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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Number 266: February 2019

[Return to related issue of Nonviolence News]

Brexit: We wouldn’t start from here

The continuation of the UK’s debacle regarding Brexit, and its possible most serious repercussions for Ireland, is still grinding on, and will for years yet. If we wanted to get somewhere, anywhere, we certainly would not start from ‘here’, and whether Theresa May has had a realistic or creative negotiating strategy is a good question and it certainly does not look like it, unless it is to wear people down and get her deal over the line at the final hour. Our brief examination of the matter here does add to the trillions of words on the matter but there are lessons to be learned which have implications for how any society tackles contentious issues.

David Cameron had not done a serious analysis of what way the wind could blow before declaring support for, and then instituting, a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. It came to pass not at all because he wanted to give ‘the people’ a say but because he thought it might silence the Eurosceptics in his own party; in other words it was for a petty political reason, with the expectation that the pro-EU side would romp home. But instead of ending the quarrel in the Conservative Party it has exported the quarrel, big time, to the whole of UK society (and to some extent across party lines). In a large part it was his government’s austerity policies in the aftermath of the 2008 slump which added sufficient fuel to the Brexiteer fire to carry that cause just over the line to ‘victory’.

There is now a big problem in the UK, whatever direction is pursued. 69% of people in the UK in an Edelman Trust Barometer survey felt fellow citizens had become angier about politics and society; 40% thought people are now more likely to get involved in violent political protest, and 65% thought the country was on the wrong track. 61% (on both sides of the leave/remain divide, but higher for Labour supporters) felt their views were not represented. This shows a country in considerable difficulty in terms of tolerance, respect and political legitimacy. If there is unrest after a no-deal Brexit, there are even reports of moving Queen Elizabeth out of London.

The yes/no referendum is an extremely crude mechanism for deciding anything; it might be acceptable on a minor matter but it has severe disadvantages on even whether you want a cup of tea; What kind of tea? ‘Ordinary’ or herbal, and if herbal what kind? Now or in half an hour? Would you prefer coffee? Or water? Or juice? Would you prefer to wait and be asked again in a while? And if you are having tea, do you like it black, milky, strong, weak? And ‘Do you take sugar?’ is a question not much asked these days but some people still do take it in tea. A yes/no referendum can be just the thing to foment further division and confusion. In this context the ‘leave’ side garnered all sorts of people voting for all sorts of reasons, after a debate which was severely lacking in both truthful information and realistic expectations of what was possible.

Of course the UK and its people are entitled to make what decisions they want, including becoming poorer financially because of a pursuit of freedom or what is seen as freedom (the point has been well made that this is precisely what happened in the creation of the Irish Free State until eventually becoming prosperous after 70 or 80 years). And there are entirely reasonable reasons for leaving the EU, including some of its neoliberal policies and militarist ambitions. But a 52% - 48% result with such a simplistic decision making mechanism and poor information was certainly not a clear result, nor was it ‘decisive’.

So what should have happened, and what could still happen? Firstly, setting the issue up as an ‘either/or’ choice was entirely wrong. It is true that Cameron’s negotiations on concessions for Britain from the EU were not very fruitful with the many ‘red lines’ which the EU has, and no credit was given him for his victory over restricting benefits for EU citizens. What the UK and its people needed was a reasoned discussion but to do that it required analysing the different options before voting. These would have included staying in the EU ‘as is’, staying in but continuing to work for change in the UK’s position and change in how the EU works or decides things, as well as change in particular politics. ‘Getting out’ options would have included ‘Norway’, ‘Canada’ and ‘Leave with WTO rules’.

All of these options should have been explored in detail and all would have been included in a preferendum ballot paper using a Modified Borda Count or such, where each voter has to order their preferences to maximise their vote. This gives a much better picture of where people are at and avoids simplistic ‘yes/no’ stances. It is quite possible that the result might not have been clear but a) that might be a realistic reflection of where people are at, and b) the nearest possible to consensus might have been arrived at by combining features of options which received the most support.

The use of a preferendum, consensus decision making voting system, would still be possible in the UK because another ‘yes/no’ referendum would certainly solve nothing so far as a near-majority of people are concerned, and even if it was seen to make some kind of decision it will not be accepted by about half the electorate. But using a preferendum now would be difficult because the waters have been poisoned by so much vitriol. It would, however, give a much more nuanced picture of where society is at currently. And given that there was a very definite and sigificant age factor in how people voted (oldies tending to vote out and young people in) there is also a need to get a result which is suitable for UK society in the future. However, any kind of further referendum has been ruled out by Theresa May, supposedly on the grounds of instituting the ‘democratic will’ shown in the mid-2016 referendum and would only happen in extremis.

