Posted in Reports

The road from Rebecca to a new digital democracy

Note: I’m posting this on my personal blog so that I can freely express my opinion and probably also expose my rudimentary knowledge of social history. I didn’t study History at University, indeed, I left school at 16 and only graduated as a grown-up mum a few years ago. Therefore, this piece may stagger across the cobbles of time on precarious high heels – and I may end up falling over. But at the risk of going posterior over decolletage, I feel a polemic coming on.Here it is. It gets up my nose when I hear (mainly) English politicians banging on about ‘Big Society’. Even though, like Mothercare and Apple Strudel how could one possibly object to such high moral aspirations? Let’s Google that for a moment. I’m allowed to. I went to the same school as Michael Moritz, in fact he was our Head Boy. Our rulers (on Gov.Uk) define the policy thus: ‘We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all.’ Fantastic, I hear you say. Me too. So why the sour face? Erm. Well. Here in Wales (yes, the legendary venture capitalist billionaire who funded and directed Google obtained his education in a Cardiff Comprehensive school) we already have a bit of a ‘thing’ about community, family, networks and neighbourhoods. I am thinking of the self-organised coal-mining communities that not only provided the wealth to create our major towns and cities, but within their own neighbourhoods built self-organising communities with schools, a focus on arts, medical services, music, group-funded holidays at the seaside etc – and helped their children be better educated and have more choices than they had. In my lifetime I saw this dismantled as the coal-mining communities were destroyed. I worked in a miner’s hospital shortly before it closed down. I have friends whose fathers were broken by mining. But these friends went to University. The determination of Welsh families to better the life chances of their children is everywhere I look. And yet this resource-rich nation is by any indication impoverished. The Tories, so universally rejected for many years in Wales, now talk of achieving fairness and opportunity for all, and people, understandably in my view, grimace. This Big Society concept is much more embedded in Wales than in its recent industrial past. It goes back to the famous Rebecca Riots of the late 1830s – a social justice uprising which started in a small village not far from where I am currently tapping on the i-Mac. I’ve been fascinated by the Rebecca Riots stories since childhood. We studied it (along with the campaign for universal suffrage) in junior school, where our Welsh teachers were passionate about explaining injustice and unfairness to us, in the hope we’d grow up enlightened, and also tapping into a junior school child’s inherent belief in Fair Play (Chwarae Teg). Living in the Rebecca Riots hinterland, here in Pembrokeshire, and reading about the appalling injustice these campaigners were fighting against, makes me feel quite proud. It reminds me that a deep vein of community and sense of fairness runs particularly through us in Wales, far away, practically speaking, from the corridors of power. Deep enough for very poor people, living in appalling conditions and suffering from harvest failures, virtually no infrastructure and feeling like they were at the end of line, to take drastic action. Apparently, farmers, when forced to pay tolls to pass through newly-erected toll gates, simply couldn’t pay and were unable to reach the lime kilns that processed limestone for fertiliser. Trying to avoid the tolls was  a massive upheaval and caused mayhem.  The toll fees were to be used to pay for the roads, but if you were crossing one several times a day, that was never going to work. The Rebecca Rioters (in fact men in disguise with blackened faces, petticoats and straw wigs and bonnets) attacked toll gates and destroyed them. If you are interested in the full story of the Rebecca Riots, there’s masses published. I’m resisting the temptation to write it all up (because it is a fantastic tale), but let’s just agree it was about poor people, mainly agricultural workers, having the guts, with perhaps nothing left to lose, to take on the authorities. Those people in authority were, for perhaps logical reasons, imposing taxes and tolls from many miles away in Westminster, costs imposed without consultation that the locals simply didn’t feel were justified and couldn’t afford. There’s nothing like imposing policies on people to really get their backs up either; which is why I’m currently engaged in a team effort to develop a new way of decision-making that asks the constituents or stakeholders, members of community groups or communities of interest, what ideas they have for solving problems and sorting things out. And then taking the viable, popular ideas and turning them into tangible action. You know, that ‘self-organising’ thing. I want to go back in history and say to those angry farmers, hey, we need to raise money to put in and repair roads and infrastructure, any ideas how to do it? And by the way, if we can get the roads built and fixed, it’ll make life better for you. Maybe those same farmers would have proposed a levy on people using the roads in order to fund such work? Or perhaps they would have got a working party together and done the job themselves? Who knows. One thing guaranteed to get right up their noses was to build an imposing Toll Gate and insist they cough up. What a nightmare. This sort of centralised, remote decision-making still takes place, and is still annoying people. Especially when money is so tight. Let’s tax extra bedrooms, that’s a brilliant proposal. And now another friend, whose partner has a disabled son in school with my disabled son, is standing outside Parliament campaigning for a change in this law. But to get back to Rebecca and the spirit of social injustice. Digital tools are levellers to a certain extent because they can, if made available give everyone the opportunity to participate in decision-making. I’m also interested in what I hear about a developing concept of ‘Liquid Democracy’ that allows anyone with specialist knowledge to offer advice to others on how to best tackle the big issues. This may be such as how to reduce your carbon footprint, or the priorities of the Health Service or how to run education for example. With digital technology these proxies can gain or lose ‘followers’ in the digital world rather than carry on making bad decisions until an election comes up.  That’s the sort of idea I’m hearing colleagues coming up with and I think they are onto something. Today the Speaker of the House John Bercow, announced he’s going to set up a year-long Parliamentary Commission to look into Digital Democracy. Hurrah. So. We live in interesting times. Difficult times of budget-cuts, loss of biodiversity, economic fallout and the threat of catastrophic climate change – just the time to sort out our problems in our communities and problem-solve as much as we can for ourselves. Perhaps it’s also a good time to start looking to alternative ways of engaging with our current representatives too. When we have digital technology in place (we already have all the hardware) and the will to make it work. Big Society? Think small communities in Wales. Rebecca and friends pulled down the gates that blocked their roads. Digital systems are opening up new roads for all of us to travel down. Just don’t put a paying gate across them.



Surviving in the remote but glorious Pembrokeshire 'outback' isn't enough - I wanna thrive and feel happy to be alive....I hope my posts make you feel that way too :-)

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