Is our democracy under threat? That was the topic up for “debate” tonight at Manchester Town Hall tonight, as sponsored by a tabloid newspaper formerly known as the Independent.
Four white university-educated men (three who went to Cambridge. The UK dominated by Oxbridge? Surely some mistake) sat above a very white audience (of probably more than average income) and talked about democracy. Is our democracy under threat? No, our current model looks in rude health
Some Indie hack called Steve Richards led off with a potted biog of Gordon Brown’s ups and downs since 92. The guy has had more lives than a Time Lord cat, and apparently should not be counted out just yet.
Then Johann “repentant cruise-missile leftie” Hari kicked off.
After regaling us with the Dalai Lama’s response to being called a former slave-owning theocrat and a “Buddhist death-threat” he got down to business:
The “first past the post” voting system leads to an unseemly chase for a few tens of thousands of Middle England votes and should be replaced by proportional representation.
The media is largely owned by rightwing plutocrats so right wing policies of Labour or Conservatives get no scrutiny. Hari asked how many part-time workers there were in the room (not many) and how many knew that the so-likeable Dave Cameron is planning to do over part-time workers’ rights to annual leave etc.
He made the basic obvious (but not to some it seems) point that change comes from Below. (Women’s rights, gay rights etc).
Anyway, Hari at least gave the right answer to the question. Yes, our democracy is under threat, from a huge set of climactic shocks that are going to kick in soon indeed. He mentioned the Middle Ages and its non-human-made climate changes, leading to a steep rise in religious nut-jobbery, riots etc, and then name-checked Darfur as presaging our water-short future etc.
He pointed to the near consensus that we are likely to see 4 degrees temperature rise in the next 50 years or so. He pointed out that a difference in four degrees during a picnic is nice, but a four degree rise in your body temperature (from 37 to 41) leaves you slightly … dead. Crop failures, starvation etc etc….
Neil Hamilton (him of the brown envelopes from Harrods) oozed towards his microphone, the human embodiment of a badly-written UKIP leaflet so cheaply printed that great smudges of ink stain your hands, leaving you depressed and in need of soap.
Blah de blah, Hailsham, elective dictatorship blah de blah 70% of legislation from Brussels, blah blah Strasbourg blah blah Quango State blah blah Health and Safety executive blah blah.
Look, I’d have more respect for the guy if he bothered to point out where most UK foreign policy emanates- namely Washington DC. I wish all these guys whining about Brussels would just admit the UK is the 51st state. Why are we in Afghanistan? Eh? Eh?
Hamilton closed with the crowd-pleaser (his opener fell flat) that “we need a revolution”
So Steve whatsit asked him if he thought Dave Camoeron would lead a revolution that will please Hamilton. The oily little creep replied “well, it’s extremely unlikely.”
Howard Jacobson, author of a good book about Australia, wittered out some decent banalities- democracy as a a process rather than an accomplished fact, that the rage at the expenses scandal was sublimated (my term, not his, but fitting given the Freud connection of the event) rage at the bankers, about whom we could nothing.
Graham “dyslexia doesn’t exist” Stringer reckons that democracy isn’t under threat in the UK, but doesn’t like proportional representation because the BNP got in in the North West.
Johann Hari, sat next to him, asked a straight question about PR which Stringer… didn’t answer but ducked and weaved like a ducking and weaving weaselly thing. Classy.
So, at no point did Steve whoever bother to get the other panellists to respond to Hari’s central claim about the impacts of climate change. What’s a chair for? To make clever comments about “embryonic political alliances” between Stringer and Hamilton, or actually address some substantive issues? Don’t write in, the question’s clearly rhetorical…
And so from the floor we had the usual mix of sane and rational and insane and irrational comments, delivered with varying degrees of coherence and brio.
All the panellists took their (i.e. Our) time in answering. Howard Jacobson having too much fun being Howard Jacobson to do anything serious. He lobbed in a few gratuitous hand grenades about the upside of ID cards etc. Hamilton banged on about Europe. Hari and Stringer went at it hammer and tongs about the best place for the BNP. Hari’s line was they get elected, but never re-elected, because they’re shown to be “gang-rapists and lunatics.”
In his summing up bit, Hari also nicely skewered the increasingly swivel-eyed Hamilton on the subject of the vast European super-state. You know, that one which employs as third as many people as Manchester City Council
Here’s what I would have said (polished up a bit, it’s true), had Steven whoever pointed at me to ask a question
“In January Manchester City Council launched a fairly lousy document about climate change called “Call to Action.” It contained nothing substantive about consultation or engagement, and the Council went into bunker mode when asked. A group of Mancunians, with no money or office or previous experience, put together their own report in seven weeks, and now the Council has opened up its climate change planning process. You CAN make a difference, if you are determined, informed and willing to work bloody hard.
“Now, I want to know what the other panellists think of Johann Hari’s take on climate change. I see three positions. One, you agree with him- in which case why didn’t you say so, and mention climate change in your talk. Two, you don’t know- which seems pretty cowardly and lazy for so-called public intellectuals. The material exists in digestible formats for highly educated people such as yourselves, and if you won’t take the time to wrap your thinking gear around it, we really are in trouble. Or three, you DISAGREE – which you’re obviously entitled to do- but then surely you should say that you disagree, and you should be able to back that up with reputable science. Otherwise, what the hell are you doing on the panel??”
Winners and losers
The Independent- maybe they’re happy, but I didn’t see a rugby scrum fighting over the right to sign up for quid a week subscriptions. They have, like my patients, severe problems with their circulation, and that is very very painful.
Freud Communications, the events organiser. Yeah, they emerged with dignity intact.
The speakers? Well, no-one made more of a tit of themselves than they already are I suppose. Stringer didn’t get lynched by the dyslexics in the room, which must have been nice for him.
The audience? Those who got to speak, yeah. Those who got to listen? No, you know, I’m not really sure they got anything other than plonk and olives. As the late lamented Kurt Vonnegut used to say, “so it goes.”
What could have been done differently
Debates take time, so schedule more of it.
Get people talking to the people BEHIND them. This simple technique always generates huge volumes of chatter, breaks ice and who knows, can start firm friendships and even social movements, if done frequently enough.
Those speaker biogs in full