May 23

2024

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Helen Whitten

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A wave is about to crash down on us in the form of AI programmes and robotics.  There is no question that this will happen.  The question is can we use this new and amazing technology wisely? And the second question is could philosophy help us to do so?

There is a major difference between being clever and being wise.  Making a clever break-through or clever innovation may not, in the long run, prove a wise decision for humanity.  We are seeing how Smart phones and social media are interrupting the natural development of children’s social lives and beginning to wonder what to do about it.  This wave has already crashed and it is difficult to reverse it now.

We have witnessed recently with the Horizon Post Office scandal the terrible destruction that can occur when IT technology is allowed to run rampage without the humans controlling it stopping to reflect on the consequences.  What makes a group of adults become ‘wilfully blind’, in Margaret Heffernan’s excellent phrase, to what is happening before their eyes?  To knowingly do injustice and harm to others?

Technology can. It can deskill us. We give way to what we assume is something cleverer than we are. We can see this in our own lives when we submit to a SatNav’s directions although we know a route like the back of our hand and have a better way to go.  Garage mechanics become deskilled as so many parts of a car’s engine are now monitored by computer rather than by hand.  If the computer fails, they are lost. Medics similarly are being led by scans and computer diagnostics where they used to make the diagnosis themselves.  And yes, this can sometimes be more accurate but where a scanning or X-Ray machine is not available or there is a long delay before screening, then that medic needs to retain the confidence to make the diagnosis without technology. I have personally heard of two near-deaths caused by burst appendix because a doctor was waiting for an X-Ray machine, where in a previous era it would have been up to the medic themselves to make the diagnosis for surgery.  We have to watch this tendency.

There are all kinds of clever individuals who are creating AI technology and there are many brilliant applications for it but how can we encourage the developers to stop and reflect on the wisdom of their inventions? Or the ethics? Does there not need to be a wise figure in the room to nudge them in the direction that benefits humanity rather than just makes their business wealthy and successful?  Could, in fact, that wise figure even be AI-generated?

I was reading some Plato the other morning, as you do, and it occurred to me how far governments of countries and governance of business environments have diverted from his ideas of how to govern.  He predicted how Athenian leaders would gain power by telling voters what they wanted to hear rather than defining a strategy for the future and a set of principles and values by which to direct its course.  His solution was to ensure that politicians worked for the good of the state and adhere to their principles through contemplation and reflection of the good rather than the need for a vote.  He was an elitist, yes, and believed that leaders should be well-educated generalists but should have studied mathematics and philosophy if they were to govern well.  Philosophy, after all, is the love of wisdom.

I think his concept was that the ideas, strategy, principles and direction should be created by the leaders and the public servants should be those who excelled at administration and project management.   He saw the ethics of the state as essential as the driver and shaper of individual action. When there is a lack of principle in government, therefore, this can lead to lack of trust and a rottenness within society. As Bob Garratt’s book suggested, Fish Rot from the Head.

So back to my point about could AI actually drive the ethics, this would surely be all about how any AI innovation is programmed.  Fill it full of rubbish and we will get rubbish. Fill it full of evil and we will get evil.  Fill it full of Plato and the wise words of other philosophers then perhaps we could receive wisdom?

OK, this may sound far-fetched but when I look back over the technological innovations I have witnessed in my lifetime I observe that since my family rented our first television in around 1955 we have watched some amazing programmes and yet now, with all the streaming channels available, there is a preponderance of mindless game shows and a vast amount of violence depicted on screen. Couldn’t we do better?  Couldn’t someone in the Board Room encourage scriptwriters to stop and reflect on whether they could produce more uplifting dramas?

People are turning off 24/7 global news because they can’t stand so much negativity brought into their sitting rooms.  Human beings need hope and it is clear that our younger generations are desperate to be fed some optimism. And it isn’t as if there isn’t hope to be had, for even with all the problems we have in the world today, including climate change, there is nothing to say that we don’t have the ability to find solutions for these problems. The key is to believe that we can do so, otherwise people give up.

Plato believed that the health of a society depended on minds being fed with education and inspiration to instil a sense of moral value, a wish to contribute to their community.  He felt that children should not be exposed to negative images, or exposed to literature that glorified lying or violence or lack of self-control but should be provided with examples and role models of justice and self-discipline.  I think he would be pretty horrified by Naked Dating or the scenarios exposed during this year’s Eurovision Song Contest!

