bigotry.

Both Gove and Johnson have played down this dimension of the Leave campaign and talk more about exalted notions such as sovereignty. This idea is not a left wing or a right wing idea. It is an idea about the location of authority. It deserves respect. In spite of both men’s learned references to political theory and in spite of the the higher intellectual powers that Gove in particular brings into the argument, the Leave camp is not being led by Gove’s head but by Farage’s dark heart.

Apart from Gove, I noted that no other prominent leader of the Leave camp denounced Farage and his poster. That is what I would have expected them to do, if they felt that the issue was more than about immigrants and race baiting. They said nothing not because they are Nazis or racist but because if they did, they would have alienated substantial numbers of their own core vote. These voters are the people who want ‘their country back’ and not in the sense of just taking back parliamentary sovereignty but by keeping foreigners out, and getting rid of the ones already here. 

So, in short, I acknowledge that immigration is a serious public concern. It is wrong to dismiss this out of hand, as too many pro-immigration campaigners do. On the other hand, it is wrong to scapegoat people who, even they have come here for a better life rather than some political reason, deserve to be treated as individuals on their own merits, neither idolised nor demonised. Whether someone was born here or they moved here, we do not discriminate on the basis that membership of a group sanctifies that person. That means migrants respecting our laws. But it also means that we give respect where it is due, impartially. Therefore, a hard-working migrant, cleaning toilets and paying taxes, has a better claim to our respect than drunken, loutish members of our indigenous population getting into a drunken brawl on a Friday night.

That brings me to the third and final consideration: the denial of the need for politics. I have touched on this already. If we vote Leave, some will win and others will lose. The Leave campaign denies this but for no good reason. Politics needs to protect the interests of the losers as much as the winners. As I said, perhaps, in the long run, all will be well. Even if that is so, some will suffer losses. To pretend otherwise is a lie.

We have also seen this in relation to the scapegoating of foreigners, especially the insinuation that all conflicts over resources and entitlements in this country are down to foreigners claiming an unfair share. Not only is this wrong in fact, as foreigners also create wealth as much as they take it, it assumes that such conflicts would cease, if only the indigenous were left on these islands.

Aside from that, the nation will be divided into two camps at loggerheads with each other, with opposing understandings of what it means to be British and how we should position ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We will have to live together, whatever happens, and we will need politics in order to do that.

Leave seems to think that such divisions will fade in the course of time, tranquillised by the new era of abundance that will dawn with our departure.

No such thing will happen. Divisions are endemic to any society and they would persist even if we threw all the foreigners out. Whatever the result, I doubt it will be decisive enough to settle the argument once and for all. The argument will carry on and disagreement will have to be contained because we don’t want to see more incidents like Jo Cox’s murder. There will also be plenty of foreigners still living among us, and contributing to this country. They too will demand a say and their demands will need to be heard, whether in or out of the EU. We will need to use politics to deal with that, too. And that’s before we count Scotland, which may well vote to Leave the UK. Even if they don’t, then a Leave vote will certainly alienate Scots from the Union still further and deepen existing conundrums over the future of the UK as a united entity.

Then there is the rest of Europe. Perhaps we can negotiate various deals with European countries that can keep the best of both worlds. Good luck to those negotiators, I say. Since we will have repudiated a bloc of 27 other countries, we are going to have to go it alone, without allies. We can’t count on the United States, given its pro-EU stance. Even if Trump gets in, his isolationism is not necessarily friendly to our interests. Who does that leave us with? Putin? The Chinese?

But above all else, the Leave camp will split. They will quarrel over the allocation of resources, over the status of the hundreds and thousands of foreigners already in the country, over which interest groups to appease, over which promises to keep and which to break, over the struggle to manage the substantial legislative programme that leaving the EU will involve in Parliament, where pro-Remain MPS will no doubt carry on guerilla warfare.

None of this is to say that the Remain camp has conducted its campaign without resorting to its own share of trickery, dodgy claims and scaremongering. But there is one crucial difference and this has clinched it for me. Remain is not claiming that the EU is perfect. It does not deny that problems will persist. Leave can find nothing good to say about the EU and posits an alternative but they cannot spell out what it would look like, expect that it would be rid of all our problems. No, I just don’t believe that.

