Democracy, Sovereignty and Leadership

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It’s been a challenging few days for democracy. In the United Kingdom democracy has been something we’ve taken for granted. Despite the oddly persistent fact that we’re mere subjects of a flesh-and-blood sovereign, sovereignty, in practice, lies with us, the people. The UK is a democracy, and when there’s a General Election we delegate our collective sovereign power to our Members of Parliament, who debate and vote in Parliament. What they decide, our Sovereign signs into law. So far, so simple.

But of course it’s not simple at all. Sovereignty is limited in dozens of ways: by the unelected House of Lords for a start, by the European Parliament, by domestic and international law, by the media, by treaties with other nations and supranational bodies, by the United Nations, and by the interconnectedness of the world’s economies and ecologies.

The events of the last few days, unusually, have brought many of these issues into the limelight:

The Brexit Referendum has, at least partially, been about ‘taking control’, clawing back sovereignty from the EU. Though, as many of us predicted, the Leave camp are now discovering that control of our borders isn’t possible as long as we want access to the single market. Is that ‘control’?

And then there’s the Referendum itself. Is it actually a democratic process? A Referendum is technically ‘advisory’ in the United Kingdom, though tradition demands that the people’s ‘will’ be respected. That said, Referendums are so rare in the United Kingdom that they end up being mere  travesties of democracy, at least if regarded as true reflections of the people’s will on a single issue. The Brexit choice was so complex, the ‘facts’ so unclear, the emotion so strong, that it’s hard to see the vote as reflecting a thoughtful view on a single issue, rather than expressing a more general dissatisfaction with the Government and the world.

We delegate complex issues to Parliament for a reason. Our MPs have the time, the knowledge and the experience to consider issues more narrowly. Perhaps if Referendums were more frequent (as in Switzerland) issues could be more coolly considered on their merits rather than, as last week, used as an opportunity for a splurge of misplaced emotion and hysteria.

And then there is democracy and party politics. The hideous wrangles in the Labour Party stem from differing views as to where power lies when it comes to determining policy and electing a party leader. Jeremy Corbyn is an old activist who sees the Party as the source of power, as the sovereign body when it comes to the exercise of power by elected Members of Parliament, though nearly all of his Parliamentary colleagues take a different view, and consider themselves as representing the wider body of Labour voters who elected them, and all their constituents whether they were Labour voters or not.

Democracy is difficult.

  • Is the EU undemocratic? (Everyone seems to forget that we actually vote for our unknown MEPs. It’s just a rather large institution and even the loudest MEP will rarely be heard.)
  • Should the leader of the Labour Party enjoy the support of the Members of Parliament that he leads? Or is it enough that he’s supported by tens of thousands of activists?
  • Do Referendums really allow ‘the people’ to express their views on a single important issue?

There is no single form of democracy. There’s no right way of doing it. Its various forms may reflect tradition and culture in different countries and regions.

In the end there is only one really important test of democracy.

I am reminded of a dispute between two different schools of Logical Positivism in the mid-twentieth century. Alfred Ayer, an Oxford philosopher, put forward the idea that meaning derives from the means employed to verify a proposition (an idea curiously incapable of verification itself, but never mind that for now), whereas Karl Popper, a London philosopher, put forward the idea that a proposition makes sense only if it’s capable of falsification. So, for example, when it comes to science, a theory can only be accepted if criteria can be defined for disproving it. Freud and Marx fail as scientist on this analysis.

In fact it is always easier to disprove than prove, and something similar is true of democracy. It is very difficult to define it, and everyone has different ideas about what it means, but there’s a simple litmus test that looks at the same thing from the opposite direction: a country isn’t democratic if its Government can’t easily be replaced. We shouldn’t always be considering how the will of the people can be expressed. Rather we should concentrate on how the will of the people can be thwarted.

 

systems@work Version 6 -We’re Nearly There!

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We hope to release systems@work Version 6 in the coming days/weeks. Today was the first day of the gradual release process – a first release of a pre-release version to me and to a few of my colleagues.

The next step will be the upgrade of our LLP Group system on Friday, so between now and then we must iron out the most alarming and noticeable bugs.

But I’m already pleased with what I see.

