Can’t we find a better way of making decisions?

17/05/2016 § Leave a comment

In the UK we will soon be having a referendum on our membership of the EU.

Personally, I am not sure which way I will vote. It’s a complex question as to whether it’s in the interest of the UK, and indeed of Europe, for the UK to stay in or leave the EU. There are economic, political, social, military, cultural and other aspects to consider. My family will be affected by it – my wife is German and doesn’t have an English passport, and my son is half German.

Screenshot 2016-05-17 14.50.50To help me make up my mind, I would love to see an informed debate on television or the Internet, so that all the issues can be teased out. But that’s not what is happening. In our democracy, the way we deal with such matters is prominent individuals take positions that they then defend and promote. They seek to belittle the arguments of their “opponents” and exaggerate their own case.

This is all so artificial. Things are not black and white. Almost certainly these people recognise that there are arguments to be made on both sides. Even the most ardent supporter of leaving the EU, if they’re honest, should be able to admit, firstly, that they can’t be sure what will happen if we leave and that secondly, there are likely to be advantages to staying. Equally, those who support staying in should be able to admit that leaving has some potential benefits. However they can’t bring themselves to do this. Instead the question of whether we leave the EU or not becomes a question of party politics. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer want to ”win” – predictably, they support remaining, because it is almost always in the interests of those in power to promote stability. Ambitious characters such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson seek to defeat them. They lob arguments and insults at each other.

Is not this a lousy way to run a country? Wouldn’t it be better if our political leaders could admit that there are arguments on both sides? How might it be if we could bring in experts with no particular axe to grind to offer different perspectives? Then we could have a proper, balanced debate and a lot of people, including me, would be clearer about what their vote means.

If you look at how traditional committees looked at such questions, they had a very different approach. Nelson Mandela tells an interesting story early on in his autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom”. The regent (the chief of the region) who brought Mandela up after his father died, would every now and then call open meetings, when there were matters of import to the community to discuss. It was, Mandela says, “democracy in its purest form”.  Everyone who wanted to speak did so, all men were free to voice their opinions and were equal in their value as citizens. Many of them would criticise the regent, who would not react. He simply sat quietly and listened.  Only at the end of the meeting, after some kind of consensus had been reached, would the regent speak, to sum up what had been said.  Mandela said: “My later notions of leadership were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. … I have always endeavoured to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion.”

This requires a very different style of leadership. A leader becomes someone who helps provide the space in which a community can make sensible decisions. Our entire democratic system, which is based upon (usually) divisive party politics, would have to be changed to allow such a different way of thinking and behaving. The closest we come to this type of dialogue is the House of Lords, where the members are not subject to elections and thus are more free to take a neutral and objective position. Funnily enough, pretty much all the political parties want to change the make up of the House of Lords. If you’re in power, anything that reduces your ability to control matters is something to be feared and then attacked.

So where does this leave me, and my choice in one month’s time? To help me make my mind up, I read newspapers (equally one -sided, for the most part) and articles that people share on Facebook (a bit better). Best of all, I talk to friends, and pick up all sorts of useful insights.

Ultimately, we all have to muddle through. Will we make the “right” decision on the EU? Who knows? What I do know is that proper dialogue not only makes for better informed decision-making, it is also healing. It bring people together so that, whatever decision is made, they understand and appreciate each other more, leading to stronger relationships in the long term. Something we can only dream of in our democracy.

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