Leave’s aspirations are messianic, akin the style of thinking one finds in splinter revolutionary groups who think, come the revolution, all divisions and conflicts will vanish. This is Middle England’s own version of the 20th Century’s failed revolutionary projects. Leave the EU, all will be well. This not only lacks credibility. It lacks common sense. I thought we British were well-endowed with this quality. It would seem not.

The Murder of Jo Cox and Why It Matters

Last Thursday 16 June, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by some lowlife with connections to the extreme right. Yesterday, in my office, a colleague glibly belittled the crime, saying that people get shot all the time. Well, murder is quite rare the murder of a democratically elected representative by one of her own constituents was almost unheard of – till now. It’s a big deal but why?

A murder is a dramatic event but the drama of this murder was magnified by the contrast between the victim and perpetrator. Sometimes there are no shades of grey and the issue is black and white. There could not have been better representatives of the best and worst of our species. Both were passionate. But while the victim’s passion for the underdog and her home town inspired admiration, the perpetrator’s passionate bigotry could inspire nothing but contempt. No one is speaking up for Thomas Mair’s values, not even the far Right (in public), but Jo Cox’s opponents are lining up to pay tribute to her.

But it goes beyond that and I have struggled to work out why and to find the words to explain why. The BBC’s Parliament correspondent, Nick Robinson, found some of these words for me. It’s worth quoting him in full:

“Today is one of those days when it is very hard to find the words which convey the shock that I – that all those who are in politics or report on it – feel at the news that an MP has been murdered on the streets of Britain. Jo Cox – a popular and respected Labour member of parliament, a young mother and a campaigner for the rights of refugees – was shot and stabbed by a man outside her constituency surgery.

She was vulnerable to attack because she was, like so many MPs, available to anyone who wanted to see her with any grievance.

Her death is a reminder that our elected representatives, who are so often demonised for living separate lives from the rest of us, actually all too often live in our communities, in our streets worrying about the same things that we do.  Unlike us, though, they open themselves up not to just to criticism and abuse but to assault by those who disagree with them.”

He goes on to say that the murder reminds us of :

“The need at all times to respect those who disagree with u,s and to understand that anger, fury and rage are not the same as passion or belief.”

Reading these words has helped me find some additional words of my own. It’s worth expanding on Robinson’s last point, especially whether there is a link between Mrs Cox’s murder and the increasing rancour and bitterness that has characterised the referendum campaign.

This link is difficult to prove. It may be something of a red herring. It misunderstands the nature of politics. Politics is often bitter and nasty because people can be bitter and nasty but, since we must have politics, it is better that people express their differences with words, rather than guns and knives.

This, in a nutshell, is what the difference between democratic and demagogic politics is. Democratic politics uses words and that is what politics is like is most advanced, democratic countries, even in the United States. Demagogic politics is the variety we find in places like Nigeria, Iraq, where differences are fought out with guns, knives and car bombs.

Human beings in Nigeria or the United Kingdom are not all that different. They are all creatures of passion. But, for reasons we do not understand, politics in the United Kingdom is fought within self-imposed cultural limits, reinforced by institutions that enforce those limits. One of those limits is the taboo on violence. Democratic politics recognises that attacks must be limited to ideas and not person expressing those ideas. This taboo is weaker in Nigeria, which makes politics there a very frightening thing indeed.

Jo Cox’s murderer broke that taboo. It looks like that his grievance was politically motivated and he took it on himself to wipe out the person who was expressing ideas that he hated. That sort of behaviour is part of the course in some political systems – where demagogic politics reign – but it does not belong here.

It did belong here once. British politics in the 18th Century would have resembled demagogic politics in Nigeria in the 21st. We are not racially superior to the Nigerians. But we have learned to do politics better. There is no reason why Nigerians, over time, cannot likewise learn.

But if others can learn, then we can forget. There is no reason to think the the cultural and institutional restraints that have been developed in the UK these past two hundred years, and have civilised our politics, are permanent achievements. They could be undone. That, I think, explains why the shock and horror of Jo Cox’s murder was so acute.