My point isn’t that governing politicians or boards of directors should give way to AI technology.  It is that perhaps there could be an AI programme that stood in the corner of the room, so to speak, to ask leaders to stop and reflect on whether an action was wise, or ethical, whether it would benefit humanity for the greater good or only benefit one political party or one tech company.  If an AI robot was programmed with the wisdom of the ages could it not make decision-makers stop for a moment and contemplate in stillness the potential consequences of any future actions?  This should happen anyway, of course, but we only have to look at Horizon and other recent examples of political, medical and business malpractice to realize that this is not happening.

Could an AI robot be the Oracle in the Room, not to force a decision but to make those responsible for it consider the wise and altruistic option rather than the merely selfish one?

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I owe a lot to the late Dame Shirley Conran, who died on 9 May 2024.  She and her peers were the forerunners of the feminist movement.  We may forget that women did not have easy access to finance or equality until after the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Shirley and her generation wouldn’t take no for an answer and she came to realize that education, communication and the ability to add up and be able to make your own money were the essential ingredients for an empowered life, whether male or female.  She not only wanted that for herself but set out in her own inimitable fashion to make it happen for other girls and women.

This she did through her books – the sexual liberation suggested in her blockbuster novel Lace and her more practical suggestions in Superwoman.  She also pursued the interests of women through her philanthropic projects and this is where I first met her, in the 1990s. I had just set up my coaching and training business, Positiveworks, which was focusing on how to provide individuals with the personal and professional skills to make their work and home lives easier.  I had a specific interest in work-life balance and attended the Mothers in Management conference at the Savoy which Shirley had arranged.  I was hesitant to introduce myself to her as she presided over the conference in her wonderful white trouser suit but, as has been the experience of many other women involved in her various projects, she saw in me things of which I had not previously thought myself capable.  This was quite a talent of hers as it provided her at the same time with individuals (not all women) who had the skills and know-how that she did not specifically have herself but from which she felt her current project could benefit.

And so shortly afterwards she suggested I become Deputy-Chair of the Work-Life Balance Trust, which is what Mothers in Management transformed into, and that I run sessions at conferences and also create a CD-Rom, through the sponsorship of BT, on the topic of Help Yourself to a Better Life. This was a seven-step self-development programme to enable individuals to consider, analyse and create a life that reflected their priorities and helped them feel in control of their time.

More recently Shirley turned her attention to the subject of learning and specifically of maths and its importance in everyone’s lives.  She set up the Maths Anxiety Trust with a variety of experts in the field of mathematics and of education, and worked alongside Caroline Shott at Learnus and the Learning Skills Research Foundation.  She tested some of her theories out at Langley Park Girls’ School with my colleague Diane Carrington and later created panels and interventions to help people, but girls and women in particular, to develop confidence and capability in maths. Through this Diane and I created another CD-Rom, Launching Yourself, which led us to write our book Future Directions, Practical Ways to develop Confidence and Emotional Intelligence in Young People.

There was a legacy of women releasing the responsibility for finance to their husbands.  This wasn’t always the case as in certain families the man would pass the money over to his wife but there were many other cases where women assumed that their husband was in control, knew what he was doing and they took no interest, only sometimes to discover, should he die, that the family were deeply in debt.

Shirley realized how important it is for girls to feel at ease with numbers, to understand interest rates, to seek to save and invest money, to consider their pensions and to feel in control of their lives as individuals.  As a business coach I shared with her my experiences of coaching women managers and how often they shied away from asking for a raise where their male colleagues felt no such reticence.  We studied the reasons and the potential difference in values and interests and discovered there were massive discrepancies in financial security for women, especially when it came to pensions.  Shirley had lived this experience herself and wanted to pass on her tips to others. The Maths Anxiety Trust provides support in this and many other ways.

It takes courage to make things happen.  You can’t be a shrinking violet and Shirley was not.  She had exacting standards and huge ambitions. She drew people to her through this commitment and also because she was generous. She gave philanthropic donations to her old school, St Paul’s Girls’ School, and to many other institutions.  She also was gracious in giving credit where credit was due.

