The ultimate direct democracy is a referendum, a peoples vote. In practice this is shown not to be a good way to make big decisions, and so referenda are typically advisory: they can signal a need for change, but do not necessarily show the best path and a major reason for this is information.
"An informed electorate is an essential prerequisite for democracy" was oft mentioned by (and quoted from) Thomas Jefferson and others in the early days of the US democratic system (1770's onwards). “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government”, he said. Among other things, this consideration led to the establishment of public libraries in the US for the electorate "to learn the lessons of history".
Two millennia earlier in Athens, around 400 BC, Plato despaired with democracy precisely because "ordinary people were too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians". Recognisable? Looking for a better system, in his work "Republic" he came up with a separation of "lovers of money", "lovers of honour" and "lovers of wisdom" so separating business, the military, and those capable of making the right choices. This last group consisted of scientists, scholars, high level experts and other sophisticates, the concept underlying his "philosopher-kings". Just to be sure, he also stated -much to the consternation of his contemporaries- that no member of the government should be allowed to own or accumulate property while in office. He did not want wisdom and government biased by self-interest either.
The best modern efforts to keep tyranny at bay include education (e.g. independent universities), free public access to information (e.g. libraries) and an independent press, and of course the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted to assist in its own way. Yet that is a far cry from what we now have in the UK:
Sources: http://www.politheo.com/thomasjefferson.html; https://scholarsandrogues.com/2010/06/13/jefferson-self-governance-and-the-field-of-knowledge/ ; http://faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/PlatoRep.htm; John Simpson, "Unreliable Sources", p177
Recently I had a great opportunity at an RSPB/Nourish Scotland hustings, to put questions to a number of party politicians in an unhurried and friendly atmosphere. The questions I posed were related to -you guessed it- Climate Change and the target of the City Region Deal, a £250 million fund to support the region's (better) future.
Since failure to act fully on Climate Change delivers no chance for anything good, decarbonisation seems called for. In the oil capital of Europe, one of the most expensive oil producing regions of the world and therefore likely an early casualty of the world's limited “Carbon Budget” as confirmed by the UN Conference of the Parties, planning for a future would seem easy.
It makes little sense to keep the oil industry struggling for a bit longer while it goes from its current serious illness to coma to death, meanwhile losing the skills and the society which supports these skills. It also makes little sense to lose the skills before the decommissioning has been completed: what could possibly be the benefit of needing to import skills from remaining low-cost oil regions, whether financially or for staving off residual post-clear-up risk?
The only sensible “choice” is: ramp down the oil industry, build up the decommissioning at the same time for the coming 20-25 years, and meanwhile also build up the long term future: renewable energy industry (to compensate for the loss of home-extracted energy) and also diversify towards alternatives such as agriculture and food industry. There's some choice left in the long term plan of diversification, but in the short term there are few options.
Yet what is with the city region deal? Ah, Sir Ian Wood is on the team, so it is hardly surprising that the oil industry will receive an extension of its death throws in the form of a centre of excellence, competing with Saudi Arabia, Norway, USA, Abu Dhabi, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, in fact Aberdeen would be the last place to get one... just as production trickles to a halt. There will be a substantial harbour rebuild ”for tourism” (never mind tackling the cultural deficit), and there's continued focus on hi-tech food and agriculture. Roads (yes, more cars) and the Internet will also get focus. The undertone -not explicit in the information sheets- of the harbour may be to support decommissioning, which seems somewhat bizarre since there are some pretty high capacity deep harbours around in Scotland already so it would only result in the moving employment from another part of Scotland to Aberdeen.
Interestingly the City Region deal suggests in defense of the oil-funding that oil income to the UK was recently around 2.2 Billion per year (corporation tax). The glaring omission is that the annual decommissioning spend will be well upwards of 4 billion per year (85 billion total), mostly paid for by... tax recovery mechanisms. That's “you and me” unless you're corporate or very wealthy. So the 2.2 billion tax and more should be spent on clearing up now, and for the next 25 years; if we let Cameron (or Holyrood) spend it on anything else we'll need to find another source to pay the decommissioning costs from, and that could be a struggle to get from tourism and hi-tech food research.
As you may expect, the answers were incomplete. One party missed the argument entirely, one suggested all was fine and well considered, and the others were mostly unaware of sufficient detail but understanding of my concerns.
What should I then vote?
I vote for trying to start decommissioning as quickly as possible, finally. Oil price analysis (not speculation) is straightforward, and it's not looking good. Get it done before the money runs out and before the necessary service companies fail.
I vote for giving future generations a chance to live in peace, and that means fighting Climate Change with all we've got.
Decarbonising, converting to renewables, changing agriculture, etc.
I vote for getting oil interests out of advisory positions in Aberdeen, Holyrood, Westminster and the EU. And I'm not suggesting getting wind, solar and wave interests in; we could try independent academics again.
That doesn't leave many party manifestos standing.
Erik is a physicist, ocean sailor, petroleum engineer, climate change student, and public speaker and writer.