Inspiration from a new generation

Jonathan's second report from Thailand and the story of a young woman who devotes herself to that co

Still at the Wongsanit ashram, just outside Bangkok. The two meetings that I have come here to attend, along with around 25 other ecovillagers from around the world – a mid-term review of the Gaia Education project (www.gaiaeducation.org) and a Board meeting of the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) – have just come to a close.

Now, most of the meeting participants have scheduled in a few days of sight-seeing and travels. A small group of us leave in the morning for a two-day tour of several of the villages with which the ashram is working. The ashram really is a remarkable centre of spiritual exploration and social activism. It plays home to a community of around 30 mostly young people who are devoting their lives to spiritual practice and to empowering poor and marginalised communities throughout the sub-region – including Burma, Lao and Cambodia as well as Thailand.

The entire community is rarely on site at the same time – generally, a number of the members are always out in the villages working on community development initiatives or in formal training programmes. At present, a group of grassroots leaders from Burma is being trained by ashram members in leadership skills in a training centre in Bangkok.

Let me introduce you to one of the community members, a young woman by the name of Om. Om is 27 and has lived here in the ashram for around four years. Previously, she worked as a research assistant with Japanese academics in the villages of north-east Thailand, the region where she was born.

Growing dissatisfied with the sterility of academic research, she spread her wings and began working as a volunteer for various organisations, looking for a deeper sense of meaning. When she came to work as a volunteer here at the ashram for six months in 2003, she was introduced to Buddhist meditation and became progressively happier and clearer about what she wanted to do in her life.

Now, she travels between ‘alternative’ communities in Thailand, helping them to identify and satisfy their needs and to network with each other. The alternative communities scene in Thailand covers a fascinating mix of types. There are middle-class urban folk who have left the hassle of the city to reconnect with the land and a simpler, more land-based lifestyle.

There are also traditional communities that are seeking to resist the incursions of the ‘modern’ world that dismantle their local economies and cultures and that lure their young people away. A good number of these are ‘tribal’ communities, peopled by indigenous people who have lived in forest communities for centuries. Finally, there are Buddhist monastic and other alternative education centres that are also seeking to retain what is best in traditional Thai culture.

Om spends up to a month at a time, living in these communities, building relations of trust with their inhabitants and helping empower them to resist the steam-roller of modern, urban culture. She is especially devoted to helping young people create lives for themselves that are meaningful and satisfying.

Most recently, Om has also been active in international youth networking with NextGEN, the Youth Council of GEN. She was one of 20 young people who met in mid-2006 in an ecovillage in Mexico to build global networks of solidarity and exchange among young people devoted to a shared vision of sustainability.

Om is one of a new generation that is devoting itself to a life of service in the cause of social and ecological healing. Within the ecovillage movement, a new generation of leaders is emerging, under the umbrella of NextGEN, answering the call of the tumultuous and startling times we are moving into.

All these words, of course, represent only the menu. The meal will be served over the next two days as we move among the people and the projects in the villages with which the ashram is working. How many rich and inspiring stories wait to unfold for our delight and inspiration?! More next week – watch this space.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The end of loyalty: why are we still surprised when politicians betray each other?

There was Labour’s attempted coup, now the cabinet is in civil war. Have British politicians always been so openly disloyal?

Politicians have always had a reputation for backstabbing, but recently Westminster has been a battleground of back, front and side-stabbing in all parties. The shadow cabinet trying to oust Jeremy Corbyn after the EU referendum; Michael Gove abandoning Boris Johnson to make his own Tory leadership bid; and now Johnson himself derailing Theresa May’s set-piece Brexit speech with his Telegraph essay on the subject – and rumours of a resignation threat.

On the surface, it seems Brexit has given politicians licence to flout cabinet collective responsibility – the convention that binds our ministers to showing a united front on government policy.

The doctrine of cabinet collective responsibility was outlined in the Ministerial Code in the early Nineties, but it became a convention in the late 19th century “the way in which we talk about it still today, in terms of people failing to adhere to it”, says the Institute for Government’s Dr Cath Haddon, an expert in the constitutional issues of Whitehall.

It even goes back earlier than that, when the cabinet would have to bond in the face of a more powerful monarch.