She was an extraordinary woman and I don’t suppose younger women can fully appreciate how much she and her generation of feisty women did to change the shape of women’s experience in the world.  We should all be grateful to her, to them, for this, and make sure we hold onto those rights for our grandchildren’s sake, and in her memory.

She changed my life in her own way, giving me confidence, giving me opportunities with my business that I might not have had without her.  I am not alone.  I know I speak for many of us who knew her and received her generosity of spirit.

Some women have the reputation of pulling the ladder up after them when they achieve success.  Shirley was not that woman. May we adopt her example.

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Apr 15

2024

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Helen Whitten

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About a year ago I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 where a teacher was being interviewed about discussing transgender with school pupils.  “We must be led by the pupils,” she said, and I thought hang on, that turns education on its head.  Surely it is usually teachers who lead pupils not vice versa, so why were the grown ups abdicating that role in this particular issue?

And now looking at what has been taught in schools and the whole “gender-affirming” policy that seems to have had little or no research behind it, this approach is all the more troubling.  Why were/are adults so loathe to have these conversations with children to explain that it is very few people indeed who feel they want to change sex – which has only been possible anyway in recent decades – and that even if they did go ahead and decide to do so they would risk becoming infertile and have to undertake painful surgery that could also render them unable to have an orgasm.  Indeed, that such a decision would likely be irreversible in any practical way.

Instead, countless adults, politicians, institutions, schools, universities and the NHS went headlong into affirming any child who was unsure about their gender, as if that child knew what it was talking about.  But of course a child doesn’t know anything much at all about sex, sexual attraction, or what relationships are like as they grow into adulthood.  It’s up to adults to help them to wait, to mature.  As Hadley Freeman wrote eloquently in The Sunday Times yesterday, 14 April, “teen life is scary” and young girls in particular have to deal with many physical and emotional changes and challenges.  The fact that girls seeking to transition ended up outnumbering boys by six to one should surely have waved many red flags for those responsible for supporting them? And now countless schoolchildren have been exposed to ideas that they could be the “wrong sex” and how will that impact them as they grow up?

And how is a child supposed to listen to the concept of “I was born in the wrong body” and make sense of it?  Why, indeed, has this concept become normalised?  When I was growing up there was no idea that your sex was a decision. You were born male or female, full stop. People are not, it seems, saying they feel they were born in the wrong skin colour, or if they do have issues around appearance or identity then in the main a therapist’s role is to help them accept that we are all different and all unique and valuable in different ways.

But importantly, where are the philosophical questions around this concept “I was born in the wrong body”?  Where are the religious leaders to analyse and discuss what is a mental model rather than a physical reality? Where are the conversations about soul and whether someone has a male or female soul or whether the idea is quite simply a psychological perception that someone might grow out of?  After all, the priests wade in when there is a conversation about abortion, suicide or assisted dying, raising spiritual points for people to consider. Unless I missed something, I believe they have been pretty silent on something that seems to me to impact mind, body and spirit. But most certainly life and how it is lived.

Where were the checks and balances?  Obviously sorely missing from the medical profession, the NHS and biological research.  Within seconds everyone was changing the language, deleting the word woman, mother, breastfeeding from medical literature that specifically related to women. Trans women were transferred to female prisons, where some women were assaulted. Rapists were called “she” when the act of rape requires a penis. And in business HR and DEI departments insisted that people use pronouns even when the majority of people thought it a nonsense as they had no questions about their identity. All to placate a small minority, who deserve to be protected but not at the expense of other’s rights and freedoms.

Any women who legitimately questioned this trend were immediately silenced with insults such as TERF, gender-critical, fascist, far right, as if this has anything to do with politics.  People lost their jobs, their mortgages, their friends, their reputations for “mis-speaking” in the terms of the trans-lobbyists.  Words, such as those by J K Rowling, were taken out of context. Others, like Milli Hill, fighting bravely to maintain the word woman and mother within maternity care rather than ovary-owners or some other nonsensical label, were cancelled with no recompense. So the real bullies were those who silenced others, who refused to have a proper debate.

