Social philosophy not on a folding bike. Postlude

Sitting in the Airport lounge (I use the word loosely), with time on my hands, I feel an urgent need to add a brief postscript to my commentary on knowledge and power.

It seems to me that, in addition to “the people” there are three distinct groups which are viewed with varying degrees of suspicion: the “experts”; the liberal elite; and the rich and powerful. I’ll take them in turn.
The experts, I’ve already dealt with to some extent.
The liberal elite, to which I clearly belong, are often confused (mistakenly) by “the people” with both the experts and the rich and powerful.
The rich and powerful are small in number and cloaked in secrecy and anonymity. Owen Jones, an unashamedly left-wing commentator describes in his book “The Establishment” how we are all being shafted (his word) by this group WITHOUT OUR KNOWLEDGE. That the systems (and even the rule of law) are geared by them for their advantage. Whether this is true or not, the inequality in the UK is outrageous and increasing. It is no surprise that “the people” are starting to rail against the system, assisted by newly found knowledge and power.
The question is whether they distinguish correctly between the three groups I’ve described. The experts, and the liberal elite are easy targets. The rich and powerful are still protected by mystery.

How society develops into the future, it seems to me, will depend significantly on the interrelationships between these groups, and how they evolve in this new world of instantly available knowledge and communication.

Social philosophy and puzzles not on a folding bike. Final day

In the “only hotel in town, breakfast is served in a cafe full of mainly elderly gentlemen, talking six to the dozen. ALL talking ……. to EVERYONE. A right babble. You don’t get this in Costa.

Today involves a pretty big “cox and box”. To get to Murcia to catch my flight I must be on the 8.22 train. The next one is not until …… 17.42! Just possibly an option, but cutting it very fine indeed
After the early breakfast I stroll down to the station. Another fine day, but a decided chill in the air. A nearby sign registers 14 degrees C. Everything’s relative.

Nothing to report on the train; and no exciting photos. Just the view out of the window.


Arriving in Murcia I stroll into the city. The streets are lined with trees in fantastic blue bloom.
Reaching the historic centre, I enter the immense cathedral


With time on my hands I take my time strolling around. In addition to the main altar and chancels I count 25 side chapels. One of them catches my eye. The intricate stonework must have represented a lifetime’s labour of love for one medieval stone mason


And this is such a tiny part of the whole. What devotion!

Wandering into the adjacent Tourist Office I discover that the airport is not the one on the outskirts of Murcia which I had identified on my map, but another one 20 miles away. It’s just as well I didn’t choose the later train. Back to the bus station! 3€ for a 20 mile bus journey. I can’t get over how cheap public transport is.

I realise that there’s been little in the way of social philosophy so far- so, here goes.

I’m sure you’re aware how the relationship between knowledge and power has been shifting – and shifting rapidly. Until recently, knowledge and power have been largely coupled …. in the hands of “experts”. Now, with the advent of the internet, knowledge, and therefore with it,  power, is in the hands of the people. The problem is, of course, that “knowledge” doesn’t equate to “wisdom”. I hasten to add that we should make no assumption, however that the “experts” are always wise.

We are all now experts at self-diagnosis: on a recent (and fortunately rare) visit to my local surgery, I couldn’t help noticing that the doctor consulted the same website I had already visited. Two other contrasting examples of populist expertise are Brexit and ….. the recent 3-day “Flat Earth Convention” in Birmingham. Yes, there was one!

Starting with the former, there is a distinct feeling that “the people” have snubbed the nose of the “experts”; that they have done their own research and voted viscerally on gut feelings concerning sovereignty and control – of our laws and our borders. They don’t believe (or don’t care?) what the experts may say about economic and cultural consequences. Perhaps with prescience, Michael Gove said “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”.

The 3 day flat earth convention (and I must admit I’m reporting this second hand) was a scrupulously scientific affair, with the focus on scientific method and process rather than “knowledge” handed down by the experts. Various theories were examined with a surprisingly scientific approach. A panel of flat-earthers debated with a panel of PhD physics students. An interesting quote from one of the flat-earthers: “now we’ve got the internet and mass communications, were not reliant on what the mainstream are telling us in newspapers; we can decide for ourselves”. For the record, I am NOT a flat-earther ….. and STRONGLY oppose Brexit.

However, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and can never be put back in. The full implications of this for society have yet to unfold.

Yesterday’s puzzle
I’m sure that many of you got the answer 3
Well …….. YOUR WRONG!
You’re not alone, however: this question was famously set to 300,000 American students, all but 3 of whom got it wrong; including the examiners!
What they failed to take into account was that the radius of the circle which the smaller circle transcribes is not 3r ….. but 4r. It must include its own radius. The correct answer to the puzzle is therefore …. 4. Simple when you know why.

An easy one for the finale
There are three boxes, one containing apples only; one containing oranges only; and the third containing both. All are labelled, but unfortunately ALL incorrectly. You may solve the problem by checking one item of fruit from one box only.
Which box should you choose?

Answer next year

Well, it’s been a journey and a half. My Spanish has come on ….. a bit; I’ve missed the downhill sweeps on the bike (and, I confess, the uphill slogs!); but my feet have taken me to places my bike could not possibly go. Fantastic places. And the coxing and boxing has not been without its attractions. All in all, it’s been a great week

Thank you for following.

Hasta luego

A Vision for “Remain” (cont)

  1. Equality

Not only is the UK a nation with one of the highest levels of inequality in the world, this is ever increasing. This is scandalous. Is this anything to do with Europe? Well, most EU countries do better than us.

A few statistics (GINI coefficient after Tax):

Austria             0.261               Belgium            0.259

Czech R           0.256               Denmark          0.248

France              0.293               Germany          0.295

Greece             0.307               Hungary           0.272

Ireland              0.293               Italy                  0.337

Luxembourg     0.288               Netherlands      0.294

Poland              0.305               Portugal            0.353

Slovakia           0.257               Slovenia           0.236

Spain                0.317               Sweden            0.259

UK                  0.345

 A figure of zero represents total equality; a figure of 1 represents total inequality

Research establishes very clearly that our contentment depends significantly, not on absolute wealth, but on the perception of our position in relation to others: it is relative wealth which is important. The notion that wealth somehow trickles down from the super-rich has also been thoroughly discredited. We should unequivocally be committed to striving for a more equal society.

It would be too simplistic to suggest that the EU is intertwined with this one way or another. However, I would suggest that our culture encourages the growth of an embedded elite of the rich and powerful more than most other countries, and that the EU is a positive influence in keeping this in check. Do we want to throw this away?

  1. Mutual Support

This question, of course, depends very much on how you choose to view it. Some would say that the EU institutions interfere with our “sovereignty” and remove our control over our own affairs.

Others would say that that they provide an essential check on possible abuse of power and the maintenance of conditions and rights in fields such as the justice system, the family and the workplace.

Let me pose a question: it is entirely possible that Brexit would fundamentally damage the EU and the individual nations of which it is comprised; do we care?

Well I do.

I would view it as running away from a partnership which, although not perfect, we should be able to make to work. As with all partnerships, there needs to be a degree of give and take. We should be moving forwards together. Do we really get such a bad deal?

  1. Pursuit of happiness

I should acknowledge from the outset that I consider myself very fortunate: I feel I have sufficient portions of wealth and power not to have to worry about this too much! However, I applaud the belated trend to include happiness/well-being measurements and data alongside other indicators of the “state of the nation”. Happiness and well-being are crucially important. Psychological research suggests that the more connected we are, the happier we are. The obsessive pursuit and collection of “friends” on social and professional media would appear to support this.

Statistics in this area must inevitably be accompanied by a caveat of uncertainty. That said, here is a selection of published data for some European countries (out of 10)

Denmark                      7.527                           Netherlands                  7.339

Sweden                        7.291                           Austria                         7.119

Germany                      6.994                           Belgium                        6.929

Ireland                          6.907                           Luxembourg                 6.871

UK                              6.725                           Czeck R                       6.596

France                          6.478                           Spain                            6.361


Do these figures tell us much? Possibly not.

