Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Political Education with a Twist

Carl von Clausewitz infamously said, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means”, but in truth, politics is the avoidance of war through the art of persuasion. When violence erupts, politics has failed.

Because people do not live in sealed bubbles from each other, human interactions are inevitable. While this makes it possible for people to cooperate and achieve more together than they can ever do on their own, it also means that they may seriously disagree about how they should treat each other. And there are always those who pay lip service to the notion of fairness while seeking to exploit others at every turn.

The arrangements that endure tend to be those that over time have come to be accepted by the vast majority as the best they can hope to get. The mission for political educators is to help people think through the prevailing arrangements and consider what should be preserved, and what should be altered for the common good.

Not surprisingly, anyone endeavouring to do this is liable to be accused of being partisan by those who would prefer their political regimes not to be questioned by too many ordinary citizens. This has put many people off from advancing political education for fear of being branded ‘party politically biased’. But once they retreat to the ‘safety’ of teaching only what no one with political power could possibly object to, they have in effect resigned to acquiescing in the status quo.

So what can be done? One approach is to leave political parties out of the picture, but highlight why certain practices and policy assumptions should be changed with the help of allegorical or satirical stories. It is a tradition that goes back to Voltaire, Wells, and Orwell, and has proven to be a most effective means of stimulating political reflections in people who may not otherwise be interested in such issues.

But has not the rigid demarcation of disciplines since the mid-20th century meant that political thinkers have long ceased to venture into writing novels? Classic texts can only take us so far, and will bring with them the added complexity of how they should be interpreted decades, even centuries, after they have been written.

A way forward would be to revive the tradition of weaving cogent political ideas into gripping imaginative tales. To this end, I have in recent years produced two dystopian novels, which have been acclaimed as original fiction in their own right, and widely recommended by advocates for political education as a valuable resource to promote reflections and discussions on democracy, freedom and social justice.

The first is the allegorical Kuan’s Wonderland. It tells the story of a young boy taken against his will to the surreal world of Shiyan, where he has to cope with shape-shifting beings, hated creatures called Potokins, the pompous Mauveans, and the mysterious Curator. Through his reluctant adventure, he comes to discover that far from resigning to his life in exile, he must help to counter what may destroy Shiyan and his own world. The Equality Trust has selected it as the novel to read in its Young Person’s Guide to Inequality. It has also been picked as a book for adult reading groups set up by the WEA (Workers’ Educational Association).

The second novel is the satirical tale, Whitehall through the Looking Glass, set in the not-too-distant future, when the Consortium of the world’s largest corporations have taken control of the government of the UK and US. Nearly all assets are controlled by the big firms, and everyone’s movement and preferences are tracked and analysed by the Consortium in order to devise the most effective strategies for convincing people that all is as it should be. The Consortium’s grip on power seems unshakable until resistance emerges where it least expects it. The Chief Executive of the Civil Service College, General Secretary of the TUC, and the Director of the Speakers Corner Trust are amongst those who urge the public to read it.

If politics is not to fail and give way to violence, we need more political education that is different enough to stir the imagination and sufficiently bold in challenging prevailing ideas. Worth giving Kuan’s Wonderland and Whitehall through the Looking Glass a try.

Kuan’s Wonderland:
E-book version available from:
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Kuans-Wonderland-ebook/dp/B008144G9I/
or Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Kuans-Wonderland-Henry-Tam-ebook/dp/B008144G9I;
The Paperback version is available from: Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/kuans-wonderland-henry-tam/1117511602
or CreateSpace https://www.createspace.com/4062249

Whitehall through the Looking Glass:
E-book version available from:
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Whitehall-through-Looking-Glass-Novel-ebook/dp/B00J3VRGEU/
or Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Whitehall-through-Looking-Glass-Novel-ebook/dp/B00J3VRGEU/
The Paperback version is available from: Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/whitehall-through-the-looking-glass-henry-tam/1118953239
or CreateSpace https://www.createspace.com/4709766

A shortened version of my interview with ‘Shout Out’ magazine about the thinking behind the novels can be found at: http://kuanswonderland.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/political-engagement-of-surreal-kind.html

For more about dystopian fiction, visit The Dystopian Syndrome

(The Hunting of the Gods, a novel about Earth being governed by virtually immortal rulers, and modern civilisation knowing nothing about democracy, will be published in 2016)

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Snide & Prejudiced: a tale of constitutional shenanigans

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a government in possession of a slim majority must be in want of more power. But when that power is sought by reversing centuries of constitutional advancement, resistance is in order.

The progressive development of Britain’s constitution was once an inspiration to the world. The sealing of the Magna Carta in 1215 to limit the powers of the ruler; de Montfort’s inauguration of the Parliamentary tradition in 1265; the first ever trial of a reigning monarch for treason in 1649; the Glorious Revolution that produced the Bill of Rights of 1689, which in turned inspired the American Constitution of 1789; the Great Reform Act of 1832 that opened the door to almost a century of franchise reforms that eventually secured the vote for all adult men and women in 1928; and after the Second World War, British MP and lawyer David Maxwell-Fyfe, led the deliberations and drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights (ratified 1953), which drew on the strong democratic traditions of countries like the UK to lay the foundation for protecting human rights across Europe.

Regrettably the Conservative Party (in government with the support of the Liberal Democrats 2010-2015 and with its own small majority since 2015) has decided that since its hold on power is so slight, it will manipulate the British constitution to enable it to do what it cannot otherwise get away with doing. Let’s take a look at a few of the tricks being played on a largely unsuspecting citizenry.