It has been a kind of madness, has it not? Where children were given puberty-blockers or had healthy breasts or penises removed because of an idea that had not been properly researched? Where was the risk assessment that these young people deserved?  As adults, parents, teachers we know that children, especially teenagers, get confused about life, about sex and about maturing into adulthood.  They needed to be heard, yes, and of course the young will always have some new ideas from which we can all benefit, but in the main we adults are there to help them work out the risks, to converse and help them see different angles of a situation before they decide on something life-changing.

We have all become jibbering idiots within this conversation, terrified of saying the wrong thing, using the wrong pronoun. We have been the victims of ideological capture where people felt they could not even advise a child that it might be better to wait a few years before taking radical and mutilating options. Of course there will be a small number of children and adults who really do feel uncomfortable and it is imperative that they are supported but their mental health needs to be explored before blockers or surgery, surely. Not just deciding that because a girl likes Thomas the Tank Engine or climbing trees that they are probably a boy.  The examples given have been horrifyingly antiquated and stereotypical.  But I fear the lobbyists may want more children and adults to trans to make themselves feel better, to normalise the situation but this is cruel to those children, teenagers or young adults who may just be going through an unhappy or confused stage of their lives. Or are captured by a trend.

As J K Rowling wrote: “Dress however you please. Call yourself whatever you like. Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you. Live your best life in peace and security. But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?” Or, I would add, inflict irreversible surgery and hormones on a vulnerable young person? No, surely not.

Let’s ensure that the Cass Report opens up the debate at last so that people can speak openly about a problem that is impacting countless people’s lives and freedom of speech. Let’s make sure that the medical profession does not again steam headlong into action before proper research has been carried out and let’s make sure that any person, young or old, who is questioning their gender is given all the information available before they go ahead.

Let’s wake up from this groupthink and make this a turning point where the adults, experts, doctors, teachers, HR professionals and politicians walk right back into the room and start protecting young people by speaking factually and honestly.

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I speak for myself but I think my generation are a bit confused by the burgeoning problem of mental health amongst the young.  We were brought up at a time when our parents had just been through the Second World War and our grandparents had been through two wars.  Our everyday concerns probably seemed thoroughly petty in comparison. If we were shy before a social event or anxious before exams there was pretty much an attitude of ‘so what, that’s pretty normal, just get on with it.’  The concept of not feeling safe because someone didn’t agree with your opinion on something, or the idea that a teacher should give us a trigger warning before we read Macbeth, King Lear or even Of Mice and Men would have confounded us.

But that is not to say I don’t feel compassion for those who are experiencing these concerns, for who is to measure one person’s anxiety or depression against another’s?  Surely these things are hard to measure in a really scientific way. They are emotions that are experienced subjectively so it is perfectly possible that younger generations are experiencing heightened emotions. Professor Jonathan Haidt, whose books The Coddling of the American Mind and The Righteous Mind I would urge you to read, is putting this down to Social Media.  I haven’t yet read his new book The Anxious Generation but I understand he has studied the impact of social media in great depth and is recommending that children are not given a smart phone before the age of sixteen, unless for medical purposes. This is because the endless competition can be damaging to self-esteem and he also argues that the intensity of interaction with a phone is reducing a young person’s ability to communicate, socialise, play, or learn to take risks.

I’m not convinced that there is more to worry about now than there was in our youth.  We faced potential extinction through nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis and were given ridiculously inadequate advice about hiding in the cupboard under the stairs (like that would save us!).  But there was a more optimistic energy in the air.  The lifestyle in the 1950s was thoroughly basic but all of a sudden there was Elvis and then, as the 60s arrived, the Beatles and the whole pop and fashion scene that gave us teenagers a distraction from real life and actually boosted the economy too.  There was that essential ingredient to life – hope. And there wasn’t social media, nor were there any 24/7 misery-news channels. We got outside and chatted and played and most certainly took some risks.

So what do we do about a large group of the younger generation lacking the resilience to manage life’s challenges?  I fear we have not helped them to understand that life is tough.  Perhaps they have seen too many photoshopped images of people looking amazing and happy and successful and feel inadquate.  Companies report that the younger generations are entering the workplace expecting to go into senior roles, unhappy if asked to do the photocopying or make the coffee.  I guess we had been raised to expect less.  Certainly we women had been, and we had to fight to get taken seriously. But expectations have to be set within a context – go for an optimistic outcome but accept that things may not work out the way you want –  “I would rather my TikTok post gets lots of likes but I can manage it if it doesn’t,” or “I would rather I get this job but I can manage it if I don’t” style of thinking.  This way your emotions won’t fall off the edge of the cliff if you don’t achieve your goal but you are going for the goal nonetheless.

