Radical Trust, Deep Democracy and the Health of the Commons

January 28, 2020

The December 2019 general election marked a tectonic shift in British politics. Not only was the electoral landscape redrawn but our entire understanding of the public mood was challenged. Those of us who consider ourselves part of the ‘progressive’ arm of politics feel like weary travelers; once convinced that we were on the right path, walking with our faces turned towards the sun, now we are trying to decipher a map we don’t fully comprehend while darkness obscures our vision.

In this atmosphere of confusion, uncertainty, and fear, Compassion in Politics brought together thinkers, activists, and influencers for a one-day conference in January 2019 in the hope of identifying exactly where we are, how we got here, and where we go next. Discussions ranged from radical reforms to our democratic system to the need to pay more attention to practices of self-care. No single narrative or strategy emerged. Rather, like a musical composition, the conference riffed and improvised around a range of central themes.

The first theme was trust. Most speakers agreed that one of the great illnesses afflicting 21st century democracy is a lack of trust – not just in politicians but in each other and ourselves. George Monbiot talked of the need for “radical trust” via the massive decentralisation of power and responsibility from Westminster. He argued that decentralisation enables democracy to become a habit, which in turn means that it can be owned by the public.

By the end of the day there was a sense in the room that this will become inevitable; that an extremely hierarchical system of politics cannot survive, built as it is on a spirit of paternalism which has long-since died out. Our task is to understand and shape the transition process so that it is truly democratizing and doesn’t leave certain groups isolated in their locales.

The second, related, theme was the importance of the commons. Kate Raworth and Guy Standing charted the rise and fall of two economic dogmas over the last 100 years: that of the state and that of the market. They showed how these simplified narratives have excluded one of the most crucial elements of our economy – not only the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the land we live on but the care we show to others, the love we impart, and the lessons that we teach.

Our economics has failed to quantify, value, protect or enhance these essential parts of our existence. That has to change if we are to refashion our economy so that it can mitigate, adapt to, and fight climate breakdown, and serve as a secure foundation for mass participation in politics and civic life.

Standing took the conversation further by articulating the need for a new ‘Charter of the Commons’ built on the 1217 ‘Charter of the Forest,’ an ancient and radical document that set out the right of every man and woman to be able to subsist – whether they had property or not. In essence, the medieval Charter said that every person should have access to food, water, and a place of rest, and many of its articles were still on the statute book until just a few decades ago. Now is the time for a new commitment that’s animated by a similar spirit, but with its content and campaigning strategies updated for the modern age.

The third theme of the conference was solidarity. This is unsurprising, given that we gathered together in the hope of warming our hearts and minds from the energy and interplay of ideas and debate. But solidarity also emerged as a significant contribution that we can all make to the furthering of environmental and social justice.

Shaista Aziz spoke of the need for all of us to speak out, not only against discrimination but at a meta-level against the idea that the British establishment is incapable of racism, sexism and homophobia – the myth that the press, government and other institutions are somehow beyond reproach. She pointed to the treatment of Meghan Markle as an example of the systemic trait of racism that is embedded in British society, emphasising that “there is more outrage in this country about being called racist than there is about actual racism.” In response, we have to step up our individual acts of resistance so that they have societal consequences.

On a related note, Aziz and others – especially those in the audience – raised the importance of self-care and self-compassion as these processes of resistance and co-creation move forward. It was striking how mindfulness and compassion were so widely seen as political acts. Of course, there’s also a danger that these ideas and practices will be co-opted, and that those in the most vulnerable circumstances will lack the time, energy or resources to access them. Nor will meditation put food on a hungry table.

But the conference did conclude that these forms of self-care have a very important role to play in the progressive movement, helping as they do to replenish our resources, help us identify with others more effectively, and encourage the empathy and compassion through which we can strengthen our communitarian bonds.

This is ultimately what Compassion in Politics aims to do. We want to break down the barriers that prevent us from working together for causes that are bigger than all of us. We want to build a new narrative of solidarity, kindness and care. And we want to reset political boundaries – to say with courage that the increasing tendency towards inequality, racism and sexism that we are witnessing in this and other countries cannot continue.

That’s why we are proposing reforms to our political system to encourage greater cooperation. It’s why we’ve put forward the idea of a Compassion Act to set a new and radically different threshold in policy-making. It’s also why we’re supporting the work of partners like Safe Passage, Taxpayers Against Poverty, and Action for Happiness who in their own ways are working towards better treatment for refugees, those suffering from poor mental health, and those experiencing poverty. Through concrete actions like these that are modeled on a philosophy of love and solidarity instead of fear and tribalism, we think we can change politics for good.

That final theme of optimism was provided in large doses by our final speaker, Danny Dorling, who showed how the political culture of the UK has shifted slowly yet dramatically over the last 100 years. He argued that elections are not responsible for these changes – people are, in and across many different levels and institutions of society; elections are merely the surface reflection of changes that are taking place at a deeper level, but Dorling believes that we are now at a turning point.

As he argued in his talk, “inequality is expensive.” His thesis is that current levels of inequality cannot be sustained or tolerated, even by the ruling elites. Dorling believes that public sentiment on austerity has moved irrevocably, and that even his own institution (Oxford University) is increasingly committed to a more pluralistic, diverse and equitable approach to admissions.

Such commitments, scaled-up and spread throughout education, the health sector, local government, civil society, politics and the economy could have a transformative effect on the future of society as more people from state schools and different class and ethnic backgrounds are given the resources and opportunities they need to contribute to public life.

Danny provided the perfect tonic at the end of our day of discussion in the form of perspective, hope and optimism. It’s now incumbent on the rest of us to carry that energy into 2020.


Teaser photo credit: Flickr/Webbetravel. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Matt Hawkins

Matt Hawkins is Co-Founder of Compassion in Politics. He has worked for a number of social and environmental causes including the Nobel Prize Winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which secured the passage of a law banning nuclear weapons at the UN, and the Equal Civil Partnerships Campaign which successfully lobbied to allow mixed-sex couples the right to get a civil partnership.

Tags: new economy, people care, the commons, UK politics