Stephen Eades – Solutions and public consent – Sep 19

In the political world, solutions to problems require a democratic mandate.

That may sound a straightforward, logical statement which no one (in the Western world) would dissent from, but unfortunately we are seeing evidence which contradicts it all too frequently.

My world is the environment. We both know the scale and dimension of the problem — even crisis, depending on your perception. You will also know that the political class has been very slow to respond and maddeningly so.

It is this failure which has brought movements like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Climate Strike onto the streets. Politically speaking, the street is owned by the disposed, downtrodden and those with no other voice. It has a rich heritage, being the working space of many including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

However, does it lead to the solution — a course of action which solves the problem by means of a democratic mandate from the people?

If you believe in democracy, there is no other means than democracy for arriving at an acceptable solution. True, it may not be the right solution. But it is the only route that leads us to the solution which we can collectively own and, just as importantly, then collectively agree to change if we find that the solution is no good.

What this means is that action for today is determined by the decision of the majority, with the minority acceding with their consent. This is the way we do things, if you believe in democracy.

However, do we believe in democracy? Or do we just declare that we do, but then fail to practice it?

This is what worries me about not just the governments and politicians we presently elect but also the organisations like XR which occupy the streets in order to hold to ransom the public, along with economic and political elites, until their demands are met.

Especially so when their demands are extremely difficult to deliver i.e. a net zero carbon society by 2025.

The retort is that the emergency is so severe — of the severity there is no doubt in my mind — that radical change is essential throughout society in order to meet this requirement. In essence, society has to be placed on a war footing in order to achieve this because, for example, the methods of food production will have to be radically transformed and is that achievable within 5 years without strict controls on what everyone can and cannot eat?

Certainly, we could do this. It is a doable option, but it will require enormous change and sacrifice. So the key question is, can we launch our society — world society — down this route without democratic consent?

I do not believe we can or should attempt to. This is because unless we own the solution, confer upon it our democratically arrived at consent, then it will unravel and we will all end up worse off than before. Not least because the urgent solution that’s required will implode, but also because both national and international governance will have inevitably taken a sharp authoritarian turn because civil order will have collapsed.

So I say to XR and others on the street today and tomorrow — your cause is right, but unless you ensure your solution is democratically owned you will fail and, even more importantly, you will have injured our consensual, democratic system of governance and very profoundly too.

If we lose our democracy then we endanger not just the solution, but also all hope of finding the solution.

Therefore, think very carefully about where you are going and what you are doing.

If you do not, we could all end up in a place where none of us want to be and with a result that none of us want to live with.

Stephen Eades


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2 Responses to “Stephen Eades – Solutions and public consent – Sep 19”

Clare Stancliffe
Comment posted on 23rd September 2019

Stephen seems to conflate two different types of street protest:

one is the right to hold a peaceful demonstration or march, in order to draw the public’s and politicians’ attention to a major issue. An example of this is the School Strike for Climate, and I was among the millions who joined a demonstration of this kind last Friday, in support of the school children.

the second type is prepared to go further, and to attempt to ‘shut down’ Heathrow, for example. It is represented by XR. David has given an excellent rationale for this.

I would add that with other causes (e.g. suffragettes, or abolition of slavery), it was possible to build support over time. If action was delayed for a decade or more, it wasn’t the end of the world. Unfortunately, with climate change, delay does matter. There has already been too much delay, and there has been deliberate obfuscation by vested interests. What XR’s demonstration in London this spring achieved was to bring climate change to far more people’s notice as a serious threat, and to increase the media coverage given to it. Without the latter, there won’t be enough of a groundswell of popular support for politicians attempting to tackle it.

So I agree with Stephen that measures to tackle global warming need to be democratically owned. But I also agree with David that in order to get people at large on side with the seriousness of the problem in a short length of time, some such tactics as XR’s can play a constructive part.

Comment posted on 22nd September 2019

How does change happen?

Initially people who want change are ignored.

Then if they make enough noise, the issue gets taken up by politicians.

If they continue to make noise over a sustained period, eventually something might happen.

Eg the Suffragettes.

This is how I see XR – a useful spur to make our democratic processes start working harder on climate change. They are highly unlikely to win their goals, but they are changing the debate and making it more likely that change will happen.

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