Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Danger of Blind Democracy

Democracy, for the most part, is a fantastic concept (except when Americans try to impose it on Arab countries, but that's another issue!)
In a complex society of millions of people, it gives every single individual within that society (and I'm not getting into the debate of whether people under 18 should get the vote!) an opportunity to influence who (be it a person or a party) represents them in the running of their country.
What's wrong with that?
Well, nothing...except when the democracy is a blind democracy.
'So what's a 'blind democracy', Andy?' I hear you shout.
Well, my friends, a blind democracy is one where people are asked to choose a person or a party without having had the opportunity to truly understand what that person/party represents and what that person/party's appointment to government is likely to mean.
And that is exactly what we now have here in the UK.
Ever since the election was called, we have been fed, by all parties, an unsatisfactory diet of soundbites, platitudes and promises...and why?
Well, the simple answer is to say 'They're all politicians - none of them tell the truth and none of them will ever answer a question.'
And, of course, you'd be right.
But perhaps the time has come to ask why it is our politicians are the way they are, and why it is we seem to be expected to make significant political choices based on nothing other than headline snippets.

I, myself, blame the media.
Take, for example, the most recent instances where politicians have appeared on our screens:
- the Andrew Neil interviews
- May vs Corbyn (with the risible Jeremy Paxman)
- the so-called Leaders Debates
Did any of these events provide us with anything meaningful by way of expending our understanding of the policies of any of the parties beyond the basic soundbites?
Emphatically no!
Instead, we were subjected either to petulant, belligerent interviewing techniques which now seem to be based on not letting a politician say more than five words before they are rudely interrupted, or we had to listen to so-called ordinary people asking bland questions to which they received bland answers, with television executives sitting in the background waiting hopefully either for an audience member to have a real go at one of the candidates (as Nicola Sturgeon found with the 'nurse who needed to use a food bank) or for one of the candidates to have a bit of a mare (as Jeremy Corbyn did when questioned about drone strikes).
Let's face it, the TV executives aren't interested in informing people - they're interested in the prospect of some car-crash television, great headlines in the morning paper.
And the interviewers themselves - snarling, outraged, aggressive - too many of them are interested not in having a meaningful debate, but in tricking or bullying whoever it is they are interviewing into saying something 'wrong' or making a mistake or contradicting something they said 25 years ago so that they can then pounce on it and milk it and prove how clever they are and how incompetent the interviewee is.
Come on, guys!!!
Everyone has flaws.
Everyone has made some bad decisions.
Everyone has changed their mind about something.
Yes, I accept it is important to get a feeling about the person (especially for the likes of Corbyn and May who may be leading the country), but when Paxman interviewed each of them he just went on and on about Corbyn's past affiliations with the IRA and Hamas and May's past support for remaining in the EU and didn't talk about anything else. Okay, ask the questions on that, help us get a feel about them, but once you've done that, please, for God's sake, move on to something meaningful!!

So what's the solution?
Well, I think it's time we had measured debates, not involving the leaders of each party, but involving the ministers and their shadows.
Each debate should be with a single chairman whose job it is to keep things going, but not to get involved in the debate, but to question the veracity of claims made by all parties.
Each sitting minister should be asked to defend their record on the subject in question (defence, education, the economy, health, etc), using FACTS to back up their claims of what they've done well. They can also present their plans for going forward, with DETAILS (it'll be the job of the chairman to keep discussions at the layman level).
The shadows from the opposition parties can then question and challenge the facts and the policies, giving us something of a DEBATE.
Then, each opposition party presents their policies and these are likewise challenged.
No fireworks, no studio audience to heckle and applaud, no lazy platitudes and soundbites.
Just policies and facts.
Yes, it may be a bit dry.
Yes, some may even find it a bit boring.
But, to be honest, I think it would be rather good to hear Phillip Hammond questioning John McDonnell about how he's going to pay for all the things the Labour Party have promised to pay for, or have Kate Osamar asking Priti Patel to provide detailed justification for spending £13 billion pounds overseas.
A debate on the economy...that would be good.
A debate on immigration and security...hmm...useful.
A debate on our education system...fantastic!!
Alas, I feel that such informative and useful vehicles for spreading information to the masses would be something of an anathema to TV executives who seem to believe more and more that 'ordinary people' are mindless morons with 5-second attention spans whose opinions are shaped by an endless diet of reality TV, gutter humour and soap operas.

