While on holiday in France last week I visited three public libraries - in Annecy, Reims (pictured) and Troyes - and was struck by how quiet they were. And I mean really quiet; not in the English sense of ambient chatter frequently punctuated by an 'RnB' ring-tone, which you find in our better public libraries, but quiet to the point of a cathedral-like silence. It's probably the nearest I have had to a religious experience since I became an atheist.
Monday, 22 August 2011
Tuesday, 3 May 2011
It is confusing because, if PR is a principle that Furedi adheres to, he says very little to flesh it out as a concrete alternative to the Alternative Vote (AV), which might have enabled his readers to see exactly how the current voting system could be improved. Instead, after announcing his support for the principle of PR, he goes on to highlight a number of practical weaknesses associated with it, such as its tendency to produce hung-Parliaments, or for political representatives under PR-regimes to be selected rather than elected. So where does Furedi's argument leave us? Well, if not wholly confused we are left suspecting that PR is one of those ideas which is great in theory but fails in practice – an entirely unsophisticated view that has been applied to everything from Robert Owen’s nineteenth century socialist factories to current plans for mining Helium-3 on the Moon.
It was Immanuel Kant who first confronted this view head-on in his 1793 essay “On the Common Saying: This May Be True in Theory but it does not Apply in Practice”, wherein he argued that, far from being a sophisticated understanding of a situation, the great-in-theory maxim represented nothing more than a failure of theory. "This maxim", he wrote, "so very common in our sententious, inactive times, does very great harm if applied to matters of morality". Such matters, he argued, demand more theory and better theory, not its abandonment. I do not doubt that Furedi is well aware of this, which makes it all the more frustrating that his article leaves us hanging between the apparently admirable principle of PR and its unfortunately impractical applications. Wouldn’t it have been so much better had he elaborated his principled view of PR and worked out a practical application of it that might work, thereby giving his readers something to go on, instead of all but asking us at the end of his article to vote for “the second-best system” (namely, FPTP) in the referendum?
Of course, Furedi (and O'Neill before him) did no such thing because such a thing is not possible. Proportional Representation is not great in theory because EVEN IN THEORY it requires lists of candidates from which election 'winners' can be selected, leading necessarily to backroom bargaining over the selection process. This makes PR inherently anti-democratic, and in practice much less democratic than FPTP.
It might sound strange but even the idea of proportionality has anti-democratic tendencies. Okay, one-man-one-vote is both democratic and proportional but beyond this principle the two elements part company and go their separate ways. This is because the drive for proportionality leads to an inadequate understanding of the one-man who has the one-vote. He might be black or white, young or old, rich or poor, gay or straight. He might belong to any number of categories that he himself thinks insignificant but which some statistician or sociologist considers significant. Even his preferred political party might be held against him as the decisive factor that characterises him. But it is just this sort of analysis that takes the initiative from the voter and hands it to the professionals and civil servants who frame the rules of proportionality in Parliament. In fact, under PR one could look at a general election not as a popular exercise in government of, by and for the people, but as something more like the decennial census which creates a valuable dataset around which future policies can be framed.
The only way to avoid people being side-lined and pigeon-holed like this is to allow them to vote - as they do now - for individuals under FPTP. I have said this before but I think it's worth repeating: a person can be represented politically only by another person. To preserve my autonomy in the political sphere I cannot allow myself to be represented by a set of socio-economic or demographic characteristics; I cannot even allow myself to be represented by a political party, no matter how much I may support that party. Only the process of placing trust in another gives your individuality the free-rein it needs in a democracy and provides a basis for collectivity. This relationship between a voter and his representative is the vibrating atom of political life, and it forms the basis for the chain molecules connecting the individual with the party and - ultimately - the government.
So, to anyone reading this blog prior to Thursday's referendum, go and vote NO to AV for all the reasons Furedi suggests, but knowing that FPTP is not some 'dirty little compromise' or 'the second-best system' that will have to do until public engagement picks up. Vote NO because FPTP is the only system that will allow the public to re-engage itself in politics.