It was not because there is a clear and present danger that the referendum is going to plunge this country into a bloodbath. But it does indicate that civility and restraint, the essential qualities that underpin democratic politics, have become frayed at the edges. This, in the country that is supposed to pride itself on moderation, unlike those continental types and their dictators. It causes the sort of alarm the appearance of a crack on the wall of the house one thought stood on the firmest foundations creates. It tells us that the structure is under stress. The foundations are not as sound as we thought.

The house was already under stress before Cameron called the referendum. There has been a drumbeat of demonisation against politicians in the past decade of so and some of Nick Robinson’s colleagues have held the flaming torches aloft. One of them is called Jeremy Paxman whose signature sneer of contempt and style of delivery the BBC traded on for years.

The media of course must speak truth to power but this style of politician-baiting has gone beyond that and morphed into something very ugly indeed. It has become a corrosive, contemptuous scepticism, and not just of politicians. It extends to the health service, local government, the police and other public servants.

The media incites human tendencies to magnify the bad and belittle the good, and to pander to our self-righteous tendencies to make ourselves feel good by examining others’ shortfalls mercilessly, while overlooking our own, to demand of others more than we demand from ourselves. This has brought a poisonous, demagogic dimension into politics, which has seeped into our public discourse.

Which brings me back to the trite comment my colleague made yesterday. I now understand why it irritated me so much. My colleague is complacent – all the more so, given my colleague’s skin colour is not one that Thomas Mair would like.  Jo Cox was my colleague’s natural ally while her killer is her natural enemy but fails to see this. My colleague takes things like decent public services and relative degree of peace and order for granted. They think that these things are an accident. But the fact the roads are repaired and the lights stay on are not just random, happy outcomes. They are the functions of good, democratic politics and administration.

In the UK, if we want to summon assistance, we phone 999 and expect the emergency services to come to our aid. We do not expect that they will demand a bribe before they do or check our ethnic or tribal affiliation first, to determine if we are worth the bother. But that is a reality in many parts of the world but not here. This is not because we are angels. It is because the representative system manages to uphold values of impartial public service quite well. But we have become complacent.

Jo Cox wanted to make sure that those services are available to everyone, universally, and not just based on the colour of your skin. She was by no means alone among our elected representatives in thinking this. We forget how advanced an idea this is. In many parts of the world, the idea that public service should be disinterested and impartial is not accepted. Nor is the idea that we owe a duty of care to people we do not know and are not related to us, as her work with Syrian refugees showed. We constantly bang on about how we fail to meet these standards, while overlooking that in places like Iraq and Nigeria, they are not even considered standards worth  striving for at all. The family and tribe is everything and screw everyone else. This is what Thomas Mair represents.

The murder of a representative and public servant of this system is murder most foul. This is a big deal. It’s no use asking just Nigel Farage to look himself in the mirror. We all do.

Bioethics or Biowaffle?

According to this BBC article, scientists are reported to be developing a new super coral resistant to global warming. This involves using natural mutations (some corals are resistant to very high water temperatures) and ‘training’ coral to become more resistant to rising water temperatures and ocean acidification, problems expected to get worse as the world warms It seems to me that the scientists concerned are starting in the right places: sourcing what natural resilience there is out there, and testing it in the lab.

Inevitably, in the interests of maintaining ‘balance’, the BBC found input from ‘bioethicists’ to cast doubt on the undertaking. The words of wisdom of these learned authorities are quoted in full:

‘No-one fully understands the ecology of reefs, so by putting a genetically modified organism on it you can’t possibly know the unintended ecological implications,” says Prof Rob Sparrow, an expert in applied ethics at Monash University. “It’s foolish and unwise.”

Prof Sparrow also argues that the genetic engineering of coral distracts from a solution governments already have to prevent coral extinction.

“When people read a story about a high-tech solution, it makes us feel good in that it distracts us from what we should really be doing – moving towards a zero emissions economy,” he says.

Prof Paul Komesaroff, director of Australia’s Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society, raises a different concern.

“The closest analogy to this would be GM [genetically modified] crops, where strains of rice are constructed to better resist pests,” he says. “And one of the outcomes of that has been that companies own the intellectual property to produce those crops.”

