Summary of discussion, 8th June 2017
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, had written a book “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”, part of his campaign to encourage more scientific literacy. In his view too many people, both voters and politicians, base their views on dogma which ignores scientific evidence, whether climate change or evolution. “The only hope of a working democracy” he says “is to base laws and legislation on objective truth”. Ignoring those truths leads to bad policy decisions.
Of course many political decisions cannot be decided by objective, scientific “facts” alone- and dogmatism equally can destroy democratic debate in those cases, as can intimidation, bullying, dishonesty and the deliberate manipulation of evidence. So how can democracy survive? Political leaders have great responsibility in this, but so do the general public, who must call leaders to account if they undermine genuine debate by their manipulative tactics.
Many political leaders who are well regarded at the beginning lose the confidence of the population in time. Churchill was rejected in 1945, Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and Tony Blair lost 4 million Labour votes between 1997 and 2005. Is this because leaders stay in power too long, or because eventually the fundamental weaknesses in their original are revealed? Churchill’s war leadership was rejected because he was regarded as being completely out of tune with the society people wanted in peacetime- a society which was no longer dominated by wealthy, aristocratic families, but one in which the government played the role (as it had done during the War) of organising the whole community to achieve goals which would be for everyone’s good. Thatcher was voted in when the weaknesses of that post-WW2 settlement had apparently become intractable. But instead of looking forward, all she did in fact was to turn the clock back, returning power to those groups whose authority had been decisively rejected in 1945. Blair broadly accepted Thatcher’s view of society (because he knew that the electorate would not vote for anything different), but tried to solve the problems that had been created by extending credit more widely than had previously been done. The 2008 banking crisis was one result.
Western economies have been dominated for forty years by the dogma that markets operate well when left to themselves- governments therefore should not intervene. The structures of the European Union are in many ways built on that assumption, giving political control a subordinate place to the demands of a free Single Market. As a result the EU has been unable to deal effectively with the problems of Greece, Spain etc, and has failed to integrate their economies into the rest of the Continent. Disillusionment has led many (not just in the UK) to question membership of the EU. But there are real questions about the viability of any national economy that tries to separate itself- which probably means that the quest for long-term prosperity, stability and justice is more likely to be met by greater democratic political integration within a reformed EU than by separation. At the moment, however, that is not the path which the UK is attempting to pursue.