The tenth Democracy Café was held on Saturday 9 June 2018 and two topics were discussed

The first topic to be suggested was the honours system.  This was prompted by the announcement the previous day of the Queen’s birthday honours and the controversy concerning Mark Carne, the outgoing boss of Network Rail, who was awarded a CBE.  It was controversial because of the chaos in the rail network causing great inconvenience to many travelers and commuters.  Of course the award was decided long before the current turmoil on the rail network was known about but still, the timing was unfortunate. Was the process still fit for purpose or was it an anachronism?  Was it too establishment led and subject to cronyism?

Few in the room knew how the process actually worked (which was telling in itself).  You can find a BBC article on the subject from this link which explains that it is run from the Cabinet Office.  It says, optimistically, that they must satisfy themselves that a political donation has not influenced the selection …  Recent years has seen an attempt to broaden the base with a much wider assortment of sports stars, entertainment figures, scientists and worthy members of the public receiving awards or ‘gongs’ as they are referred to.  Lollypop ladies have been recognised.

Some felt that the system was still elitist and even divisive.  It was part of a wider society problem where people who went to the right schools got preferment it was claimed.  The issue of transparency was discussed.  Who and how did people get nominated and how was the selection actually made?  How was the French system organised par example and did they have so many awards?  It turns out they do have a variety although not so many as the UK it would seem.  The problem with a more democratic system – like for example voting on the various Saturday night TV shows such as the X-factor – is that sentiment and immediate popularity is likely to play a big part rather than true merit.

One useful suggestion was made however and that was for a jury system which would change every year.  So instead of a behind closed doors selection process as is currently the case, a ‘jury’ of ordinary people would decide.  It was felt that this idea has a great deal of merit. 

The discussion moved on to the issue of rewards (as opposed to awards) and why people volunteered in the first place.  Few did it for the chance of an award in the honours list.  There was also the problem of one person receiving an award when there were many others who did selfless work who were not recognised – there were no doubt thousands of lollypop ladies (and men) but only one or two got an award.  Was this just a sop?  What was the effect on others in the team who were not recognised?  Religion was briefly mentioned with its idea of a reward being recognised in the hereafter.

Overall, it was felt there was a place for some kind of honours system but there were doubts about how it was currently organised.  Far too many people such as businessmen and women of doubtful merit received them and worries about the ‘purchase’ of honours (shades of Lloyd George), together with automatic awards to senior civil servants, brought the system into disrepute.  We also debated what happened when someone who had been honoured was found subsequently to have done something reprehensible: should the award be rescinded?  The boss of RBS for example.  Would any of those present accept an award if it was offered?  If it was on behalf of a charity or other not for profit and brought good publicity to it, they might.

Short termism

After the break, we moved on to discuss short-termism and instant versus long term gratification.  This was prompted by the Stanford University experiment where children were offered one marshmallow now or they could have two after a 15 minute delay.

The evidence that the waiters did better than those who opted for immediate gratification has been questioned however.  The point was made that society is geared to go faster and faster – emails for example rather than waiting for the post.  Would we be happier living at a slower pace?  The problem is also that we have become used to instant gratification.  Amazon and other on-line suppliers deliver in a matter of hours nowadays but we all remember not so long ago ‘please allow 28 days for delivery’.  Would we be content to go back to that?

Thinking Fast and Slow¹ was mentioned which discussed how we think about problems either emotionally or logically.  We can decide in an instant about something or someone based purely on an emotional response whereas it takes much longer to think about something rationally.

Market forces it was argued will lead firms to look for alternative technologies which are likely to lead to things being done faster.  This has been believed for 30 or so years now and is a key part of the neocon ideology.  It is being challenged however most recently by Mariana Mazzucato in the Entrepreneurial State² who shows that it has been the public sector which has led the way with new technology not the private.  She discusses the mobile phone for example where all the key technologies were researched in publicly funded laboratories not by the likes of Apple or Nokia.

To what extent are we the drivers of these events in any event?  It has often been crises and catastrophes which have led to progress, for example in medicine and social welfare.

We finished by discussing how we could improve engagement by the public at large in these matters.  The problem in part is that many people lived a precarious existence with multiple and poorly paid jobs.  Survival until next week was more of a concern that some hifalutin discussion about short or long-termism.

  1. Daniel Kahneman, 2011. Penguin Books
  2. Mariana Mazzucato, 2018, Penguin Books

Peter Curbishley