Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Santa & the City (Xmas Special)

[Last December, Sir Reginald Pratt, one of the most celebrated entrepreneurs and philanthropists in the world, and widely known to his friends in the City as ‘Father Christmas’, kindly agreed to be interviewed by ‘Question the Powerful’ (An Interview with 'Father Christmas'). A year on, he’s here again to share with us his thoughts for Christmas.]

Q: Sir Reginald, how’s ‘Father Christmas’ doing in the City? It’s been a tough year.

R: On the contrary, it’s been a splendid year. I’ve just given my top team their biggest ever bonus. So everyone’s happy with Santa.

Q: But many people in the country have lost their job or had to take a pay cut. How do you feel about that?

R: Well, you hear people moaning about crisis this, crisis that, the world being turned upside down and all that nonsense. But the truth is, the world’s finally being turned right side up again. Life was sound for centuries with those of us at the top lording it over the rest. Then after the Second World War we had all that socialist and liberal welfare claptrap in Britain and America too. The gap between us and the great unwashed started to narrow. They began to have aspirations, about owning their homes, getting proper medical care, going to universities, eating in restaurants, even having holidays.

Q: You think that was a bad thing?

R: Of course! Before long, they were edging towards our standard of living, well, getting close to the level of our servants. So it couldn’t go on. And thank God, from the 1980s on, good old Maggie and Ronnie did us proud and changed the rules in every possible way. With their help we could at last return to our grand old traditions, siphoning off more for ourselves and screwing the rest with complete abandonment.

Q: That would be when the US and the UK started to lead the developed world in widening income inequalities?

R: I like your use of the word, ‘lead’, because that’s what we and our Anglo-Saxon cousins have been doing, leading the world back to sanity. As my grandfather used to say, “Those who have are meant to have; those who have not are meant to rot.”

Q: But when so many people are finding their real incomes cut while a few at the top get even more, that’s going to spell trouble, isn’t it?

R: Trouble indeed, because having had a tiny taste of the good life, the riff-raff wants to keep up with the Pratts and the Diamonds, and since they’re not clever enough to earn as much as we, they have to resort to borrowing. Now since we make even more money out of lending to these dimwits, we don’t mind. But ultimately, since their pay’s been cut to a pittance, the blighters can’t pay us back. That’s how we’ve ended up with this ludicrous debt problem. And given that we in the City can never be out of pocket, someone has to pick up the tab, and that would be the government.

Q: Are you surprised the government hasn’t tried to tax the top 1% more to help out the rest?

R: Not the slightest. The likes of Little Dave and Gideon know who their real friends are. Besides, my accountant can always find tax loopholes. I’d rather pay him the money than give it to the government to help degenerates. It’s a matter of principle. My accountant’s rich, I don’t mind giving him a handout.

Q: What about the 99% who are not wealthy like you?

R: Just blame them for anything you can think of. Call them benefit cheats, lazy public sector workers, Europhiles, or illegal immigrants. The media love it. After all, we own most of the media. Rupert’s been in a spot of trouble this year, but nothing money can’t fix.

Q: Don’t you think but for the grace of God you could be not so well-off yourself?

R: Spot on. It’s absolutely the grace of God that determines who will born into the right family, bet on the right hedge fund, or pick the right Lottery number. It alone decides who amongst the poor will be crucified, whose dreams for their children will be buried, so that bonus levels for the chosen ones can rise again and soar heaven high. We should accept it meekly. I do, and I’ve inherited my share of the earth. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Can Democracy Be Saved?

Should we ever trust anyone with the power to make decisions affecting our lives without ever having to answer to us? ‘No’ is the resounding answer. To allow anyone to capture such power would risk being at best ruined by a misguided fool, or at worst subjugated by a shameless oppressor.

It is this simple recognition that drives people everywhere to clamour for a guarantee that they will have a say over how decisions affecting them are to be made. The dramatic struggles across the Middle East have reaffirmed this vital political fact. But even as the call for democracy is irresistibly made, its fragility in countries with relatively stronger democratic credentials is becoming alarmingly clear for all to see.

