Has Brexit Broken Parliament? No. This is Democracy!

The frustration of so many people over the machinations of the UK Parliament during the debates and votes over Brexit is understandable. So it is not surprising to see article after article, and opinion pieces piled on one another about how parliament, if not democracy itself, is broken. The GuardianJournal on 16 March notes: ‘Brexit – a niche production that brought the house down’. The Guardianon 16 March talks of the ‘UK Divided: Disbelief and anger as faith in politicians evaporates’ (p. 15). The political editor of The Guardian writes in The Observer on 17 March of ‘The Week that all but broke British politics (p. 38).’ As an American residing in Britain, I respectfully disagree.

British Parliament Debates Brexit
EU Parliament Debates Brexit

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is no doubt but that this debate is extraordinary, by British, or any liberal democratic standards. Of course, these are not normal, routine debates, but among the most serious in decades for the UK and Northern Ireland. But to say this is the democratic process at work, I am sure I will be branded an enemy of whatever position seems to be prevailing at the moment. Yet I am not evaluating the process on the basis of its likely outcome. No one knows what the outcome will be – still.

Let me explain why I believe this is democracy in a good way – not broken. First, and foremost, it is a real debate. Take a look at the British parliament and the EU parliament. Both are liberal and democratic bodies. But which looks better managed? Which looks like a more democratic process? Which looks more interactive? Given the scale of the EU parliament, the British parliament would be unworkable. But the British parliament remains the model of a democratic political body.

But, you may say, “the parties have lost control, there is no discipline”? Yes, factions have developed within the parties, and individuals seem to be following their own guidance at times. But I see this as a consequence of how serious the issues are (leading all members of parliament to inform themselves) and how much time has been devoted to the issues. In normal legislative processes, most members vote most of the time on the basis of cues. They do not have the time to read every paper on every motion or proposition put before their body. In most cases, they look for cues from their party leaders, from the committee that reports the motion, from experts in the area. In the case of Brexit, every member of parliament has had abundant time and motivation to develop their own positions on the matter. That is good in light of a classic rational model of democracy, but in the real world of politics it means that there are many individually honed and differing judgements on what to do. Therefore, it will take a great deal more time than normally expected to sort out what the collective body will decide.

However, we live in a time of live media coverage of every debate, every repositioning, motion, leak, speech, mistake, raised eyebrow, etc. In earlier days, so much of what is reported routinely today would never be seen or heard, much less broadcast live, and spread on social media. The saying that legislation is like sausage in that it often tastes good in the end, but you don’t want to see it being made. Well, we are seeing negotiations over Brexit unfolding in real time and it is not pretty, but it is what is necessary in order to find ways to accommodate multiple, intense, and firmly held opinions on the way forward. To say that this is not well managed is actually a compliment.

Somehow, whether it is this week, this year, or over decades, decisions will continue to unfold in the Brexit process, or UK-EU relationship. The process may be frustratingly slow, but the most critical issue is that the process seeks to accommodate as many interests or positions as possible and is (and is seen) as legitimate at the end of the day. Not managed. Not rammed down anyone’s throat. But led to accommodate as many individual, strong-minded parliamentarians as possible to achieve a majority – an inevitable compromise to all of the minority opinions in the mix.

In contrast, think whether you would be happy if this were brilliantly ‘managed’ and the position of any one parliamentarian reigned supreme in this process. The idea of having a citizen jury comes close to this idea of doing something, anything, to get this over with. No, the key is to ensure that the end will be the result from a truly democratic process.

 

Brexit and The Border: Must Read

As an American in Britain, the history and issues surrounding the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has seemed to be too complex to even try to unravel. However, I was pleasantly surprised by Diarmaid Ferriter’s book, entitled, no less, The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics.* The author is a professor at University College Dublin, and a columnist for the Irish Times.

He has written a short and accessible book, seven chapters, 144 pages, that is succinct and authoritative. By using the border as a focus for looking at the history of Anglo-Irish relationships, he is able to illuminates key decisions in their history and clarify the ecology of choices that shaped the partitioning and the present border. For example, after reading Ferriter’s history, I find it difficult to accept current discussions of a ‘hard border’ as if one ever really existed, when “no less than 180 roads crossed the border” (p. 10). The physical border was always porous, but it became a focus for conflict. Likewise, his history brings out the overwhelming centrality of issues over national sovereignty relative to all other issues – in demanding Irish self-government – to the four-decade long struggle that led to the partitioning.