But are we witnessing the end of this convention? It looks like we could be living in a new age of disloyalty. After all, the shadow cabinet was allowed to say what it liked about its leader over nearly two years, and Johnson is still in a job.

An unfaithful history

“I think it’s nothing new,” says Michael Cockerell, who has been making political documentaries and profiles for the BBC since the Seventies. “If you think back in time to Julius Caesar and all the rest of it, this loyalty to the leader is not something that automatically happens or has been normal both in history and modern democracies – there have always been rebels, always been ambitious figures who all work out exactly how far they can go.”

He says the situation with Johnson reminds him of Tony Benn, who was an outspoken cabinet secretary under Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan in 1974-79. “He knew exactly how far he could push it without being sacked, because of the old thing about having him inside the tent pissing out, rather than outside the tent, pissing in.”

Cockerell believes that Johnson, like past cabinet rebels, knows “how far” he can go in defying May because she’s in a precarious position.

“Often if a prime minister is weak, that’s when the ambitious members of the cabinet can parade their disloyalty while still claiming they’re being loyal,” he says. “Most people who are disloyal always profess their loyalty.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell, who has been in politics since the early Seventies, also believes “it’s always been like this” in terms of disloyalty.

He gives Wilson’s governments as a past example. “There was a fair amount of disloyalty within the cabinet,” he says. “I remember it being suggested by someone that the cabinet meetings were often very, very quiet because people were so busy writing down things that they could put into print sometime later.”

“Fast-forward to John Major and the ‘bastards’,” he says, recalling the former Conservative prime minister’s battle with trouble-making Eurosceptic cabinet members in 1993.

Dr Haddon adds the examples of Margaret Thatcher being brought down by her cabinet (and tackling the “wets and dries” in her early years as PM), and Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s teams briefing against each other.

She believes “nothing changes” regarding disloyalty because of the way British government works. “The UK system really provokes this sort of situation,” she says of Johnson. “Because we have empowered secretaries of state, we have a sort of federalist structure, and then we have the prime minister in the position of primus inter pares [first among equals].”

The idea of the prime minister being a fully empowered leader in control of a team is a “modern concept”, according to Dr Haddon. “If you go back into the nineteenth century, ministers were very much heads of their own little fiefdoms. We’ve always had this system that has enabled ministers to effectively have their own take, their own position in their particular roles, and able to speak publicly on their perspective.”

She says the same happens in the shadow cabinet because of the nature of opposition in the UK. Shadow ministers don’t receive tailored funding for their work, and are therefore “often very much reliant upon their own team” to develop policy proposals, “so they become quite autonomous”.

How disloyalty has changed

However, disloyalty plays out differently in modern politics. Campbell points out that with politics developing in real time online and through 24-hour news, there is a far greater journalistic focus on disloyalty. “Previously it would’ve been in the Sunday papers, now you get it 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Dr Haddon believes pronouncements of disloyalty are more “overt” than they were because of the way we communicate on social media. Platforms like Twitter discourage the “coded messages” of past disloyal cabinet secretaries, and show infighting more starkly.

“There is this immediacy of reaction,” she says. “And that it’s constrained to 140 characters leads people to ever more brief, succinct declarations of their position. We are also living through a period in which, dare I say, hyperbole and strength of position are only exaggerated by that medium. There’s something in that which is very different.”

And even though British political history is littered with attempted coups, betrayals and outspoken ministers – particularly over Europe – there is a sense that the rulebook has been thrown out recently, perhaps as Brexit has defied the status quo.

Collective responsibility and the idea of the prime minister as primus inter pares are conventions, and conventions can be moulded or dropped completely.

“The constitution is open for discussion now to an extent that I can’t remember,” says Campbell. “You’ve got arguments about independence, constitutional arguments which arise out of Brexit, if we leave. In those circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that the constitutional convention about cabinet responsibility comes under strain as well.

“If you’ve got a constitution that depends upon the observance of convention, then of course it’s much easier to depart from these if you choose,” he adds. “And in the present, febrile atmosphere of constitutional change, maybe it’s hardly surprising that what is thought to be a centrepiece is simply being disregarded.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.