“I’m sure the scientists behind this are doing it for the right reasons, but they won’t be able to turn their discovery into a commercially viable option without capital investment,” Paul Komesaroff says.

“This is how biotech works in the real world; it’s driven by profit. So we would potentially be looking at a scenario where the Great Barrier Reef is owned by a company like Monsanto. And that would be a game-changer.”

Of the two wise men, we will deal with the second one first. Why the Director of Australia’s Centre for Ethics and Medicine in Society is considered an authority on coral reefs is beyond me but no matter. His observation that the scientists will need ‘capital investment’ is true enough. It will probably need private sector backing as environmentalists will probably lobby against the provision of public funds to support the project.

Prof Komesaroff seems to think that Monsanto owning the Great Barrier Reef is a bad thing. But why? He makes no effort to explain. He seems to think that evoking the words ‘Monsanto’ and ‘profit’ in the same breath suffices to spell out what his ethical objections are. If the price of saving the Reef is having Monsanto own it, then I would certainly have reservations about that. But if the alternative is the extinction of the Reef then let Monsanto own it.

Now, let’s turn to the first one. Prof Rob Sparrow’s reservations are an obvious expression of the precautionary principle. Of course we do not know what the ‘unintended’ consequences of putting modified coral out in the wild is. How can we be? That is why it is being tested in the lab first. Granted, even with extensive testing, no one can be sure that there won’t be ‘unintended consequences but on what basis does he assume that these will be negative? And why is it ‘foolish and unwise’ to describe something that has not been done yet? Can he give reasons and relevant examples? To answer that we cannot pursue a technological option because of unintended consequences would halt technological progress – including the development of green technology.

In fact, the precautionary principle provides no guide for action in the real world. It does not tell us what should be done, how we go about it or even how we can find out whether its apprehensions are well-founded. Indeed, it is a double-edged sword. Conservative climate change ‘sceptics’ can wield the same argument, to demand we refrain from economic policies that might cause unforeseen harm.

Prof Sparrow says that high-tech solutions make us feel good. Yes, they do. And what is wrong with that? What’s wrong with feeling encouraged with good news, that gives us hope? Well, he would say, it distracts us from the task of moving toward a zero-emission world. But how is this going to be done, if it is not going to involve technological innovation? And should the precautionary principle be applied to developing new green technology, too? And how realistic is it? The only way we could move to a zero-emission economy right now is stop burning fossil fuels. This would have dreadful social and environment consequences. Poorer people would not live in greater harmony with nature but would strip it bare in order to survive. When India blockaded Nepal last year, cutting off import of cooking gas, a fossil fuel, people resorted to stripping forests for fuel instead.

We are going to have to wean ourselves off carbon but even if were to do that tomorrow, and managed to do it painlessly, existing greenhouse gases will carry on warming the world. That means we will have to cope with it and technological palliatives are going to be necessary, and not just dealing with the impact of climate change on coral reefs. Calling for a zero emission economy, without having the faintest clue how this is to be done in time to avoid the harmful impacts of climate change, is not moral reasoning but posturing.

Given that Professor Sparrow’s alternative approach is not viable in the short to intermediate term, that means GM Reefs should be considered. We are left with two options. One is to do what the scientists are doing, sourcing natural resistance to build more resistant reefs. A second option is to do nothing.

The first option is vulnerable to the objection of unintended consequences, of possible harms unforeseen. The second option is vulnerable to the objection that doing nothing is certain to do harm.

Against consequences that we cannot foresee, there are the consequences that we can see. Since we know that doing nothing will do harm, there is good reason to take action. Against this, there is Prof Sparrow’s law of unintended consequences. There is no way we can refute this law a priori. Only experience can do that. But, which would Prof Sparrow prefer? Would he prefer to avoid unforeseen harms, at the expense of taking action to deal with harms that we can see? I doubt it. That is why he calls for an alternative solution. But if his alternative solution is not viable, and it is not, then he cannot duck this question.

