Sunday, 3 February 2013

On Community

Rational despotism-that is, selective despotism-is always a curse to mankind, because with that you have the ordinary man misunderstood and misgoverned by some prig who has no brotherly respect for him at all. (G.K. Chesterton)

G.K. Chesterton enjoyed being provocative and arguing with his contemporaries; hence the title of his book "Heretics", which could scarcely be more forceful. I doubt if anyone would produce a book of criticism with that title today; perhaps we are all too genteel, even the more pugnacious bloggers, to do that.

His disputes were against authors whose influence has long since faded. While Bernard Shaw's plays may still be read, and H.G. Well's fiction still commands respect, their attempts to provide cures for the social ills of their time has faded. Not even vegetarians extol Shaw's missives of the virtues of vegetarianism. Well himself lived to see his dreams turn to ashes, and his final book "Mind at the End of its Tether" is a cry of despair. Against this, Chesterton never saw the visions of scientific and social utopias, but looked at the world in a different way, often called paradoxical, and turned much conventional wisdom on its head.

Here is a passage on how a smaller community differs from a larger one:

"It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell."

When politicians and politically minded people talk about Jersey needed politicians elected not from the Parishes, but purely from larger constituencies, because we need politicians who can deal with the international problems the Island faces, and the days of the old farmer being elected as a representative of his parish are long gone, I hear the voice of Chesterton whispering in my ear.

It is true that we do need politicians who can address Island concerns, and not merely Parish ones, but it is also important that they can address Parish ones. Time and time again, I have seen politicians aspire to be elevated to the ranks of the Senators above those of the Deputy or Constable, and once they are in, their attitudes can change remarkably. Their domain is now the Island, they are not to be concerned with pettifogging local matters, for those should in the first instance be addressed by the Parish Deputy and the Parish Constable. I have even personal experience of being told precisely this by a Senator who was had just been elected!

It is true that not all Senators are like that, and the best are approachable and helpful. But if the proposed changes go ahead, and the Senators are replaced by Deputies, there will be a mad scramble for safer seats, a kind of political musical chairs. Then, for a time, more local matters will come to the fore, although not entirely, because the larger districts mean that the Deputy must have a broader appeal on more Island matters than local matters. And as Chesterton points out, the larger groups, the detachment from the Parish base, can become actually more narrow than the purely local Parish based system.

Chesterton also knew from first hand experience what this meant in the UK Parliament. "The Party System" written by Hilaire Belloc and his brother Cecil Chesterton is an indictment of how political parties shape the questions they want asked, and present the electorate with the set menu they want to place on the table; they also showed how political parties colluded in this, and how as Chesterton noted ""It is the mark of our whole modern history that the masses are kept quiet with a fight. They are kept quiet by the fight because it is a sham-fight; thus most of us know by this time that the Party System has been popular only in the sense that a football match is popular."

Belloc wrote that:

"Instead of the Executive being controlled by the representative assembly, it controls it. Instead of the demands of the people being expressed for them by their representatives, the matters discussed by the representatives are settled not by the people, not even by themselves, but by the "Ministry" -- the very body which it is the business of the representative assembly to check and control."

And that is still very much true today in the UK, where a free vote in the assembly is very rare, and there is a situation up and down the country of "marginal constituencies" and "safe seats" for the Party members. Is it any wonder that there is widespread popular dissatisfaction with a system? It permits an effective disenfranchisement of part of the electorate; in a "safe seat" under the first past the post system (so beloved of the main UK Parties), a vote for a different candidate in a safe seat is a vote lost. And naturally, no one in power wants to change the system, because it is to their advantage to keep it. Where is representation there? As Belloc said: 'he is not a representative at all, but merely an oligarch; for it is surely ridiculous to say that a man represents Bethnal Green if he is in the habit of saying "Aye" when the people of Bethnal Green would say "No."'

But returning to Jersey, where the local link is being lost, how long before we have Deputies who like Senators may pay only lip service to Parish matters? It is here that the Parish Constable remains a vital link, a mechanism by which the Parishioners can make their views heard.

While the Constable can call a Parish Meeting, there is a provision, called a "requête", which allows Parishioners to call a Parish meeting. This has been used in recent times, in St Saviour, where the Constable was in favour of a development, and the Parishioners were not. If the Constable is outside the States, no notice may be taken of this; but if the Constable is within the States, the effect of any decisions taken in the Parish assembly may also have a broader influence.

That mechanism and how it works needs to be made more widespread; it is an essential mechanism for ensuring accountability, and the ability of the people to safeguard their local community against powerful and central political cliques which can ignore them, and ride roughshod over them by means of Ministerial directives and decisions. It ensures that there is a real engagement with the community, in a way that is not possible with Deputies. Can you call a Parish meeting at which the Deputy must attend? Or a Senator?

It is that sympathy towards the local voter because they are local that a larger system may lose. Yes, it will have the grand ideals, it will be charitable, it may fight for causes that it deems worthy. But it will have a degree of detachment; it will lose more of the local element. It may be more mathematical in how it is voted out, but it may also lose out on seeing that not everything is reducible to mere mathematics. As Chesterton noted:

"We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. Hence he comes to us clad in all the careless terrors of nature; he is as strange as the stars, as reckless and indifferent as the rain... The duty towards humanity may often take the form of some choice which is personal or even pleasurable. That duty may be a hobby; it may even be a dissipation. We may work in the East End because we are peculiarly fitted to work in the East End, or because we think we are; we may fight for the cause of international peace because we are very fond of fighting. The most monstrous martyrdom, the most repulsive experience, may be the result of choice or a kind of taste. .. But we have to love our neighbour because he is there-a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident."

It is the vision of the larger world, the hubris of Jersey on the world stage, that can consume politicians and leave them to forget about the neighbourhood, the smaller scale world. We may need a Foreign Minister, but whether we need the baggage of a Foreign Ministry that may come with it is another matter. As has been noted other countries are just as keen on titles as we are; they want to deal with an appropriate title, which shows just how silly the whole game is, like the Dictator who appears on the balcony, in a military uniform, festooned with medals he has just given himself. But if Jersey has to deal with this people, or democrats who also ape the trappings of title, even if they forgo the uniform, they will have to do the same. We must be pragmatic.

Yet we must also not lose touch with the links to local communities, to the ordinary people, and that is not just a matter of voting every four years, but being grounded in the Parish communities, and does not just pay lip service to that when elections are due. It is a smaller system, but it is actually a wider one; there is more variety there. The move to a more central government may actually be a narrowing of the political world and not a widening of it. To quote Chesterton once more:

"I do not say, for a moment, that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual, any more than I say the same thing about flight into a monastery. But I do say that anything is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own. The best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day that he was born."


Anonymous said...

In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

In Jersey the way this operates is usually You are not one of us. There's a boat out in the morning.

Quite how that is beneficial to anyone, Jersey or no, is far from obvious.

TonyTheProf said...

That old chestnut about the boat - which appeared in a new columnist in the JEP this weekend - must be past its sell by date.

Does anyone really say it any more, except as a joke? I think not.