Fragmentation or Unity?

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Which way? – Source: Tom Wheatley on Unsplash

Economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources. In simple terms, we all want lots of everything. We can’t have that because there’s only a limited amount to go round and we need to work out how best to share what we have. A lot of complicated stuff follows from that, but scarcity underlies much of economics.

It’s not just goods that are scarce. Time is also a resource in short supply, and we have to think about how to make the best use of the time we have.

An example: recently in Cheltenham a number of A4 posters appeared publicising a rally in Pittville Park at 11am on a Saturday: “Peaceful Picnic #killthebill”, with the words “Protect women not statues” written at the bottom. This was a protest against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would give the Government and police powers to shut down protests for being too disruptive or causing too much noise. – including restricting protests around the Houses of Parliament. The rally was well organised with rules listed in the sign for the picnic including the requirement to wear a mask and to stay socially distanced.

At exactly the same time as the rally, Cheltenham for Europe was running its first Zoom Eurocafe, where it was joined by the Cheltenham Twinning Association. Cheltenham was at the forefront of the twinning movement right from its beginning, and now has twinning links all over the World. Twinning with other European towns, at a time when the government seems determined to abandon our neighbours, is one way to keep connections alive.

Not every pro Europe person in Cheltenham would want to attend a rally at Pittville Park publicised with notices pinned to trees; not everyone at that rally would have a burning desire to sit in front of a computer learning more about the benefits of twinning; indeed, many would have only known of one meeting and not the other. But if you did know about and were interested in both, because there was no coordination, you’d have to make a choice.

Another key element of classical economic theories is the assumption that all individuals taking part in an activity are behaving rationally. So, people make choices that result in the optimal level of benefit for them. In words non economists can understand, in the example above, because you can’t be in two places at once, people would have attended the event about which they felt most passionate and with which they felt most comfortable.

The problem with this (apart from the bizarre idea that people are rational) is that those with similar characteristics stick together, in their own echo chamber. The Pittville Park protest would have attracted a primarily younger crowd and the Eurocafe meeting a mainly older one.

This highlights the serious problems with opposition to the various iniquities of the government: without leadership or direction, it’s fragmented and uncoordinated.

Some of this is due to the pandemic. The sensible measures – staying indoors, wearing face masks, avoiding unnecessary journeys – don’t need to be further undermined when they are constantly under attack from some unpleasant right-wing elements (Fox, Hartley-Brewer, Young etc.). The opposition has taken the sensible decision to make clear their support for these measures, even if it hampers political campaigning and coordination.

The leaders of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats haven’t been in place very long, and still deserve time to establish themselves after the ineptitude of the 2019 election campaign. It’s harder to do this when meeting people face to face is effectively banned.

But Labour hasn’t yet fully got rid of the Corbyn cult, and many on the left appear as keen to criticise Keir Starmer as they are to point out Boris Johnson’s wrongdoings. Ed Davey is practically invisible and suffers from leading a small team of MPs, even if some, such as Layla Moran and Daisy Cooper, are clearly punching above their weight.

Events in Scotland, culminating in Alex Salmond’s split from the SNP to form a party with the same name as a BBC TV channel, could hardly have been better engineered, weeks before local elections, if he had been secret Tory agent.

As a result of these three parties’ failings, opposition is directionless and fragmented. Labour knows it is split on Europe and says nothing, hoping the problem will go away. They aren’t talking to the Liberal Democrats, and both are against Scottish independence so don’t talk to the SNP.  Younger people aren’t talking to older people, North doesn’t talk to South, Scotland is turning in on itself. Don’t even think about Northern Ireland. We’re in an age where Wales looks sensible and the most effective government critic, Caroline Lucas, is her party’s only MP.

In “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant identifies three political maxims: ‘Divide et impera’ (Divide and rule), ‘Fac et excusa’ (Act now and make excuses later) and Si fecisti, nega (If you commit a crime, deny it). The government is following each of these.

Those of us opposed to what is happening to the UK need to recognise this, get out of our echo chambers and start talking to other-minded people – even if it’s over Zoom or in a park in Cheltenham on a windy Saturday morning.
And we need to do it fast.

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