It seems to me that the only cure for blind democracy is self-help - it is up to us, the ones who want to cast our vote based on knowledge and understanding, to try to see beyond the fluff, to ignore the soundbites and the platitudes, and seek out the facts so that we can at least put a cross in a box on the basis of something more than a chaotic hour of TV in which seven politicians do nothing more than interrupt and talk over each other!

Friday, 7 April 2017

Book Review - The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter

***Spoiler Alert***

Why not 5 stars? After all, it's certainly an intriguing and, overall, engaging book and, as with Massacre of Mankind, Stephen Baxter has certainly done his research and largely succeeded in taking the premise of The Time Machine onto a new level.
Well, for me it's the fact that, towards the latter stages of the book, Stephen seemed to become a little too obsessed with concepts of Time, Space, Multiplicity, etc., such that whereas the first 350 pages had been about the Time Traveller's adventures in the different universes created by his meddlesome adventures, the following 100 pages (involving the mysterious Universal Constructors) became less of an adventure and more of a science paper as Stephen attempted to put into layman's terms concepts which are difficult to grasp and comprehend. He manages it, but only just, and I have to admit that there were a few pages late on where I skimmed through a lot of the 'sciencey-stuff' to get to what was going to happen next to the Time Traveller.
The Time Traveller storyline, and most importantly his attempts to rescue Weena from the Morlocks, re-asserted itself (thankfully) towards the end and Stephen finished the book with an intriguing cliffhanger of sorts.
All in all, very much worth reading, but just be prepared for a bit of a science-lesson bog three-quarters of the way through.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Our Government's misguided definition of an 'informed decision'

Apparently, Europe Minister David Lidington, when asked about the decision to send out the increasingly infamous EU Referendum information booklet (yes, the one that cost £9.3 million to create and which was printed in Germany rather than here in the UK), said this:

"I am spending time virtually every day now signing replies to Members of Parliament who have enclosed letters from constituents where those constituents have said they feel they do not yet have enough information on which to take an informed decision and they would like to have some more please," he said.

Clearly he doesn't seem to understand what it is that has got so many people hot under the collar.
You see, like so many of the constituents that Mr Lidington is referring to, I too would very much welcome enough information on which to make an informed decision about the UK's continued membership of the EU - indeed, I believe that such information has been conspicuous by its absence.
I'd love to see some sensible, rational economic data, for example, clearly showing me how much the UK pays into the EU and how much it gets out; I'd love to see a balanced critique of how long it might take the UK to reach a trade agreement with the EU if the UK decides to leave, and what the implications could be to our economy in the interim; I'd love to know what the Leave Campaign plan to create in place of the awful Human Rights Act (one of my pet hates because it is such a poorly drafted law).
And so on...
So in that respect, I'm fully in agreement with Mr Lidington that I don't yet have enough information on which to make an informed decision. Indeed I, for one, would have no qualms (except about the printing of it in Germany) about the government spending taxpayers' money on a leaflet that provides a sensible, balanced explanation of the potential risks and benefits of EU membership and an EU exit on issues such as the economy, security, trade, migration, etc, etc. In fact, I'd positively welcome it.
But that's exactly what we haven't got!!!!
Instead, Mr Lidington, along with Mr Cameron et al, seem to believe that an 'informed decision' is one based only on one side of an argument, and it's that utter arrogance and complete disregard for 'fairness' that I (and a lot of other people, I suspect) find really, really infuriating.