In any event, let us consider the pursuit of happiness an important national and international goal.

  1. Protecting the weak

This morning I heard a brief discussion on the European Convention of Human Rights on the radio. Attention focussed on such issues as voting rights for prisoners (do we really care that some prisoners may have the right to vote?) It occurred to me that our obsession with such relative trivia, is taking place alongside a number of humanitarian disasters which are unfolding throughout the world: political, environmental and social.

Are voting rights for prisoners, one way or the other, of greater concern to us than the thousands fleeing political and environmental disasters at risk to their lives? Indeed, many thousands have been killed in the process. Reading much of the (right wing) press, the answer is “yes they are”. Surely, this is egregious.

The whole point of the ECHR (of which we were a founder member) is to protect the weak. Unfortunately, we have slipped into a mindset which believes that this is OK as long as it doesn’t affect us. Protection of the weak should be unconditional.

I will say no more.

  1. Shared control

There is a well-known saying “Problems shared are problems halved; Love shared is love doubled”. I would suggest that substituting the word “control” for “love” would render the saying equally true.

We choose to surrender some degree of control in every aspect of our lives, professional, social and personal – and are all the better for it. Do not the advantages of co-operation and partnership outweigh the drawbacks of some voluntary surrender? It is mistakenly believed by some that “sovereignty” implies complete control over our own affairs. Not, I’m afraid in the 21st century global world. To quote from a recent article in the Observer:

“In the protectionist camp there is now a wide range of political parties from extreme left to the extreme right……The common element for all these parties is that they dream of returning to a time when “we were in control”; when we could easily open or close our borders; when the world was manageable and small and we did not have to compromise. That is why they want national rules rather than international ones; and that is also why ultimately most of them despise the EU, because it is based not on direct control but on compromise.

The problem with that notion is that such a cosy world does not exist any more. The new generations expect to talk, travel and trade with each other all over the world, no matter where they are.

Fluidity, speed, seamlessness and complexity define the 21st century. Fighting these trends makes sense only if you are of such an age and means that you can afford the luxury of whingeing about the present and dreaming nostalgically about the past, but if you are still trying to make your way in life, you have to embrace change and adapt.”

Left-wing rubbish, I hear you say? Well, I’m not so sure.

  1. International Law

Why are we so scared of International Law? Do we believe we are the sole arbiters of what is right and what is wrong? Or is it that International Law is OK unless it happens to conflict with our own vested interests?

The strange thing is that in any other context, subjugating the rule of law to vested interest would be (rightly) called “corruption”.

Are we so blind that we can’t see the thread of vested interest, up to the very highest level, weave its way through national business and politics? Or perhaps we don’t care.

Well, I’m afraid I do.

When Tony Blair discontinued a criminal investigation into alleged Saudi corruption in “the interests of British industrial relations” were you not outraged? Well, I was.

The fact is that we only have anything to fear from International (or European) law if we have something to hide, or some vested interest to protect.

Not good enough, I’m afraid

  1. The Environment

Until recently this would have been considered a peripheral issue. Not any more. The point about major environmental concerns is that they can only be effectively tackled through agreed international intervention. A piecemeal, national approach is hopelessly inadequate.

Once again vested business and other interest is inclined to get in the way. International co-operation and regulation is probably the only way to ensure that individual nations toe the line and put concern for the planet at least alongside concern for national wealth and growth.

I understand why the corporate fat-cats, supported by sections of the right-wing media, might rail against this, but why should we be wary of it? Surely the watchful eye of the EU, amongst others, must be a good thing?

And finally:

As the Pope recently suggested, we should be building bridges, not walls

A Vision for “Remain” (cont)

  1. Openness

What is our view about change? Do we regard it as an exciting opportunity, or an unfortunate necessity? Do we embrace it or shrink from it? Do we think that the future is a blank sheet under our collective and individual control which we can mould to the greater good, or do we believe that “things were always better in my day”?