I do not pretend to be a historian of Anglo-Irish relations, and being relatively ignorant of so much of this history, I found the body of the book to be most informative as well as insightful.

One weakness from my perspective was the concluding chapter which turned to Brexit. It seemed to be less closely tied to his historical treatment than I had hoped it would be, and more embedded in the current lines of factional debates. Nevertheless, I think anyone with a serious interest in Brexit and the border issue will find the book to be a basis for a better understanding of today’s debates. I would be happy to hear recommendations for further reading, but from my perspective, it is must reading.

Source: Irishcentral.com

*Ferriter, Diarmaid (2019), The Border: The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics. London: Profile Books.

Dollar Waiting on a Nickel: Life and Work Online

I planned to spend all of my day writing, but instead, I spent the entire day trying to deal with problems with routers, software, browsers, etc. My router disconnected from my printer, and reconnecting is not straightforward. I received proofs for a book review from a publisher, who insisted I use their browser and their editing software to amend my proofs, which caused hours of wasted time. In the end, I refused to download their software just to make a few minor adjustments.

via Arthur Berger

I had a father-son team of carpenters working at my home once, and they kept saying to each other that one had a ‘dollar waiting on a nickel’. They had a major job to do that was waiting for a trivial job to be completed. This is becoming my life online. Increasingly it is difficult to do real work while trying to cope with the increasingly complicated packages of hardware and software that raise untold numbers of new problems on a daily basis.

I am so old and senior that I am increasingly moving to the strategy of telling those who insist that I use their system, their form, their preferred browser, their software, and their time frame, to simply read my email. No thank you.

If You Read an Email Message, Read It All: Responding to a Worrisome Trend

Much is said about how the Internet has changed our communication habits, such as shifting communication to email and text messaging versus pen and paper letters through the post. And I enjoy debates over how email might be effecting our writing styles. But I am noticing a worrisome trend, which is admittedly only anecdotal – simply a relatively personal observation – but one that I fear is a plausible development. That is, people are not reading beyond the first few lines and seldom reading your entire message.

Courtesy Arthur A. Berger

It is evidenced by such things as people responding to mail, but only to the first question or first point in a message. For example, you might ask someone two questions, and they only respond to the first. Similarly, if I make a sarcastic point, or make an attempt at joking, it is misunderstood – possibly not read carefully or in the context of the entire email.

I am convinced that people are so inundated with email that they are trying to find all sorts of shortcuts, such as quickly deleting near-spam email that makes its way through filters, and also only rapidly reading what they need in order to delete or respond to an email as quickly as possible. It is like: “Okay. Bill wants to know x” and quickly responding, but not realizing I also wanted to know y.

So it is not only that people don’t write letters anymore. Many people don’t genuinely read their email anymore. One reason social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are so valued is that there is no pressure to actually read or respond to anyone’s post. And so most people don’t do either, and can be quite selective. In contrast, comparatively speaking, email still creates a greater sense of obligation to respond, if only to confirm receipt. However, in today’s busy-busy world, we respond as efficiently as possible. In the process, we sometimes fail to genuinely read the full text.

So what can we do? Here is what I am doing more and more.

First, keep trying to write better, clearer, more succinct emails. I try to keep my emails as short as possible. Short and simple but not too short or simple to be ambiguous or misunderstood. Flame wars have been started by short misunderstood emails.

Secondly, telescope your point(s) in the introduction if not the subject of the email. Readers might then look for the announced points, even if they are trying to short-circuit reading the entire missive.

Third, I increasingly avoid making more than one point per email. So I’ll send two emails, each on a separate point, rather than combine multiple asks in one message. Also you might separate them by a day or two. Is this adding to our email glut? Maybe, but you also increase the likelihood of your message being read and meaningful. It also forces you to think harder about whether you need to ask every question that comes to mind.

