BBC BLOGS - Ethical Man blog

Are we doomed by democracy?

Justin Rowlatt | 11:31 UK time, Monday, 24 May 2010

Whatever your views on climate change you should be concerned by the question of how our societies respond to the issue.

If you are worried by the threat of global warming the fear is that democratic societies simply won't be able to take the radical action necessary to tackle the problem.

If you believe the threat has been exaggerated you should be worried about whether democracy itself will be sacrificed in the name of action on climate change.

Indeed, democratic principles may already be being overridden here in Britain in the effort to reduce carbon emissions, as I discover in this week's Analysis programme on BBC Radio 4.

My last Analysis programme proved very controversial. We explored the provocative idea that the green movement might have hidden political agendas that could prove damaging to the environment. It even got the Analysis editor a grilling on Feedback - listen here:

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The challenge climate change presents for and to democracy has been an issue I've been preoccupied with since the very early days of the so-called Ethical Man project.

The idea of Ethical Man was to see how much a well-meaning family could cut its greenhouse gas emissions without giving up all the trapping of modern life and moving to an isolated croft.

The project started out as an optimistic adventure into a low carbon world but ended up with a profoundly pessimistic conclusion - it is impossible for individuals to respond adequately; only a wholesale transformation of the entire world economy can achieve the carbon cuts the scientists say are necessary.

How did we reach this conclusion?

Our family did everything we could think of to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions - got rid of the car, stopped flying, turned down the thermostat, changed what we eat. Yet we only managed to cut our total emissions by just 20%.

Which is where the question about democracy comes in. Will people ever vote for politicians who will force us to make the sacrifices necessary to bring this transformation about?

The debate was thrown open a few weeks back when the visionary scientist James Lovelock dared suggest in an interview in the Guardian that maybe democracy might need to be suspended while societies grapple with the issue.

"I have a feeling", Mr Lovelock told journalist Leo Hickman, "that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while."

That was the jumping off point for our programme. Tell me what you think.

Locusts, caterpillars, and horse leeches

Justin Rowlatt | 19:25 UK time, Monday, 22 March 2010

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"Locusts, caterpillars, and horse leeches," that's how one writer described MPs caught fiddling their housing allowances back in the mid 17th Century.

Another described them as an "excoriating rabble of pestiferous vermin".

You don't express yourselves quite as colourfully, but your sentiments about the current expenses scandal are much the same.

A couple of weeks ago we asked you to tell us how this scandal - and all those others (non dom billionaire donors, cash for honours, Chilcot etc...) are affecting how you feel about politics and politicians.

It's part of a project Newsnight is calling Pop-Up Politics.

It's an all expense-spared, austerity approach to reporting the coming election.

The idea is that, just like the temporary shops that pop-up in the vacant lots on our recession blasted high streets, Newsnight will pop-up in your community to discuss the issues that matter to you.

We received hundreds of replies but one e-mail in particular caught our eye (and not just because it contained no profanity).

It was one of a number from Livingston, in West Lothian and was from Maureen Kerr who says she's lost faith in most of our politicians.

Maureen used to be a Labour supporter but is now backing the SNP and in recent weeks has been out knocking doors and handing out leaflets on their behalf.

"It is astonishing how big a percentage didn't want to vote at all because they think everyone is the same," she told me as I wheeled her golf bag around the local golf course.

She says eight out of 10 people she spoke to on the stump said they don't plan to vote.

"They are angry," says Maureen. "They feel they are being taken for granted," she says and worries at the damage this haemorrhaging of trust is doing to the political system.

So how can trust be rebuilt?

To try and get some answers we set up our own pop-up shop right in the heart of The Centre - Livingston's vast new shopping mall.

We rounded up 20 or 30 shoppers to take part in an impromptu debate. No fancy props for us, just a maker pen and pile of cardboard boxes.

There was a lot of talk about how the public has become disillusioned with our leaders. Then one woman said she thought that the problem was more complicated that that:

"We're not stupid," she said. "We know what is coming. We've seen what has happened to finances worldwide. So they don't trust the electorate.

"If they told us what's going to happen I think we could accept it because we understand there isn't the money around that there used to be."

It's an interesting perspective - the problem is as much about politicians not trusting us as us not trusting them.

Do you agree?

And, while we're at it, tell us where the pop-up politics team should go next.

We'll be covering the budget on Wednesday.

So, have you been affected by the recession? Do you believe that the politicians aren't being straight about how to get the country back on track? Or do you think people just don't understand the challenges they face?

Whatever you believe, tell us where we should pop up and why and who knows, we might come and watch the Budget with you.

An awayday with Hezza and Prezza

Justin Rowlatt | 13:57 UK time, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The last few weeks before a General Election is an inauspicious time to launch any new policy let alone one that will cost billions, take decades to deliver and which will only succeed if cross party agreement can be secured.

Yet that's exactly what Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has done.

Lord Adonis wants to build high speed railway lines right up the spine of Britain, linking the country's major cities and punching through some of the most beautiful areas in Britain.

The White Paper detailing the route will be published next month and to symbolise the political consensus he hopes to secure for the project he invited Newsnight on an exclusive tour of Britian's only existing high speed line with two very unlikely fellow travellers - battle-scarred political opponents Lord Heseltine and John Prescott.

We joined Hezza and Prezza on a day trip along what the government now calls High Speed 1 - that's the channel tunnel rail link to you and me.

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The 68 miles (109km) of high speed railway between London and Dover seem very modest when compared to the 3,600 miles of high-speed line in operation in Europe, but they would never have been built without the interventions of both veteran politicians.

Despite their ideological divisions (and the fact that Mr Prescott opposed the building of the channel tunnel) both men were instrumental in the construction of the channel tunnel rail link.

As Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine championed the route out through east London, while Mr Prescott was instrumental in saving the route from bankruptcy in the late 90s.

Now together they are supporting Lord Adonis' plan to bring Britain into the high speed railway age with a network the government is calling High Speed 2.

The high speed network he plans would slash journey times to Britain's major cities. Once complete you would be able to zip from London to Birmingham in just 45 minutes, to Manchester in one hour and 20 minutes and up to Scotland in less than three hours. Leeds would take an one hour and 25 minutes and you would be in Newcastle in two hours flat.

The big challenge will be maintaining a political consensus on the issue. Just look at how attempts to get cross party agreement on long-term care for the elderly degenerated into a political bun-fight last week.

Indeed momentum on High Speed 2 might be maintained by Lord Adonis himself.

There is a rumour in Westminster that the Tories are considering offering Labour's transport secretary the same portfolio if they win the election.

Lord Adonis told me he would not do that, but as our train sped back towards Stratford, Lord Heseltine suggested to Mr Prescott with a laugh and nudge that they might take the brief on together and see the project through.

That is unlikely ever to happen, but it will need a similarly visionary cross party initiative if Lord Adonis' grand vision for Britain's railways is to be rolled out across the country.

Watch the full report on Newsnight, Wednesday 17 February 2010.

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