Also being given some discussion, if not serious consideration, in the UK has been the use of a citizens’ assembly, as in Ireland over the issue of abortion (not the only issue looked at – others included political questions, and climate change). This is where a group of citizens, decided at random, come together to thrash out issues and decide a way forward. It could be helpful in deciding on such a contentious issue. But there is a difference between the abortion issue in Ireland and the Brexit decision in the UK. In Ireland, it looked like the assembly was adopting a changed position which was out of step with more general views in society; however the referendum proved that views had changed, and were continuing to change, and the citizen’s assembly was a precursor to acknowledgement of that change which took place in the referendum on abortion. The Citizens’ Assembly was a harbinger of change, a weather vane indicating which way the popular will would blow.

In the UK, however, the battle lines are already very well drawn and while some might bend to avoid a no deal Brexit, there is no indication that most people are moving in one particular direction, even though there has been a slight trickle towards “don’t leave”. In other words, while a citizen’s assembly might well introduce some sense, there could also be to a greater or lesser extent a continuation of the hard lines people have already adapted. If a citizen’s assembly had taken place there a few years ago then, perhaps, it might have been of more use. It could still be worth trying despite the limited time. An opposition proposal for a citizen’s assembly of 250 (the Irish one had 100 citizens including the chair) did not make it onto the order paper in the House of Commons in London.

The record-breaking defeat in the UK parliament on Theresa May’s Brexit policy (on 15/1/19) should have presaged a change to depart a one sided approach and attempt to build some consensus, even at that late stage. There is little indication of this. Whatever approach is taken is likely to continue to divide British society for years to come, aside from the continuing decisions which will still need made on trade policy and relating to the EU. It could have been very different. Even at this eleventh hour it could still be somewhat more positive and relatively consensual compared to what has gone heretofore on the issue and the House of Commons, as divided as everyone else, missed an opportunity to exercise its clout to ‘take control’ of the process from the government.

The process has also had severe political implications for Northern Ireland and its internal democratic structures which are not detailed here. The DUP’s alliance and propping up of the Conservative Party through holding a balance of power at Westminister has had a destabilising effect on politics in the North, and partisan implications for a region of the UK which voted by an arithmetic majority to stay in the EU. None of this has helped political progress in Northern Ireland.

How you make decisions can be the most important decision you make, both in enabling a decision to be well taken and the legitimacy of that decision. In the case of the UK and Brexit they got it almost all wrong, and have still not succeeded in setting a reasonable path let alone a destination.

The First Dáil: Classic nonviolence and social concern

A question in INNATE’s ‘Nonviolence:The Irish Experience” Quiz goes:
“By what nonviolent method did local councils in nationalist controlled areas assert their independence of British rule in 1919?”
Answer: “They switched their allegiance from the Westminster parliament to the Dáil (parliament) in Dublin”. [See / ]
The setting up of the first Dáil in Dublin in 1919, after the 1918 General Election, required no bullets or bombs. Neither did nationalists switching allegiance to it. It fits exactly into Gene Sharp’s typology of nonviolent action (particularly No.198 “Dual sovereignty and parallel government” but also “Boycott of legislative bodies”, No.123, with various other tactics involved, see here). It as yet had no power, beyond the moral and political, but it can still be inspirational today.

The social programme of the First Dáil is worthy of reflection. Today is a very different world, and Ireland now a rich and generally well educated country. However “to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training” is as yet an unfulfilled ambition. There is a distance to travel on this yet.

What happened in the independence struggle in Ireland went largely in a different direction to the nonviolent symbolism of setting up the First Daíl. The Soloheadbeg ambush, simultaneously, was the start of that different direction. But the militarist model of struggle had severe repercussions for relations between nationalists/republicans and unionists/loyalists on this island; this is irrespective of the fact that it was loyalists in the North who introduced guns into the equation first It also had severe repercussions when it came to the limited independence forced on the Free State by the British and the civil war, effects which are still seen (not that this was occasioned solely by the means of struggle adopted). It had also major results for the border and border regions, and relations between ‘North’ and ‘South’, even if avoiding ‘the border’ might have been surpremely difficult at that stage.

The ‘what ifs’ of history are intriguing, and sometimes instructive. But more important is what we have to learn for the future from the past. Britain and Ireland, despite Brexit, are friends these days (even if currently quarrelling ones). But the empire that is waiting in the wings is the EU, despite its many positive achievements. And despite its anti-imperialist past, and often progressive stances on world issues, it would seem that Irish governments and elites are buying into the EU neo-imperialist and militarist model.

Is this what Irish independence was about? Becoming part of a 21st century world power which utters great words but acts against the poor globally, excluding them both literally and metaphorically? Having military power to clout countries and regions which act against western European interests in the very dangerous world of the mid- and later 21st century? Fine words might be uttered about ‘peacekeeping’ but the implication of the EU becoming just another world power and arms producer is clear. They think ‘they’ will be different and more just; they will not.

How different was the original vision of the founding fathers, and mothers of the Irish Free State! We should be inspired by their vision but realise that the bullet, the bomb and (today) the drone are not the way to sort out the world’s affairs, or the way to work for a just and safe world for all.