My first step, on receiving the new version this morning, was to upgrade a standard time@work demonstration database. The new Home Page looks like this:

V6Home

We’ve narrowed the page header to allow the display of more transactions. We’ve arranged all immediate actions into a To Do panel and an Approval panel, we’ve provided a Shortcuts panel, and we’ve arranged the functions of the system into a tab strip.

It is easier to work with and it looks more modern.

Reports can now be arranged into Custom tabs (such as Timesheet reports, Utilisation reports, Realisation reports, Audit reports, and so on).

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There are also new ‘Static Data’ reports that enable you to list Employees, Clients, Projects, Tasks and Analysis Values, and you’ll be able to use Ledger Export (and Task Scheduler) for exporting such data to external systems.

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We’ve also revised the way in which destination email addresses can be defined for invoices. You may define one or more roles (such as Project Manager, Client Project Manager, and Company Accountant) as the default recipients, and also allow the editing of the recipient list at invoicing time.

During the next forty-eight hours we will correct the most obvious problems, upgrade our own systems on Friday, and then prepare an official release for mid- to late July.

Why the delay?

  • Help Text
  • Documentation
  • Standard Demonstration Databases
  • Bug Fixes
  • Release Notes

There’s still a lot to do.

 

Ambition and Greatness

Some days ago I was tempted to write a blog called ‘Et tu Boris’  but the comparison of Boris’s betrayal of David Cameron and Brutus’s betrayal of Julius Caesar doesn’t really hold. Brutus was a reluctant assassin, a late convert to the cause of preserving the Roman Republic from tyranny, and Boris, as far as I know, has never worn a toga. But betrayal it was, in Boris’s case, and I am one of the many who believe, as former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, argued today in the European Parliament, that Boris brought about Brexit, and thereby potentially brought down his country, and the European Union with it, largely to serve his own Prime Ministerial ambitions. How otherwise can one explain his ruthless dishonesty with the facts – the nonsense about 350 million pounds flowing weekly from Britain into the EU’s coffers, and the putative invasion of Britain by a million Turks? In my eyes he has lost all credibility as a decent man, though I don’t doubt that he is a clever one.

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Boris Johnson has written about Churchill, and wags have suggested that he sees many of the great man’s qualities in himself – wit, independence of mind, brilliance, and oratorical originality – and for both Churchill and Johnson politics were and are but one facet of a wide-ranging career. Churchill, like Johnson, wasn’t always taken seriously, and had similarly clownish ways when it suited him.

But, consider May 1940, when Neville Chamberlain only narrowly won a vote of no confidence tabled in the House of Commons, when many MPs of his own party voted against him. Churchill spoke passionately in defence of Chamberlain. Deciding that a coalition government was needed Chamberlain sought the support of the opposition party, and when he met with the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, as well as with Churchill and Halifax on the 9th May, he was informed that they would support a coalition only on condition that he would not continue as Prime Minister. Chamberlain was willing to resign but had to advise the King on whom he should ask to form a Coalition Government.

Chamberlain greatly preferred Halifax. As Foreign Secretary, Halifax was the obvious choice, and it was said (a relevant consideration in 1940) that he enjoyed the confidence of the King. He was a more predictable, more widely admired politician. So, Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax met to discuss whom Chamberlain should recommend to the King. Churchill gave Halifax the opportunity to put himself forward and would have been ready to support him. For reasons that are still not wholly understood, Halifax demurred, claiming that as a member of the House of Lords he would not be able to lead the country effectively (though historians point out that there were mechanisms that would have allowed him to speak in the House of Commons, if not to vote there). He also doubted that he had the bellicose qualities that the times demanded and that he would have the support of coalition partners. So, it remained to Churchill to offer himself, and in due course, according to Roy Jenkins (in his biography of Churchill), he became the greatest Prime Minister the country has ever known.

Nothing captures the British attitude to leadership more dramatically than the symbolic dragging of the elected Speaker to his chair in Parliament after his or her election. We do not like our leaders to show eagerness when they assume power.

Boris Johnson, as we have seen, clothed himself in the most convenient policies, told the most effective and appalling lies, and has now set about elbowing his way to the top job.