In Europe, the importance of placating financial markets trumps democratic engagement. ‘Technocrats’ are hailed as saviours while suggestions of holding any democratic referendum are quashed. In the UK, a party with a parliamentary minority is able to impose the vast burdens of cuts on the poor while protecting the interests of the rich, simply because it is supported by another party which jettisoned its most high profile pledge to the electorate in order to have a share of power. In Spain, the ‘indignados’ (the outraged) draw attention to the fact that in the recent election, there were 11 million spoiled ballots, more than the number voted for the victorious rightwing party. The upshot of course is that the people of Spain now have to suffer even more plutocratic policies that have outraged the majority. And in the US, the Republican Party is showing how democracy can be thoroughly abused by parading candidates who are ignorant of policies they criticise, or cynically distort Obama’s position by editing the President’s words in campaign ads designed solely to deceive.

The underlying cause of democracy being so easily usurped is twofold. First, the wealthy elite can buy more media outlets and pay PR (public relations/pseudo research) to fill the public domain with misleading information, resulting in many people accepting that they have to become poorer to help the rich. Secondly, even amongst those who see through the lies and want to have different policies, there is a lack of awareness as to how they can articulate, let alone achieve, a coherent alternative. Protests, strikes, electoral abstentions help to express disillusionment, but they do not by themselves lead to better outcomes for those in need.

So is democracy doomed? Only if we ignore the many initiatives and experiments which have been carried out all over the world in enabling citizens to come together to formulate and advance shared policy demands. We should learn from these and apply them to any political action we are organising. As a small contribution, in ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’ (written for a special issue of the journal, Forum:, I outlined an experiment I carried out between 1995 and 2010, first at a local government level, then with the national government, to promote both innovative and tried and tested participatory practices so that more citizens could gain the skills, knowledge and confidence to exert their democratic influence over public policies.

The five key lessons I draw from this 15 year endeavour are as follows. Lesson 1: different people want different degrees of involvement, and organisers should give people the appropriate opportunities they seek rather than insist that everyone should participate in the same way. Often the ‘ladder of participation’ analogy is unhelpful when it is taken as downgrading less intense forms of engagement. Play to people’s strengths and personality preferences, and you get more people involved than just a small vanguard.

Lesson 2: the value of democratic participation is considerable in social, political and economic terms, and yet more often than not it is underestimated or overlooked completely. Even in narrow monetary terms, taking on board citizens’ views helped to save hundreds of thousands, even millions, in improving the effectiveness of individual policies and programmes. Consistently, where people are given meaningful opportunities to reflect and contribute their views on the development of public actions, it tends to lead to more satisfactory and cost-efficient outcomes.

Lesson 3: to be effective democratic engagement needs to begin with people being given structured opportunities to talk about the things that most concern them. This should be followed by facilitated discussions to examine the real causes of the problems. Participants should be enabled to share any proposal with others, while options put forward can be challenged, with a transparent process for agreeing the priority actions to be taken. Feedback is to be provided on implementation, and the impact of the agreed plan is to be kept under review. As a result of the communitarian experiment, there is now a wide range of excellent resources on engagement techniques which are available (as free downloads) from the National Empowerment Partnership/Community Development Foundation at

Lesson 4: partnerships between state and citizens are not easy to build. It requires patience, skills and considerable emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, in addition to the risk of those in government shutting people out from their decisions, there is now a growing danger with the Conservative-led coalition government simply passing the buck to communities. Attempts to pass endless social and economic burdens to individuals who cannot cope without collective political support, are nothing more than an abdication of democratic responsibility. To do it under the pretense of building a ‘big society’ insults our civic intelligence, and betrays the citizenry who had assumed the state was there to serve them.

Lesson 5: the key to successful democratic renewal is leadership. For those who stress the importance of having a groundswell of active citizens in sustaining democratic vibrancy, this might sound paradoxical. But whether it is widespread sceptical disengagement from public bodies or mass protest degenerating into mindless violence, the pitfalls of random public action/inaction can only be avoided if there is dedicated energy in organising and sustaining the pursuit of inspiringly articulated goals. Positive results have rarely been achieved without the drive of committed civic-minded leaders. (Materials relating to civic leadership can be accessed at the Take Part website:

And above all, we need such leaders now. From young people, residents association, workers, teachers, the elderly, all diverse backgrounds, we need those who are prepared to show leadership in rallying, organising, and championing what the wider democratic public seeks to come forward and save democracy.