Finally, when using humor, sarcasm, or telling a joke, you might well be wise to stoop to the point of adding an emoji to guard against the reader taking you too seriously or literally. 🙂

Ironically, if I am right, most of you will not get this far in my blog to read these strategies, particularly those who are overwhelmed. I can only suggest that you need to do your best to keep your readers by keeping the text interesting throughout, and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Just say “no” and stay within your limits.

A Problematic Plan for Development of the City of Oxford

I am worried that the City of Oxford is poised to approve a long-term plan for the development of the city that will not accomplish its objectives. Reviews of the Oxford Local Plan  have complimented the drafters for how well it is written. Reviewers have been impressed by the vision it portrays which promises to balance the various tradeoffs inevitably faced in land use planning. However, the critics do not call out the serious risks that the plan poses for what is valued in Oxford by current and future residents and visitors.

Think of the fundamental physical realities of its proposals: The city is limited by the ring road and the green belt to a constrained physical space. Already, the city is seriously congested. In that context, the Council proposes to add thousands of additional households. Inevitably, the results will be:

  • Even greater congestion;
  • Reduced restrictions on the height of buildings and households with inevitable diminishment of the Oxford skyline behind taller buildings;
  • The loss of parking spaces, and diminished garden spaces, when parking and gardens are already quite limited, and the loss of sunlight blocked by developments higher and closer to existing structures;
  • A potential loss of families, who will choose to move to areas where they can drive their children to schools and sporting events;
  • Building on a large proportion of the ‘buildable’ green belt (land that is not in flood plains that could not be built upon in any case).

There is likely a tipping point in growing Oxford at which the congestion and over-build will truly undermine its special character, and make it what the Council envisions – a ‘grown up’ city that is no more special than other cities. That might bring a reduction in housing prices but also a growth of the problems facing other grown up cities, such as further deterioration of businesses, tourism and housing in the central city.

Almost everything that we value in the City of Oxford today is at risk for the promise of a vision that appears to me to be overly optimistic, such as moving hotels in neighbourhoods like Summertown in order to shift activity outside the city central core. That has been the dream in so many cities, and has never worked to my knowledge. It will simply add to the capacity of hotels across the city and enable more people to visit Oxford’s core city. Good but not at the cost of undermining the quality of these neighbourhoods.

So why is the Council proposing what seems will inevitably undermine the quality of Oxford?

It could mean ‘£215m of new funding in order to support Oxfordshire’s ambition to plan for and support the delivery of 100,000 homes by 2031.’  That is for all of Oxfordshire from central government, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, for meeting their agreed housing targets. Whatever proportion the City receives would be significantly less, but could be important when the City is stressed for funding.

However, compare this sum to the sums of other developments. Over £400M was invested in the development of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre. So, one new shopping centre in the city has attracted far more money than the City’s long-term plan will attract from the central government. Surely there will be additional revenues from the development of more housing, new hotels, but at what cost? Moreover, the shopping centre added value to the city, and renovated a deteriorated area, while the plans threaten to diminish the value of our entire city.

So I am worried that the Council is putting the character of Oxford at risk for less than the price of a modern shopping centre. The outcomes of implementing this plan are unknowable. There are likely to be unanticipated and unintended and indirect outcomes as well as any of the intended outcomes that are envisioned. The Council cannot possibly know the consequences of their plans, even if written with the best of intentions, beyond the promise of money from central government.

What should be done? In my opinion, the city should slow down. Don’t strap the City with this Oxford Local Plan that is so problematic. Instead, focus on affordable housing, and move more incrementally. Make decisions based on considering the details of particular cases. Insure that key constituencies are involved, such as the Oxford Preservation Trust, and residents – genuinely listening to the public, including the many schools, colleges, universities, businesses, and residents in the city. Have a rolling, evolving plan that is revisited continually and does not set Oxford on a potentially harmful long-range course at a moment in time filled with uncertainties. There is too much to lose, and too little to gain, for the city to commit to the current, overly optimistic and ambitious plan, however well-written.

That said, I would welcome comments, criticisms, or corrections of any aspects of this plan that I failed to understand.