Greatness was thrust upon Winston Churchill, whilst Boris Johnson is thrusting his shabby mediocrity upon us.

 

 

 

In Praise of Celebration

I’ve just returned from my brother’s sixtieth birthday weekend in Brinzio, a village above Varese, north of Milan. It was a delightful gathering of family and friends, most of them musicians, and involved dinners, lunches, barbecues and breakfasts from Saturday morning until Monday lunchtime. It was on an extravagant scale but (I am glad to say), nothing in comparison with Her Majesty the Queen’s ninetieth Official Birthday celebrations a couple of weeks ago, nor with Robert Mugabe’s ninety- second birthday party in Zimbabwe, which cost 575,000 pounds (most Zimbabweans struggle to make ends meet).

I am a reluctant convert to birthday parties. My twenty-first was celebrated with about fifteen friends in Oxford. I cooked a vast turkey, stuffed with prunes. A few years later I spent a birthday on my own at a launderette in Highbury, but on another occasion I celebrated someone else’s birthday in the laundry room of the Trellick Tower in West London, an iconic modernist brutalist monstrosity (and with a cocktail beforehand at the Savoy Hotel).

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My friend Cedric, of StartupYard, celebrated his fortieth birthday on a boat on the Vltava. My friend Federico celebrated his fiftieth with a red-themed dinner and a shower of sweets under a glitter ball in Prague. My friend Julian celebrated with a rather sombre set of string arrangements of Purcell which pointed up the glass-half-empty memento mori approach to age rather than the glass-half-full approach. And my friend Jill celebrated her seventieth birthday with an improvised opera in a Turkish restaurant in Bristol.

I used to think birthday parties were as spurious as New Year’s Eve, and they usually brought out the curmudgeon in me. There was always, it seemed to me, far too much vomiting. But I don’t think my disdain had anything to do with vanity, or terror at the Grim Reaper’s approach. I’m always honest about my age (well over thirty) and see no reason to conceal it. There’s little point in lying – musculature, skin tone, and one’s greying and receding hair – will always reveal the truth, and I am reluctant to call on the skills of the plastic surgeon or the wigmaker (most men look very foolish when they fight against the onslaught of time). There is nothing sillier than a toupe.

But in recent years I’ve realised that we should celebrate our birthdays. Many don’t make it as far as we do, and we should take stock, pause and give thanks for our family (however much we bicker with them) and our friends (likewise). I’ve more or less grown in happiness as I’ve aged, and I have much to be grateful for and many to be grateful to.

I celebrated my fiftieth with champagne, flowers, limousines, dinner, music and dance in Prague. I thought, after that extravagance, that I’d spend my sixtieth birthday quietly, and wait for a big one at eighty. But what if I never get that far? Time to start planning, I think. Only sixteen months to go.

Any ideas? (My budget is lower than Mugabe’s.)

 

Democracy

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If only David Cameron hadn’t promised a referendum (he might well have won the last General Election without it)

If only Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned for Remain more passionately (how different the outcome might have been if Gordon Brown had been in charge)

If only it hadn’t rained in London yesterday (turnout for Remain might have been higher)

If only Scotland’s political leaders had campaigned more passionately (turnout in Scotland might have been higher)

If only the referendum had been only about Brexit (it was inevitably an opportunity for the expression of other frustrations – a protest against austerity, authority, inequality, poverty and alienation)

If only Vote Remain had campaigned more positively (‘project fear’ was the wrong approach)

If only Boris Johnson was less ambitious.

If only MPs hadn’t lost the trust of the people during the expenses scandal (expert opinion is now routinely despised and all MPs’ sincerity doubted)

If only Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had offered Britain more

If only the EU had been better at promoting its virtues and demonstrating its democratic credentials

If only the media had been more honest about the EU’s virtues and less intent on misrepresentation and the promotion of lies

Democracy is the least bad way of arranging human affairs on a large scale, and there is no purer form of democracy than asking the opinion of the people in a referendum, even if the question that is asked is more complex when taken in its full historical and political context than its simple form might suggest. But however we might analyse the reasons why Britain voted for Leave, the will of the people was finally expressed through a simple binary choice and it must be respected.