- - - - -


Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Some impediments to radical change

“His return to the Luquillo rainforest in Puerto Rico after 35 years was to reveal an appalling discovery. The insect population that once provided plentiful food for birds throughout the mountainous national park had collapsed. On the ground, 98% had gone. Up in the leafy canopy, 80% had vanished. The most likely culprit by far is global warming. …

Earth’s bugs outweigh humans 17 times over and are such a fundamental foundation of the food chain that scientists say a crash in insect numbers risks “ecological Armageddon”.

Damian Carrington, The Guardian, 15 January 2019

The evidence of the rapidly declining health of the biosphere is utterly depressing. In spite of the dire consequences, and the traumatic experience of millions of people who have suffered, we as a species are not sufficiently moved to avoid the disintegration through changing our behaviour. One reason is that we receive the evidence, consequences and projections via technologies which deceive us into thinking that ecological catastrophes are a fiction in the manner of TV soap operas. We can watch but not take part.

As Rick Shenkman in Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, (2016) writes: “There’s a profound difference in the way we process live events happening before our eyes and events we see on the tube.” (p. 192) Even when we register the fact that ecological breakdown has personal consequences we feel powerless to do anything substantive about them and continue to live in the ecologically careless way we have always done.

Given our animal nature this is understandable as what matters most to us is what our senses of touch, scent, sound, sight and temperature tell us. The further away a danger the less of a threat we perceive it to be and the further away a human tragedy the less likely we are to regard it as having anything to do with us. The pictures of surging seas, burning forests and melting glaciers, famine and war communicated by various media are without physical manifestation and thus perceived by our reptilian brain as unreal.

On the occasions when the reflective part of our brain joins the dots enabling us to appreciate the role we play in these sorry dramas the abstract nature of our understanding is overridden by our moment-to-moment survival imperatives and pursuit of personal fulfilment. We can for instance listen to a vivid account of an extreme weather event linked to climate chaos whilst planning with perfect equilibrium to drive into the nearest gas station to fill our vehicle with the very fuel that cause these events. Likewise we may be moved by an account about the loss of biodiversity caused by palm oil plantations in Indonesia whilst placing soap, tooth paste, cereal and chocolate with palm oil as an ingredient into our shopping basket.

Such is our embeddedness in the economic structures of our society we can’t with the resolution of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus give-up our fossil-fuel, palm oil dependency way of life. We are not only embedded in the economic structures we are enmeshed in the language, symbols and narratives that regard the conflagration of the biosphere as normal, rational and manageable.

An illustrative example is the statement by Borge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as quoted by Larry Elliott in The Guardian, 16 January 2019;

“What we need now is coordinated, concerted action to sustain growth and tackle the grave threats facing our world today.”

Brende clearly does not see that most of the serious threats we face stem from the effort to sustain economic growth, which as presently constituted, is predicated on the destruction of habitats and the flushing of all kinds of highly toxic, long lasting, death inflicting pollutants into the biosphere. The predominance of the religious-like belief that unlimited economic growth is the saviour of humankind is an impediment to the radical changes necessary to save the sinking ship of our civilization and the community of life-forms we share the planet with.

A further impediment connected with the idea of unlimited economic growth is that the inevitable rivalry between economic competitors makes it is exceedingly difficult for meaningful international agreements to be reached on protecting the global commons. This is borne out by the present trade wars, the idea of ‘my country first’ and the increase in military tensions between the major economic powers.

Another impediment to bringing about the radical and swift changes needed to avoid the ecological apocalypse are our biases. As Rick Shenkman in Political Animals argues our biases evolved to enable us to survive and thrive in the period prior to the advent of the great civilizations when people lived in small bands and tribes. These biases include availability bias, confirmation bias, recognition bias, superiority bias, projection bias and optimistic bias. These work against us acknowledging facts that undermine our preconceived notions, our sense of ourselves, our readiness to acknowledge fault and willingness to embrace change.

In other words the very qualities we need to make the transition to living in a radically different way from how we presently do in terms of diet, attire, travel, personal care, the use of materials, forms of recreation and so forth. Our biases impede the internalization of a systems view of the world, which is one that takes relationships and consequences into account, as opposed to the prevailing fragmented view in which economics is regarded as separate from ecology.

The real challenge of meeting the recently announced twelve-year deadline to bring an end to our dependency on fossil fuels, and thirty years to radically change our meat and sugar diet, is not technical but psychological. Given the seriousness of our ecological justice situation we have to immediately change how we view ourselves, relate to others and the biosphere before all that we know and value is swallowed by the rising oceans, poisoned by pollution and made infertile. There are practical things we can do. Sylvia Thompson in The Irish Times Magazine, 19 January 2019, gives details of a small number of inspiring individuals and groups throughout Ireland who are “taking a positive approach to environmental activism”. You could be part of this. If there is not a group in your locality to join set one up or act on your own.

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