Respectfully,

Bill Dutton

Resident of Oxford

 

Oxford Local Plan: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/743/the_local_plan

Staying Connected to the States

Staying Connected to Media and Information Policy in the States

I may have left the USA and Michigan State University (MSU) to return to my home in the UK, but my days at MSU’s Quello Center have left me with a continuing interest in following developments in media and information policy worldwide, and in the US, in particular. With that in mind, I have been so pleased to have been invited to participate in two networks that are key to my interests:

The Quello Center Advisory Board

I helped build the Advisory Board of the Quello Center while Director from 2014-2018, so I am very pleased to have the opportunity to joining as a member of the Board. The Center has put together a very strong network of individuals from academia, business and industry, and government to keep the James H. Quello Center alerted to the key issues on the horizon. My education on the Board will hopefully be one unintended consequence.

 

2016 Meeting of a Subset of our Quello Advisory Board

The TPRC Board of Directors

TPRC stands for the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference, which puts together an annual conference, more recently entitled ‘Research Conference on Communication, Information and Internet Policy’. The conference has been held for over 45 years, and needless to say, it has successfully evolved with the times and the issues around media, information, and communication technology and associated issues of public policy and regulation. The Board is a virtual wish-list of people to stay in touch with about new developments, and I look forward to participating in its meetings both remotely and at their annual conference.

I would not have been invited to join either group had I not directed the Quello Center for four years. So I’m grateful to my colleagues at the Center and MSU for that opportunity, and I’ll do my best to actively stay in touch with initiatives at the Center, where Johannes Bauer is Director, and Laleah Fernandez is Assistant Director, and also follow initiatives across the US communication and technology and policy arena more generally.

My thanks to the members of both organizations for these invitations.

 

Visiting Leeds University and Jay G. Blumler

I had a short but pleasant visit to the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds that provided me an opportunity to catch up with new and old colleagues. The School has made some brilliant new hires, such as Christopher Anderson. Chris is finishing his first year at Leeds with a new and timely book, forthcoming in 2018 through Oxford University Press, entitled Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt.

The University of Leeds is also home to one of my oldest and enduring colleagues, mentors and friends in the UK, Professor Jay G. Blumler.  Jay first took a position at Leeds as Granada Television Research Fellow in 1963, going on to direct his Centre for Television Research. He has taught at a number of universities since, but continues his affiliation with Leeds today as an Emeritus Professor.

img_3261-e1533632241308.jpg
Jay and Bill, 2018

On my very first trip to Leeds in the early 1980s, I stayed at Jay’s home, and recall watching Top of the Pops with his family. Lo and Behold, a rerun of that classic was on television decades later, when I walked back into Jay’s home after dinner this past Friday evening. But a more important, enduring feature of my return, was Jay’s continuing pursuit of creating – not just listening to – music, a charming aspect of his entire career. For example, Jay often entertains his academic audiences with brief refrains from a wide range of songs. He has a clear, baritone voice that led to him being involved in, and most often organizing, all sorts of singing groups throughout his life – a topic we discussed that evening.

Even before I was born (if you can imagine that), in 1944, Jay was part of a quartet of American servicemen studying Russian language at Georgetown University. They called themselves ‘The Four Freedoms’, playing off of FDR’s Four Freedoms speech, given in 1941.  A colleague who heard them sing arranged for Jay and his quartet to perform at a recording session for the Folk Song Division at the Library of Congress (photo below).

IMG_3268

In 1946, while still stationed in Berlin, Jay was Chair of the American Veterans Committee, a group he helped found and organize in Berlin. In that role, he was invited to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited the city. She had heard of some of the charity work the committee had done and asked to meet with them. A diary of her day in Berlin mentions her conversations at a ‘soldiers club’ in the last paragraph.

After the service, Jay taught Social and Political Theory at Ruskin College, Oxford, serving several years as Resident Tutor at the Rookery, later called the Ruskin College Academic Building. As the tutor, he formed another group, called ‘Jay and the Rooks’ (photo below).

IMG_3270
Jay and the Rooks

If you ever have the opportunity to visit with Jay, don’t hesitate to ask him if an appropriate tune comes to mind. It will. I am delighted that Jay decided to pursue an academic rather than a singing career, as he has done so much to advance the field of communication, such as in serving as President of the ICA, and advancing studies of political communication in particular. However, I am so happy that he has found ways to spice up his and others’ academic presentations with an occasional song.

Notes

Jay G. Blumler on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Blumler