But we also have to give people hope, remind them that history unfolds in patterns and what seems hopeless one moment can be replaced with good news in the next. I think what may have been missing from the message in the self-help literature of recent decades is that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum overnight, it generally comes from working very hard and it’s only the very lucky few who have any kind of overnight success.  But of course now one gets 13 year old influencers who are making pots of money on TikTok and I am certainly confused by that as I personally don’t think we know anything much about life until we’re over 40.  But no doubt I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me that earlier in my life!

So how do we address this problem of mental health?  Well, as I have written before, it is good that the conversation is out there but it seems to me that we are over-pathologizing some of these cases and forgetting that teenagers always have trends and, as emotions are infectious, if one is feeling something then it’s more likely that two, three, four, ten, or a hundred will feel it quickly too.  Look at my generation screaming at the Beatles – that hadn’t happened before but it soon became the way girls behaved at concerts, just as the heavy mascara, short skirts, pvc macs and the rest became a fad.  We have to be careful not to pathologize a whole generation but to be able to spot those who really are suffering or require a specific diagnosis.  When I read that GPs have given out 500,000 prescriptions for anti-depressants I question whether they have had time to explore the symptoms adequately in their ten-minute appointments, or whether they have pointed the young person to lifeskills or, indeed, philosophy as an option.

For Cognitive-Behavioural approaches were based on the Greek philosophers and I am a great believer that philosophy can indeed give us consolation.  My father gave me some philosophy books when I was a teenager that helped me think about myself and my responses to life.  That’s not to say I didn’t get a lot wrong, certainly was shy in particular situations then and now, and got and still get anxious before exams, interviews or presentations as this is pretty normal stuff, but I had some mental tools to overcome those feelings so that they didn’t capsize me.  We can talk our anxiety up or create self-talk that boosts our confidence and sense of calm in a realistic yet optimistic way. Thinking is key.

Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, suggesting that we should spend some time in reflection and self-observation.  In this we can learn to accept that we are each unique mentally, emotionally and physically and that we can respect ourselves and others in the right to have different responses and opinions to situations. We can learn to focus on what is joyful and what we can be grateful for, but not shy away from the difficult emotions such as anxiety, sorrow, jealousy, resentment for these are part of the human condition and feeling them can ultimately make us stronger.  But there is a point where any one of these can, indeed, become a problem that requires psychological support should they overwhelm on a longer-term basis.

We all get into habits of thinking. We can get into the habit of being pessimistic or seeing the world from the perspective of the glass half-empty but equally the brain is plastic and, just as we can learn a language, manage a new mobile, or how to control a new software programme, we can also learn new ways of thinking that bolster our resilience and mood. A useful one is to question whether one’s thought is logical, whether others might respond differently – which opens up lateral ways of approaching a problem – or whether one’s thought is actually helping one manage the situation one faces.  If not – change the thought! This will change the emotion and therefore the action one chooses to take.

I hope these younger generations will develop the skills to manage life more easily and I would suggest that reading philosophy can be helpful. So I shall finish this article with some words from the philosopher Epictetus about not shying away from difficult situations: “The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.”

Books on cognitive-behavioural approaches

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Mar 04

2024

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Helen Whitten

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Can you imagine what it was like to live under Nazi occupation? To have every word and action observed by a hostile enemy with their own ideas of what is right and what is wrong?  To be unable to be sure what might happen tomorrow, whether the business one has built up with such love and hard work will continue to exist? Whether one’s loved ones are safe or not?

This is being brought home to me as I watch Apple’s excellent series The New Look, set during the German occupation of Paris, from June 1940-August 1944.  The main players in the series so far (I’m on episode 4), are Coco Chanel and Christian Dior, uprooted from their very sophisticated and luxurious lifestyles, their alliances challenged, the betrayals, large and small, pulling them in one direction or another.