1. Puppet Legislature
The House of Lords has always been a curious non-elected appendage of a supposedly democratic legislature. As long ago as 1649 it was abolished, only to be brought back when the monarchy was later restored in England. The current Conservative plan is for the number of elected MPs to be cut down while it puts more of its non-elected donors and supporters into the House of Lords (which has risen by 16% since 2015 [Note 1]). 50% of the increases in party-affiliated peers have gone to the Conservative Party though that is higher than their share of support from those eligible to vote in either the 2010 or 2015 elections. Many of these donors and supporters hold shares or positions in large companies, and they are free to vote for policies that will increase the profits of those companies. Meanwhile, the government will do nothing to address this anti-democratic anomaly except to erect obstacles to stop the Lords voting against Conservative policies.

2. Political Power for Sale
It has long been recognised that disparity in campaign finance can remove any prospect for a level playing field in electoral contests. The Electoral Commission accordingly set out limits for how much political parties should spend on campaigning in the run-up to elections. But the Conservative Party in government took no notice and exceeded that limit by 23%, and having outspent the Labour Party, they won the 2015 election with a narrow majority. In the meantime, Tory politicians readily admit to financial support they receive from companies that benefit from their policies [Note 2]. Far from placing restrictions on these links, Conservative politicians, such as a former Secretary of State for Health (who was funded by private healthcare firms when he was the Shadow Health Secretary [Note 3]), can be in office one day bringing in new policies to push more public contracts in the direction of private healthcare firms, and leave office the next to take up consultancy roles to help private healthcare firms make more profit out of government contracts [Note 4].

3. Second Class MPs
It is no secret that Scotland tends to vote for representatives on the left of the political spectrum. While the Conservative Party is keen to keep Scotland in the UK (after all, it does not want to lose the oil revenue from the North Sea or the docks in Scotland for British nuclear submarines), it wants to curtail the power of Scottish MPs. So on the back of a ‘promise’ to devolve more local powers to Scotland (in return for their staying in the UK), it plans to ringfence ‘England only’ matters in Parliament and deprive MPs from Scotland a vote in them. The superficial argument is that if Scotland is given certain exclusive powers to vote on ‘Scotland only’ matters without MPs from other parts of the UK having a say, then the converse should be true for ‘England only’ matters. But so long as Scotland is in the UK, and the UK is overwhelmingly dominated by the networks and capital of England, it would be obvious to any impartial observer that decisions concerning England will have a major impact on Scotland. Unless what is defined as ‘England only’ is limited to issues which genuinely do not affect the wellbeing of people in Scotland, what is being concocted is the relegation of MPs from Scotland to second class status.

4. Diminished Rights
Although the UK is the inspiration and a key driving force in the development of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Conservative Party wants to rewrite constitutional history by pretending it is an alien invention that undermines the wellbeing of British people. It is so hostile to the notion of international peer scrutiny over possible violation of human rights that it wants to cut ties with the wider global community so it can reject as irrelevant any external criticism of its activities that breach human rights. Thus it plans to repeal the Human Rights Act. If its promised replacement is meant to offer more rather than less protection for human rights, there is not the slightest evidence for it. Significantly this is happening when the Conservative Government policies to cut support for vulnerable people are being investigated by the UN for the “systemic and grave violations” of disabled people’s human rights [Note 5]. People’s rights to organise to seek better economic treatment are also under further threat as the Conservatives plan to outlaw strike actions by unions unless they are backed by at least 40% of those eligible to vote in those unions – a threshold that if applied to the government would mean that it cannot carry out any action since its manifesto is backed by far less than 40% of those eligible to vote in the country.

5. Destabilised Sovereignty
The Conservative leadership, despite its party’s historical role in taking the UK into what became the European Union, has sought to undermine the electoral prospects of anti-European rivals by promising a referendum on British membership of the EU. But just as England’s sovereign power was enhanced through union with Scotland, the UK’s membership of the EU confers greater strength when the world is geopolitically dominated by continental blocks. To commit to a referendum when the terms of what would amount to a revised deal the Conservative Government would support remain unclear, and when the uncertainty undermines confidence in UK’s future connections with the rest of Europe, is unwise at best, and reckless at worst. Even Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly enamoured with the EU, warned against using the crude mechanism of a referendum to decide on a major constitutional issue such as UK’s membership of the EU (see: ‘Thatcher, Europe & Referendum’). Ironically, when it comes to what can seriously undermine British sovereignty, namely the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) – which would give power to American corporations to sue the UK for enacting laws to protect British people if it can be argued that such laws would reduce the profits those companies might otherwise make – the Conservative Government is happy to keep discussions secret and offer British citizens no opportunity to scrutinise the pros and cons of TTIP.

All the above threats against our democratic heritage should be opposed, and the core issues subject to an independent constitutional review. It is fair to say, in homage to Ms Austen, that we should be ever sensible of the warmest gratitude we owe towards a constitutional tradition that, by bringing justice into government, has been the means of uniting them.

Let us not allow this precious union to be put asunder.
Note 1: The number of Lords eligible to attend the House of Lords went up from 706 in 2010 to 791 before the May election 2015; and up to 821 after the May 2015 election; an accumulative increase of 115, or 16%.
Note 2: See, for example, on private healthcare firms: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/oct/03/healthcare-companies-links-tories-nhs-contracts; and on hedge funds: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/feb/05/conservatives-bankrolled-hedge-fund-managers
Note 3: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/mps-expenses/6989408/Andrew-Lansley-bankrolled-by-private-healthcare-provider.html
Note 4: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/oct/20/andrew-lansley-advise-firms-healthcare-reforms
Note 5: http://www.disabilitynewsservice.com/confirmed-un-is-investigating-uks-grave-violations-of-disabled-peoples-rights/