Since we cannot refute Prof Sparrow’s dictum,we have to settle for second best: testing in the lab, followed up by controlled experiments in nature. But if you still think that it is better to do nothing rather than something, even if you cannot produce evidence to show how doing nothing is better than doing something, then you are not expressing a moral position but a dogma.

Indeed, the implicit structure of the article, scientists playing with nature on one side of the ledger, ‘bioethicists’ standing in judgement of them on the other, is perhaps revealing. The presumption is that someone with the phrase ‘Professor of Applied Ethics’ in their job title is somehow morally superior or wiser. But their own moral assumptions are not beyond scrutiny or challenge. There is no reason to think that Prof Sparrow, despite the ring of sanctimony his title confers, is uncontaminated by ideological bias, a bias which affects much of the green movement. This accepts the authority of science when it comes to climate change but challenges it when it comes to some of its suggested solutions, especially biotech and nuclear power, for fear that these solutions might just secure industrial capitalist modernity’s future, along with the profit-motive that underpins, a motive that few intellectuals are prepared to defend.

Sure, scientists are not above criticism or scrutiny but neither are their ‘ethical’ critics. The two examples we have discussed above have not demonstrated disinterested, dispassionate reasoning. They are ideologically motivated. They rehash traditional apprehensions about technological advance, apprehensions acute in the case of biotech but not other areas of technology (an article on carbon capture technology did not attract comment from ‘geoethicists’). And, aside from that, invoking the word ‘ethical’ as a basis for your objections indicates that you really do not know what you are talking about.

After the Revolution – Part I

At last the revolution is here. Now the people rule. And what does that look like? It looks like a radical extension of democracy, in the world of both politics and economics. The people no longer let others call the shots. They are calling the shots.

First, in politics, Parliament is no longer an assembly of elected representatives. Representatives were elected to rule on the people’s behalf. They would have been unwise to have disregarded the people’s collective preferences altogether but they had the last word. They did not have to share their decision making power with the people. The people could throw their representatives out at the next election, if they were displeased. But, while their representatives were in post, they eschewed any right to dilute their representatives power to decide. Barring gross misdemeanours, their representatives could enjoy immunity from recall and be assured that they could serve out a fixed term.

A Parliament of delegates are not the people’s representatives but their executive agents. The people’s delegates do not enjoy the prerogatives representatives did. They cannot take any decisions without the endorsement of the people. They must consult exhaustively before they make any decision. Decisions they take must be a true reflection of what the people want and not what the delegate thinks they want. If they dare defy the will of the people, and take a decision without having obtained the people’s consent, or by failing to consult widely enough, they can be recalled or dismissed. Delegates have no extended, secure tenure. Delegates terms are short, and prevented from standing more than a handful of times, to prevent the formation of an incumbent, professional political class.

In economics, the workplace looks very different. The old workplace was even less democratic than the old representative system. The people could vote out representatives they did not like but not their bosses at work, whom they did not even vote for in the first place. That meant having to work under people you did not respect and to whom you could not talk back. Unlike politicians, whom you could criticise or ridicule, even to their faces, bosses were protected by an aura of authority. Mocking or criticising your boss could land you in hot water. Bosses decision making power was backed up by workplace cultural norms like deference. That meant that bosses could make bad decisions with bad consequences because the workforce, like the three monkeys, pretended to hear and see nothing, and hence said nothing.

How different this is from the rough and tumble of democratic politics. Nye Bevan once said that you should not go into politics or public life unless you have a thick skin. That is why democratic politicians can endure phenomenal amounts of criticism, much of it personal and abusive, which they have to put with up with just to get elected and carry on putting up with it, after they get elected. Indeed, the higher up the political ladder they go, the worse it gets.

Bosses, by contrast, can be prickly and thin-skinned, and sensitive to criticism, because they are not used to it. They were not elected, and do not expect their ‘right to manage’ to be subjected to public scrutiny and criticism by their workforce. When the boss of a US manufacturing firm announced insouciantly to his workforce that their jobs were going to Mexico, he told distraught workers to ‘quiet down’ so he could finish talking. An elected politician would never dare talk to their constituents like that, for fear of provoking a riot.