It makes me think about Eastern Ukraine and what the Ukrainians are fighting for and what other European countries should be seriously preparing for in terms of protecting their ways of life from Putin’s ambitions. We have become complacent.  We thought that war was a thing of the past, that the human race had reached a point beyond violence, a point where we discussed things rather than fought with armies for territory, religion or ideology.  We were wrong and we need to wake up to the fact that we have to pull together against a bully like Putin.

It is over eighty years since the UK was under threat from invasion in World War II, nearly 400 years since our civil war, some 900+ years since the Norman Invasion. We had thought ourselves safe on our island, the sea and our fleet protecting us.  But we are less likely to be protected from cyber or drone attack.  Do we have the metal to defend ourselves, I wondered, as I watched how the citizens of Paris divided into those who joined the Resistance, those in denial, those who collaborated with the Nazis.

We cannot know how we would respond in such dire circumstances. We cannot know if we would betray a friend or colleague’s name were we to be tortured.  We cannot know if we would take the last loaf even if our nextdoor neighbour’s child was elbowing us in the queue.  As Christian Dior says in this series “war is chaos. All you think about is survival.”

I hope we never have to experience these situations.  Hope with all my heart that we don’t, but my parents and grandparents generations had to fight for what they believed in and I was reflecting that the one way we can empathise with them and with the Ukrainians who are having to live at the end of the barrel of a gun, is to really consider and identify what it is we care about.  Would we fight for our home, our religion, our justice system, our values, for our way of life, even if we are not naturally British by blood but live here? Would we fight for our country and its values and freedoms?  What is it that you value and care about here?

It’s not such a crazy thought – we know Putin will not stop if he wins over Ukraine and he has many more troops than we do, for sure. As I cover in my novel No Lemons in Moscow the West thought that Russia in the 1990s was turning towards us yet how wrong we were. And, as Alexei Navalny’s widow is pointing out today, how little successive governments have done to complain about what happened to Navalny or to Vladimir Kara-Murza when they were locked up, or, indeed, to stop the stream of Russians who set up homes here to protect their money – as my character, Eve, in the novel benefits from as an interior designer.  Look at Iran, it was a country where women were free to uncover their hair until the Ayatollah came into power.  Someone was talking on the radio this morning about living in North Korea where everything one says or does is monitored and there are no freedoms. Technology makes this all the more possible.

I was joking with some friends the other day that it will be “Dad’s/Grandparents’ Army” who go out to fight if we are ever under threat as it seems that younger generations are struggling with their mental health and find simply being in a room with someone who says something they don’t like can set off a panic attack.  I am not without compassion – I have panic attacks too in certain circumstances and we need to equip these young people with the skills and resilience tools to manage life more easily.  But right now I can’t see them putting themselves forward to protect our country should the need arise, in the way our grandfathers did.

In order to make ourselves stronger in the face of the Putins and bullies of the world we need to identify what it is we care about in this country – is it freedom of speech, public libraries, state schools, the NHS, cricket, our democracy, our justice system, our welfare system, our creativity, our entrepreneurs, our neighbours, our homes, our gentle countryside, our pubs, our sport, our churches and religious buildings, our diversity, our music, our art, our national treasures, our constitutional monarchy, our access to incredible theatre, ballet, concerts, castles, museums, city parks, the freedom our girls and women have to excel and contribute to our society, our acceptance of differences of many kinds?  Remember, nowhere else is perfect, every country has some racism, some prejudice, some poverty and inequality, so don’t underestimate these things because what you don’t notice you can lose.  It does help to read more about other countries in order to get the context and perspective of what we enjoy here.

Watch The New Look on Apple if you can, or read Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise or other books to see how quickly life can change – look at how Eastern Ukraine and the world was surprised by Putin’s army despite the warning flags.  Start to consider what you value about this country because there’s nothing that Putin likes better than that we are weak and divided. Let’s not give him the satisfaction of achieving such division.

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Feb 17

2024

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Helen Whitten

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Alexei Navalny died yesterday fighting for democracy. We must fight for ours too and not take it for granted.  Reports show that the younger generation want a ‘strong leader’.  Well, I hope the death of Navalny opens their eyes to what happens when you get a strong leader: you lose free speech, and can be imprisoned or assassinated if you speak up against a President, their government, or the unjust wars they embark upon.