Thursday, 3 March 2011
He says "Some variant of proportional representation...would more accurately reflect the will of the electorate overall, certainly more than FPTP does". But where are the crowds demanding PR, or even the rumblings in the workplaces and down the pubs about a lack of proportionality in Britain's voting system? The electorate overall hardly seems to be willing PR into existence.
I suspect what Brendan means is that PR would be a better tool than FPTP for gauging the will of the people, but would it? The people have a heck of a lot of views and opinions, not to mention the demographic characteristics that are supposed to influence these opinions; can these all be reflected proportionately? Or are some, for the sake of administering a general election, to be ignored? What happens if the body of MPs returned to Parliament by an election accurately reflects the people's views on Europe, but does not contain the correct number of women, or is grossly in favour of pulling out of Iraq? Should a commission tweak the results until it is broadly accurate?
Perhaps all this sounds facetious but the practice of accurately reflecting is best left to the statisticians. Democratic politics, on the other hand, is moved by weightier principles; for instance, the principle by which an elected Member represents even those of his electorate who didn't vote for him. There is more than magnanimity at stake here; implicit in this principle is a recognition by the 'disfranchised' that the weight of numbers matters, and that other things being equal a greater number of people is a more positive force and is to be respected more in the world of politics than a lesser number. And, on the other sdie of the relationship, any representative worth his salt will pay attention to all his electorate, especially if there is a sizable minority of non-supporters, if he wants to be re-elected.
To attempt to get around this political issue by allocating representatives to electoral minorities immediately calls into question the legitimacy of the majority, and says that other things being equal more people are not necessarily better than less people. Indeed, perhaps my personal views outweigh all yours because I have looked into such things and you're just going with your gut. Trust me, I'm a statistician.
The will of the people is not something that can be measured inertly, and so the desire for statistical accuracy should not apply. Rather, the will of the people can be experienced and known through engagement with it. And standing for Parliament in a FPTP election, asking the people to allow you to make decisions on their behalf, still remains one of the best means of engagement. Which is why, under certain political conditions in the past, some representatives have claimed not that they reflect the will but that they ARE the will of the people. Takes some Burkean balls to say that, but that is what we need; not some indifferent remarks about PR.
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Why should even the idea of PR appeal to spiked? That's the one question that Brendan hasn't answered in either of his articles. In his previous article he referred to 'fairness' and this time he's given us a vague reference to 'clarifying political debate' and providing a better 'democratic snapshot', but no explantion of any specific problem or any specific solution. Has he really thought it through?
For a start, the 'fairness' argument is potentially anti-democratic. The key complaint levelled at majoritarianism is that it is unfair, that it does not give the minority voice its due. All of which is simply another way of saying that the views of the majority are suspect and that their weight should be moderated. OK, in many cases these views might not be right-on, but thence begins politics. The ideology underlying these ideas needs tackling by head-on argument; not by tacitly accepting but electorally sweeping aside. The annoying thing is that O'Neill totally accepts this argument which is what makes his article so confusing.
The whole idea of enforced fairness in politics should itself be treated with suspicion. There is nothing automatically democratic about the percentage of seats a party receives closely mirroring the percentage of votes it won. This is an especially empty view today when the dividing lines between the mainstream parties are more blurred than ever (and there is now no fundamental difference between Lib Dem and Conservative). But even, say, 25 years ago when divisions where clearer, the call to ensure proportionality in Parliament would have:
- made MPs more accountable to their parties' ruling executives than to their electorates.
- made it harder to get rid of an unpopular MP.
- confused the issue of exactly who it is that represents me in Parliament, and who I need to be keeping on their toes.
- destroyed the idea that the winner in a FPTP election actually represents those who didn't vote for him as well as those who did (yes - let's bring back magnanimity).
- given party manifestos greater prominence than the records and statements of individual candidates (while at the same time making it less likely that any manifesto commitment would be adhered to because of the need to make coalition compromises).
- thwarted the progressive development of political ideas from confused local ones to clearer national ones (PR promotes political ideas to office before they have run the gauntlet of seeking a mandate).
- viewed the entire electorate as a specimen to be measured, not as a sleeping lion that ought to be feared.
Friday, 7 May 2010
Tuesday, 27 October 2009
The drama was such that by the end I wanted to throttle (who didn't?) mission weather officer Kathy Winters - the villain of the piece who sounded like she didn't even care whether the Ares launched when she constantly flip-flopped between green (go) and red (no-go) weather forecasts.