All the same, I think less of my countrymen for the decision they have made. It was a naïve, foolish, and selfish decision and I wish the question had never been asked, that the referendum had never been called. I hope that despite Brexit the EU will remain intact, but I fear that British parochialism may be contagious.

The UK will be smaller if it leaves

Absence has made my heart grow fonder, but if Brexit wins today’s referendum my affection for my country will be diminished.

EUUK

I’ve lived abroad for more than half of my life. I was born in Germany (West Germany as it was then called), to British parents posted in the late 1950s to Rheindahlen, an outpost of the British Army of the Rhine. If I add the two years I spent as an infant in Germany to the twenty-eight years I’ve spent in Central Europe it amounts to more than half of my fifty-eight years.

But despite the influence of Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic, I am still recognisably British. Culture is surprisingly immune to residency, and if there is one thing we need never fear, however much closer the ‘union’ becomes, it is that everyone will end up being the same.

Over the last twenty-eight years I’ve come to appreciate British culture more and more – justice, fairness, humour, stiff upper lip (though the lip has softened markedly in recent decades), an international perspective, inventiveness, generosity, pragmatism, decency – despite our inability to acquire foreign languages, and our incomprehensible appreciation of the glories of cricket.  Britain argued for the widening of the European Union rather than its deepening, and I have seen European values, to which Britain has contributed more than any other nation, taking hold in all of the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the extent that these countries, whilst they have retained their national cultures, have, in their institutions and their prosperity, developed beyond recognition.

If Britain votes for Leave today, the country will be turning its back on the international principles it has lived by for decades, and on its capacity to extend its already enormous influence yet further beyond its shores. It will be a vote for insularism, parochialism, and a little-England outlook that demeans it, in the  belief that ‘full sovereignty’ is both possible and sensible. In my view it is neither.

‘Take Back Control,’ chant those in favour of Brexit. ‘Vote leave on Independence Day,’ shouts the mendacious and ambitious buffoon, Boris Johnson. But from the perspective of the rest of the world, it will be a vote for a small idea, and a smaller place in the world.

I am not offended by the European Courts, or by rules and regulations devised by European institutions. Many of them may be silly, but most of them make snese and bring advantage to millions. Take the abolition of roaming charges, for example. True, the EU may be overly bureaucratic, even corrupt, and I share the view that it has failed to ‘connect’ with its electorate, but let’s stay and change it, not abandon it. Cooperation is the future, not separation.

I came to Central Europe for three months in 1987, and I’m still here twenty-eight years later, still intending, as always, to return to live in London in ‘only five years time.’ For the first time, I fear that I may be returning to a country that is smaller than the one I left.

Vote to Lead, not Leave. Vote Remain!

India in the Rhodopes

It’s nearly that time of year when my thoughts turn to the Theatre School for Children at Risk that we (LLP Group) sponsor every year in Shiroka Luka, a village in the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria.  This year the theme is India. It’s a big theme, and a big country, but my friend Elena Panayotova, director of the event, and her artist friends have long since acquired the knack of boiling down a culture shared by hundreds of millions to a few bare essentials – a spot of yoga, a few fairy tales and a big Bollywood ending (see Bollywood).

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So I spent Monday afternoon with one of my closest friends, Peter, foraging for Indian knick-knacks, materials and clothes in Whitechapel, in the East End of London. ‘How many boys and girls outfits can we get for three hundred pounds?’ I ask, and we usually manage to buy as many as we can carry and at a generous discount too. The more difficult problem is ferrying them to Bulgaria.

The Theatre School runs from the 4th until the 23rd July in the village of Shiroka Luka and the town of Smolyan, both close to the Greek border, about fifty miles south of Plovdiv (does that help you to visualise its location?). Children from the village orphanage (built in the 1970s when the Communist government was eager to place such institutions out of sight and out of mind in remote mountain villages) and from other orphanages in the region come together for classes in yoga, mime, dance, music and theatre. Many of the children come from the Roma community and our aim is to help all of them gain in confidence , discipline and self-expression. Above all, though, it’s enormous fun.

If you’re anywhere near Bulgaria at the end of July then pay us a visit. Let me know and I’ll give you more useful directions.

And if you’d like to contribute in any way to the fun or funds, then let me know.