The national dynamic

An author of this site writes:

“I am a white, Caucasian, English man. But this unalterable fact of my birth and history is not about politics or pride. My view of nationality is like the ironic one taken by Tom Paine when writing more than two centuries ago. A pregnant Englishwoman could have sailed on the ferry to France or walked across Offa’s Dyke to Wales, delivered her baby and immediately returned home to raise the child in England. Would we have any problem identifying the child’s nationality when it grew up?  Would we listen to any objection to a claim of nationality simply because at birth the mother was passingly on foreign soil? Believe it or not, many people thought that it was the soil of the place of birth that gave real meaning to nationality and hence imposed a duty of patriotism.

man with pen and q mark

Does anyone really care?

Next, as for race, I recognise that no supernatural power selected me to be born into the relatively comfortable life of Western Europe to white parents. It was pure chance. I could just as well have been born in Asia, Africa or South America to Chinese, black or Hispanic ones. Or have been a child mortality. Or not have been born at all. So I don’t believe in anything fundamental to my life and maturation to an age which gives me the capacity to understand concepts like ‘nationality’ being down to where or into which race I was born.

I’ve lived in different parts of the country and arrived in late middle age without ever feeling very English. What really affects a person’s life are the cultural and social dynamics of the country or countries they’ve been raised in and live in. So those of England have dominated my life. Unfortunately, ‘Englishness’ has some quality or other that has always jarred with my outlook on the world. I seem not to have been able to find a very harmonious fit with the English perspective.

When you find yourself in a minority you look inward fearing the problem is something to do with you. My feeling of being semi-detached lacked any explanation until I read “I’m okay, you’re okay. Games People Play” by Eric Berne. I was well into my forties, encountering the subject of relationship dynamics for the first time. The book proved an extremely useful tool, helping me ‘deconstruct’ foggy confusion about not fitting in that had built up over long decades.

Berne breaks relationship dynamics down into three main actors or modes: Adult, Parent and Child. As you mature you need your parent less and less, your child slips into the past and the sort of dynamic you look for in your relationships is Adult:Adult. Parent:Child relationships are appropriate for parents and children but if adult relationships become contaminated, inappropriate Parent:Child dynamics can emerge between adults (as can Child:Child, Child:Adult and others).

Light started to dawn when I applied this Parent:Child model to the dynamics I was seeing in work, social, political and media contexts. Suddenly it started to make sense that the English find something very meaningful in Parent:Child dynamics. I now have the distinct feeling they even get a buzz out of being in or witnessing people or groups in Parent:Child mode.”

If there is some truth in what this author has written, we can turn it round and look from the other direction. In terms of sustaining the more mature Adult:Adult dynamic, we have a national weakness. Why should this be a matter that concerns 5.5.5 & Counting?

Unfortunately, it may be that our electoral system, first past the post (FPTP), contains very strong elements of Parent:Child dynamic. Anyone who analyses the statistics of our four elections between 2001 and 2015 can see within minutes that it’s unfair to voters. It can’t be right that a political party can get between 20 and 25% support of the electorate and then take power to govern the country outright. This could never happen in other Western European democracies because that party would only get its proportional share of power. It would then have to form agreements to work with other parties to get its policies passed. It would have to negotiate. In 2017, in the unusual circumstances of the snap ‘Brexit’ election, this has become the reality for the moment. The pattern was broken and the two parties got big increases in support. But ironically, neither got an overall majority and the largest party, Tory, is having to try and negotiate a working arrangement with a smaller party in true PR fashion.

There are two problems here though as far as the English dynamic we have been talking about is concerned. First, if the dominant dynamic is Parent:Child, FPTP fits very well with that. Parent:Child relationships aren’t meant to be fair. They’re based on the one telling the other what’s best for it and the other having to accept, fair or not. Second, if you haven’t earned an outright majority fairly and have to work with others to get your policies through, you need to be prepared for plenty of Adult:Adult dynamic. As has been argued above, there’s evidence that the English aren’t good at Adult:Adult.

To get round this, the biggest party could try adopting the powerful ‘Parent’ position and enforce the last word on everything. But either it won’t work because actually that power is not real or it could work sometimes but cause resentment among the partners. None of that is particularly good for trust, respect and relationship building.

Political parties in coalitions or working arrangements are never expected or required to negotiate away red-line policies. These are policies in their manifestos ranked high priority and they represent party principles and promises or can even be inseparable from the movement’s ‘raison d’etre’.

We saw how the Liberal-Democrats made a hash of this in the 2010-15 Coalition by breaking their promise on student tuition fees and throwing away their negotiating advantage on electoral reform with an ill-advised AV referendum. Their virtual wipe-out followed immediately in the 2015 election.

It is not difficult to predict the response of FPTP advocates. They will trot out all the familiar arguments about FPTP producing a decisive result, proportional representation being indecisive, leading to weak government, breaking the close link between the MP and the constituency and so on. Although it is easy to show with statistics or the design of proportional systems why such fears can be dealt with, the problem is that FPTP advocates hold all the aces. They are, by definition, going to be on the side of those who at any given time are in power virtue of being elected by the FPTP system. The familiar cliché is ‘Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas’.

Let’s put it a little differently: ‘We have the decision. You can’t do anything about it. You’ll have to accept you’re not getting electoral reform.’ In other words, classic Parent:Child! How can we – and anyone else who feels the time has come for reform – get over this enormous hurdle? A national Adult:Adult perspective on the issue still seems a long way off. If you wanted to wrestle with the challenge of an almost intractable problem, look no further. We need you to stop and contribute your ideas, ingenuity and determination to the blog. We don’t have all the answers. Please help.

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