How do we treat visitors (temporary or permanent)?

Do we welcome them, treat them with respect and assume the best? Or do we regard them as a threat – they’re after our jobs; here for the benefits; on the scrounge?

How do we describe our identity? Am I a “Londoner”, a Sussex man, English, British, European ….. or Sapiens? How would I rank these, if asked to?

I am proud to be British (not specifically English) …… but also proud to be European. Of my four grandparents, one hails from Ireland and one from Switzerland. I am thankful that these two were welcomed into the late 19th/early 20th century “English” community. I hope that we and our children will have an equally welcoming attitude into the future.

Above all, of course, I consider myself a member of the human family Sapiens; I’m pleased to consider all fellow members my brothers and sisters.

Brexit? No thanks


  1. Co-operation

Let’s acknowledge from the start that competition is generally a good thing. However, surely this is even more true in the context of an overall co-operative framework.

Some questions:

  • When seeking access to increasingly limited resources (whether in trade, natural resources, services or whatever), is not working together in partnership better than aggressively fighting for “our little bit”.
  • Are we really still wedded to the notion of Might is Right? Do we care about those with whom we compete? Or about the weak, who will inevitably lose out?
  • Many would acknowledge that working together in science, medicine and technological research is self-evidently a good thing; why not in education, trade, industry, defence and security?
  • Our lives are increasingly dominated by networking (social and professional); why do we shy away from the national equivalent?
  • We increasingly live in a world in which all the important issues are global; if the issues are global, should we not move towards co-ordinated, global responses?
  • In any event, does it make sense to fragment back to a national (or indeed, sub-national) mindset?

Has the concept of the nation state, fundamentally a 19th century construct, had its day?

To be continued

A Vision for “Remain”

In writing this political blog I am breaking a long-standing promise; to blog only once a year on my annual folding-bike adventure. Why am I departing from this? Because it’s something about which I feel very strongly. I’m sure that I am not alone in finding the possibility of  “Brexit” to be intensely depressing.

Am I the only visceral “remainer” to find the interminable pro-EU arguments lacklustre, negative and lacking vision? I don’t believe the campaign should focus on nitty-gritty: the economy; migration; borders; centralisation or de-centralisation; whether we will be a few pounds better or worse off etc. “Experts” will argue these factors with equal conviction, on both sides, till the cows come home. What we need is a vision for the future.

In the absence of this from the great and good, I will try to present my own in ten stages.

A vision for the future

 I believe we should be building a family/society/country (choose whichever collective noun you wish) which moves forward into the 21st Century on the basis of:

  • Trust
  • Openness
  • Co-operation
  • A quest for equality
  • Mutual support, including through difficult times
  • Pursuit of happiness
  • A belief in the need to protect the weak
  • A willingness to sacrifice some aspects of control for the “greater good”
  • A belief in, and commitment to, international law
  • A commitment to protecting the environment

Over the next ten days I will endeavour to elaborate on each of these ten factors in turn.

  1. Trust

A traveller came upon a wise old farmer hoeing in his field beside the road. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the countryman, who seemed happy enough to straighten his back and talk for a moment. “What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger. “What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer, answering the question with another question. “They were a bad lot. Troublemakers all, and lazy too; the most selfish people in the world, and not a one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving the scoundrels.” “Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town. Disappointed, the traveller trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.

Some time later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. “What sort of people live in the next town?” he asked. “What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer once again. “They were the best people in the world; hard working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving them.”

“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”

One of the saddest aspects of the modern world is the lack of trust: stranger danger; distrust of “foreigners”; always assuming the worst, every situation a “Health and Safety” risk; suspicion and danger around every corner.

In reality, isn’t the truth is that most people are good; most people can be trusted; most people are just like you and me; risk is there to be managed, not eliminated? Surely it is better to lead our lives in this belief, than to shrink into isolation through distrust of our neighbour, or constant fear of lurking danger. We may occasionally be let down – ok, live with this, manage the risk and move on.

The relevance of this for the Brexit argument is, I think self-evident.

To be continued