This is to digress. Now that the revolution is here, the bosses have been kicked out and are sweeping the streets and cleaning latrines. Workplace democracy reigns, similar to the Parliamentary delegate model. The workers rule. They elect the people who manage the organisation in which they work. The people they elect are not bosses. They are accountable to the workers who have elected them. The delegate-managers, as we shall call them, cannot take any decision around pay, reorganisation without consulting widely beforehand. This consultation has to be more than tick-box exercises management used to run in the bad old days. It has to be a genuine opportunity for the workers to influence the decisions the delegate-managers are going to make, so that these decisions can be said to be the workers’ will. Like Parliamentary delegates, delegate-managers can be recalled and have no security of tenure. There is no professional management class. Unlike today’s managers, they have no ‘right to manage’ and their credentials have to be presented to worker scrutiny before they get elected.

One feature of the old representative system will be retained. Unrelenting scrutiny and criticism will be par for the course for the new Parliamentary delegates and delegate-managers alike. How can it not be? These are features of any democratic system, however defined. Those going into this new sort of politics will have to be thick-skinned types.

This very simple model of politics and economics is not the only conceivable scenario. Perhaps Parliament will abolished and replaced with a plethora of local assemblies. Perhaps large capitalist firms will be broken up altogether. Who knows? There are lots of different ways of conceiving a future that ha s not happened yet. Regardless, I suspect that all these models will share one essential description: no longer can it be said that the people are just being given the opportunity to pull levers every 4 or 5 years or so. They can pull them whenever they like.

The moral basis of this new order will seek to meet Noam Chomsky’s demand to those in power to justify their authority: “[T]hat the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them.  Their authority is not self-justifying.  They have to give a reason for it, a justification.  And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just.”

For Chomsky, and many radicals, authority is a function of hierarchy and hierarchy is an expression of domination. There is no space here to discuss if this linkage is fair and accurate. Nor is there space to consider the practical question about how anything is ever supposed to get done were Chomsky’s demand to be made in all instances – when cabin crew tells you to fasten seat belts before take off, do they have to justify their reasons?.Here, it will suffice to note that a radical democratic system cannot avoid Chomsky’s demand being made of itself. If the people are to rule, then they must have authority to claim this right. On what basis do they justify this?

The old party-dictatorships, who claimed to be ‘people’s democracies’, denied this question could arise. The people are indivisible and the people are good and wise. Therefore, they will always do the right thing and for their own good. They cannot oppress themselves. This, we know, is nonsense. People are divided and given to quarrel. Against this inevitable reality, decisions have to be made. The discussion about the right decision to take can only go on for so long. At some point, the decision has to be taken and discussion must end.

The larger and more complex a society is, the less likely that decisions can be unanimous. Some will have won the argument and others will have lost. The winners can insist that the decision has to be respected but the losers can claim a right to dissent. Both sides can claim principled authorities for their stances and both sides can demand the other side justify their authority, using Chomsky’s criteria. Even the most democratic of decisions rest on the assumption that dissenters can be coerced, at least in some circumstances. The question is, when is it right to exercise authority and do that?

After the revolution, these dilemmas will not disappear. Indeed, a radical participatory democracy would exacerbate them. We have already touched on one of them – the inevitability of disagreement. Human nature is prone to dissension and schism, because humans have conflicting definitions of what things like freedom and justice mean, and how best to accomplish the good things we all say we want.

Subsequent posts will discuss other problems which bedevil a representative system but would be no less acute under the new, participatory alternative. The new system will still have to deal with a crowded agenda of conflicting demands, against the background of limited information and time. Messy compromises will still need to be made.

There will still be an inequality of talents, which will persist, even when all social inequalities have been eliminated. At the end of it all, there will still be leaders and the led, winners and losers. There will still be hierarchy and times when people are going to have to do things that they want to do. There will be boring jobs to do and there will be unexpected technological and social changes to deal with. To manage these realities, a participatory system will end up resorting to the same props as the representative one.

There is room for argument about how best to cope with these realities, and whether existing representative systems are up to the job. For my mind, they do cope quite well. But that is not what the point of this discussion is. It is show that a radical reform of institutions will not abolish human nature, moral conflict, social and technological change and other enduring facts of human society. To deny otherwise is a dangerous conceit.