Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Leave No One Behind

The military ethos that true patriots uphold has nothing to do with macho posturing or jingoistic flag-waving. What matters is dedication to one simple motto: leave no one behind.

There is no greater test of the love of our country than being ready to defend our fellow citizens when they are under threat from forces, which would otherwise overrun them. This solidarity transcends all other differences. Only cowards and bigots would say ‘I’m alright, Jack’, and leave others behind just because they are women (or men), gay (or straight), black (or white), secular (or religious), poor (or rich). In the face of danger, we are all equal.

And as those who have been in the military know, it is not just an enemy’s bullet or bomb that can hurt us. Safe and effective transportation, decent living quarters, provision of healthy food and medical care are all needed to keep people fit and safe.

But is the ethos of solidarity only relevant on the battlefield? Are we to suppose that before any threat to our common safety is in sight, we should each look only to oneself and care nothing for others? And similarly, as soon as the fight is over, are we to forget the maxim of watching one another’s back? There is undoubtedly some who would like nothing more than everyone else rallying to protect them when they feel endangered but care nothing for others at other times. Yet the majority of us recognise standing together means no opting out.

In the UK, for example, after the Second World War, voters decided the threats of disease, squalor, ignorance, idleness and want could not be overcome without collective efforts to protect one and all. Despite the national debt as % of GDP being 3 times that of the debt level created by the 2008 banking crisis, the country pulled together to build security for all. Social housing, the NHS, inclusive education, police and military defence, benefits for those unable to work or temporarily without a job, combined to give all citizens the protection they need. It in turn fuelled a vibrant economy.

Regrettably, some of those who profited from prosperous times since then have decided to withdraw behind their moats and pull up the drawbridge. They no longer want to contribute to the collective good, and want those less fortunate to suffer on their own. They will pay themselves more while make others redundant. Anyone who cannot get a job; earn enough money; are sick, disabled or too old; they will without a second thought jettison. They will even claim that they are the custodians of their country’s interest.

But real patriots will not put up with anyone hijacking the flag of our nation, or demeaning our democratic fellowship. We know we are at our strongest when we refuse to be divided. So let us recover our common protection, and ensure that however adverse the circumstances, we shall as one nation leave no one behind.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Like to Teach the World to Vote?

Give people a vote,
The illusion of having secured democracy may last a day or two.
Teach people how to vote,
And they can mobilise as citizens for the rest of their lives.

What we all too often hear in Britain, America and elsewhere is that there is no point in using the vote. The vote, allegedly, won’t change anything because the people standing for public office are all as bad as each other – which anyone who has worked with politicians would know is not true; and their proposals are basically the same – which is patently false when the policy differences can be measured in the vast number of people given or deprived of vital assistance.

The main reason why so many people feel that having a vote is irrelevant is because it is presented to them like a mystery gift, with no explanation of how to make use of it. They hear one set of politicians saying they should vote for them, and another lot arguing to the contrary. One side attacking those in government, and the other denouncing their critics. As words and figures clash, confusion is spread, and many end up either voting for the party saying the things they like to hear, or they don’t bother voting at all.

Without informed guidance on how to interpret politicians’ claims, voters are effectively disempowered. Imagine what would happen to the jury system if the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense can say whatever they like with no judge to rule out irrelevant diversions or strike out baseless assertions. Or how patients may cope with presentations from two rival doctors competing to treat them (and obtain their fees) without any body untied to profit-making to arbitrate on claims of miracle cures or groundless warnings.

Politicians will no doubt be concerned with anyone providing guidance on how to make sense of their arguments, and will understandably try to dismiss any advice contrary to their own position as unfairly partisan. But there already exist many research institutions, whose independence can be validated by the absence of funding from party or profiteering sources, which are capable of assessing the implications of policy proposals and the consequences of their implementation.

Educators should not be afraid or hesitant in teaching others how to navigate the claims of politicians, look behind the rhetoric, check the veracity of conflicting assertions, and ascertain the consequences for them and society more widely with one party rather than another in power. Furthermore, they should help citizens learn about the impact of their vote under different systems so as to maximise it for existing electoral arrangements and enhance it through future reforms.

And to provide an impartial framework for ensuring activities relating to electoral discussions and voting practices do not breach democratic propriety, we can build on the work of well established institutions such as (in the UK) the Electoral Commission; and (in the US) the Federal Election Commission.

So teachers in schools and tutors of lifelong learning, if you have acquired a critical understanding of how politics works, don’t keep it to yourselves, share it with your students – the future of democracy depends on it.