There have been attempts over the last decade to divide us and weaken our Western societies.  I have written about this before and suspect Russian bots are responsible for much of the propaganda that questions or attacks Western values.  It certainly suits Putin and our other enemies to undermine the belief we have in our society and, ultimately, in democracy.  Without cohesion we leave ourselves vulnerable.

So isn’t it time for our own political leaders to speak up more vociferously for the benefits of Western values? Isn’t it time they contrasted the freedoms we have here with the restrictions that people face in Russia, China, North Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere?  Isn’t it time they demonstrated to younger voters that they would not be able to march on the streets, drink, dance or be gay in quite a large number of other countries? Isn’t it time they woke young women here up to the amazing freedoms they have in the West that they do not have in other places?  In fact isn’t it time for them to re-emphasize how fortunate we are living here because if we rubbish our own ways of life we weaken ourselves and, believe me, we would not wish to live under a Putin-like regime!

But our political leaders are not doing a great job of standing up for our way of life.  They flip and flop and apologise and insinuate that life is worse today than it has ever been – take people back only a few years and they might realize that life was appallingly difficult for the majority of people in previous centuries so let’s celebrate what we have, where we have got to now.  Yes, of course there are difficulties and challenges but the poverty and hardship of only a century ago in our own country was real before the welfare state, before equal rights and the incredible developments of science, technology, medicine. We have come to take our freedoms and rights for granted and forget that to uphold our democracy we must also accept that rights come with responsibilities towards our society and that includes voting.  But I foresee electoral turnout as being a major problem in the next election.

I am not alone among my friends in feeling totally disenfranchised. Recent by-elections showed that people did not turn out in their droves to vote. Unless Sunak, Starmer and Davey (for a moment I couldn’t even remember his name!) tell us what they really stand for they will weaken our democracy.  People are turning away from the Conservatives but the worse part is that they are not sure who to vote for and I don’t blame them.  We are unsure whether either Sunak or Starmer are actually capable of leading because leadership means giving people a vision and a vision needs to be achievable and based on principles that can be understood by the electorate.  We need to know that Starmer can control his far-left faction and Sunak his far-right faction.  At the moment I am not convinced that either of them can and I really don’t know what Davey stands for. And so, in these gaps, Reform did quite well in Wellingborough…

Whichever party gets into power will have the same challenges to face and these are similar to the challenges being faced in other countries, such as an ageing demography, health services under strain etc.  We must value what we already have if we are to protect it and build on it further to improve life even more.  Life is tough now with the cost of living but it isn’t just tough in the UK – read about life elsewhere, even in Europe and the USA, to make comparisons before becoming so critical or complacent that we lose what we have.

The winning party will need us to play our part in remedying these issues and it may not be comfortable but I, for one, would prefer they treat us like grownups and are honest about (a) the problems we face and (b) how they intend to tackle them. No empty promises or magic money trees.

Democracy is flawed, as is every kind of political government, but it is the best we have.  Navalny died fighting for it.  He was extraordinarily courageous to do this when he knew he risked his life to stand up for what he believed in, including his fight against corruption. So far in this country we would not be assassinated for speaking up against our leaders but we are already seeing people cancelled and losing their jobs for speaking up for principles or facts they believe in.  Antisemitism is on the rise.and surely it is unacceptable to blame schoolchildren living here for the perceived sins of their leaders. Protest but do so in a fair and peaceful way as bullying crowds are making our politicians’ lives so unpleasant that people are starting to turn away from being MPs.  And we need our elected representatives in order to function as a democracy. 

Anyone who has lived under a regime where they are not allowed to vote, or where they know that their vote is pointless will tell you this: a vote is a precious right. Let’s be responsible enough to value it. Let’s stand up for what we have built, for free speech and for democracy and ensure we get off our sofas and vote when the time comes.

I just hope that by the time of the next election our political leaders have shown us clearly where they want to take our country and specifically how they plan to do so, so that we feel motivated to get down to the polling booth when that time comes.

RIP Alexei Navalny

A friend has just pointed out that I should mention that the way Russia relates to democracy is one of the themes of my novel No Lemons in Moscow …  just in case you’re interested!

 

 

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