Wedding and windbills

Is the credit crunch going to have an impact on guest numbers at eco-villages? Rhiannon Hanfman reve

Last week I drove my friend Judi Buttner to Loch Ness to officiate at a wedding. Judi is the Findhorn Foundation’s official marriage celebrant and can legally perform weddings not only in the community but anywhere in Scotland. The Foundation has, for at least ten years, had its own celebrant so that community people who do not, as a rule, want a traditional church wedding could have the kind of ceremony they prefer without needing to go the Registrar’s office to formalise it.

She is very busy these days with engagements throughout the Highlands, hence the trip to Lock Ness. More couples and not only those with an alternative outlook want to create individual ceremonies that incorporate words that are meaningful to them. I have been to a number of these events and each one is different and all are moving in their own way. This particular wedding took place on a boat in the middle of the loch in the shadow of Urquhart Castle. It was a very small and informal affair with family only, nevertheless the bridal pair was decked out in full wedding kit. Unusual as the venue was, some conventions do persist.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin I was chatting with a young woman who was one of the crew and learned that the number of visitors to the Inverness area is down on last year by 300 a day. Why, is no mystery. The cost of fuel, the credit squeeze and economic shambles we are in are keeping people away.

As a result of that conversation I was curious as to whether the Foundation was also experiencing low guest numbers. Fortunately, it seems not, or at least not yet. The numbers are pretty much the same as last year. This is good news for us but it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the economic downturn will reduce guest numbers eventually.

I wonder, however, if the reverse may not happen. When times are tough, people begin to question accepted truths like, for example, the superiority of free market economics, and will look for alternatives. An eco-village model such as Findhorn provides alternatives on many levels. The free market is increasingly becoming unsustainable and people may want to look for something that is.

Only yesterday, I spotted an interesting alternative in the front garden of my friends, George Goudsmit and Mary Inglis. There was a large metal object that looked like a cross between a bird and a modern sculpture, turning gently in the wind. George, who runs AES, a solar heating company in Forres, explained to me that it was a wind turbine designed to operate on the roof of an ordinary house. He and his neighbour hope to promote it and had placed it in the garden to see what interest it generated.

It certainly got my attention. Single-dwelling windmills have already been manufactured but some have the unpleasant side effect of making the house shake when they are going flat out. Apparently this turbine does not do that. What it does do is produce about 500w of electricity. The cost is reasonable too. George thinks it could pay for itself within three years. It’s encouraging to learn of a green energy option that doesn’t cost the earth.

It’s a bit of a ramble from weddings to windmills and sustainability. The common theme, if there is one, is change—change of status, change of lifestyle, change in the world. In the community we talk about change as a good thing, generally. The changes afoot in the world at the moment are challenging and it remains to be seen how we meet them, individually and collectively. The thought I am left with is that in the I Ching the hexagram symbolising ‘danger’ is the same as ‘opportunity’.

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.