OK - so it wasn't really her fault. She was only following the new "Triboelectrification" rule, which insists on a no-go if high-level static-electricity-causing cloud lies in the flight path, but we the viewers were ignorant of the weather conditions; all we could feel was the interpersonal tension growing between the messenger and Mission Control.
There were some light-hearted moments too. The eventual removal of the 'sock' covering the probe at the tip of the Ares was literally uplifting, and I think we all joined in the cheering at Mission Control when it was finally de-snagged. And then, right at the last, the surprise announcement of a 90 minute launch delay, caused by shipping freight suddenly appearing near the launch site, was surely someone's idea of a practical joke. Luckily the delay lasted only 10 minutes (during which we were waiting for the latest on the triboeletrification clouds anyway) but what a roller-coaster!
The launch is now scheduled for 8am EDT tomorrow. That's midday GMT (or Zee-time, as the mission controllers refer to it on NASA TV) for space-watchers. Good luck, Ares, in your "unsustainable" venture.
Saturday, 4 April 2009
One should really expect things to be different nowadays. The days of religion were numbered perhaps from the moment Blaise Pascal (in his mid-seventeenth century Pensées) sought to defend his belief in God by resorting to argument and abandoning revelation. Reasoned argument is a human device, not sacred but profane, and to rest God's existence on it puts God Himself on shaky ground. And the scientific revolution that paralleled Pascal's thinking further undermined the foundations of religion, as philosopher after philosopher showed that there was no area of nature that did not yield to human investigation. After Newton - and Alexander Pope's crushing "God said 'Let Newton be', and all was light" epitaph - God beat a retreat to heaven, and, under house arrest, was proscribed from ever again setting foot in the world of human affairs.
So how do The Priests get away with it? And get nominated for music awards for it? Is their album a precursor of a karate-suit-wearing comeback tour by God? Well, not quite. Most of the reviewers of The Priest's album on Amazon reveal their all too human motives behind their purchases: the need for easy listening and a glass of wine after a hard day, to chill out, etc, etc. And who could fault them? Forty years ago it was Mantovani. Twenty years ago it was Manilow. Today its Mass. Switch on and switch off.
It is a little bit worrying that today's easy-listening has an unmistakable God-fearing quality (in contrast to the liberating sound of Mantovani's cascading violin strings), but there's no accounting for musical taste. If The Priests hit the big time then good luck to them. What is more worrying, actually, is what all this says about the scientific revolution. If, in our quiet moments, we like to pretend we are back at Sunday mass or - worse - living the ascetic life in a monastery (witness the rise in sales of Gregorian chant), how serious is our commitment to the rational, godless universe in which we live?
That commitment is on the wane, but unlike Dawkins we must resist the urge to stamp about in frustration, blaming those who teach religion for the success of religion. Instead we must examine the scientific approach, adopted by Dawkins and many of the 'humanists' around today, that sees the world not only as godless but as virtually 'manless' too. In this scientistic view, man inhabits the world not as an independent thinker, capable of shaping the future on the strength of his own will, but only as a natural though admittedly complex by-product of evolution. Just read Dawkins's chapter on "The Roots of Religion" in The God Delusion to see what I mean: here man is placed in the petri dish while Dawkins (ironically adopting a God's eye view) marvels at his ignorance and susceptibility to events that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago.
There is an aspect of man that is rooted in the past, that is biological and the result of evolutionary adaptation. But the scientistic view sees this as the whole story. And so it's not surprising that, especially now when a lot of the political meaning has been drained from current events, Dawkins and Co. are unable to provide meaning to those experiences - love, community, creativity - which have an undeniable human quality to them. Enter religion and the religious chill-out experience.
I'm not proposing that Richard Dawkins approach his manager with a view to putting in some studio time and recording a cover of The Rolling Stones' Monkey Man. The Priests and the Church seem to have the music angle sewn up, and atheists' hymns don't work. Instead we need a new science of humanism, that seeks to explain historic and contemporary events in terms of human agency, a sense of which both Dawkins and The Priests seem to lack.