Acceptable wisdom

Apologies for the slight delay in missives from Emu Towers, there has been a stellar amount of stuff going on. One day, I must write it up…

And one of those things has been happening many miles away from home, and has necessitated a solo drive across country lasting the sharp end of seven hours. I don’t like driving at the best of times, and I’m reasonably happy, in a very non alpha-male way, to admit that I’m not very good at it. I find it very easy to be distracted or go to sleep on any form of transport, and unfortunately that seems to extend to when I’m in charge of the vehicle. Frankly, the only reason I don’t go to sleep when I’m riding my bike is because I need to keep pedalling. God knows what I’d get up to if I ever got on one of those electric things.

Anyway, ahead of such an onerous journey, I dose myself up with half a gallon of coffee, pack some bananas, set the satnav, and wave goodbye to my loved ones, who are a bit too ready with the ‘please let us know when you get there’ messages. After all, they’ve all been traumatised by journeys when I’ve gallantly taken the wheel, for example, when we had to drive for about ten hours from Norwich to the Loire Valley, and I started the driving, only to pull into a layby outside Thetford, claiming ‘extreme fatigue’. If you’re unaware of that particular geography, Thetford is about 30 miles from Norwich.

Nonetheless, off I set, and had on the passenger seat the hidden weapon in my staying awake plan, ie a phone full of podcasts. I love a podcast, me. I love comedy stuff, business stuff, drama stuff, and really anything that I can get my hands on, so all the way from the A11 to the A38 I was entertained, and, more importantly, kept awake, by The Bugle, This American Life, Crime In Sports, Witness, Danny Baker, S-Town, Freakonomics and Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, all of which I heartily recommend.

And it was on Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a show dedicated to telling people stuff they don’t know (funnily enough) that I heard something that I didn’t know. And it started with the question ‘Why do American drivers drive on the right, and drivers in Britain drive on the left?’ Other than the smart-arse answer of ‘If they didn’t then they’d crash horribly’, the real answer was brilliant and, given I tend to believe most things I hear on that programme, reasonably believable.

When roads started to be organised in Britain, apparently, it was a time of pedestrians and horses, and, when you passed a fellow pedestrian or horse rider on the road, it was important to show that you presented no threat. Given that most people were/are right handed, if your right hand didn’t have a sword or a dagger in it, then it was a fairly safe bet that you’d pass by with a cheery hello. Or possibly ‘Hail, Good Fellow’ if you were in the home counties. Incidentally, this is probably the same reason that a handshake is with the right hand, in that it would be hard(ish) to shake hands and simultaneously stab your new acquaintance with your dodgy hand.

When roads were introduced in the States, a few decades later, times had moved on, and most of the travelling was done by carriage, and, apparently, what you really need to speed your carriage along is a whip, which, naturally would be held in the right hand. And in order to be nearer the centre of the road but still allow passage, and enthusiastic use of the whip, the driver would sit to the left of the horse.

So there you are. One great nation drives on the left to avoid the more obvious opportunities of being stabbed, and the other drives on the right in order to continue a tradition of animal cruelty. So much has changed in our cultures, no?

The point of telling this story was to demonstrate, that, as times change, so do the standards, or accepted wisdom that we all follow. And in my little car, pootling along London’s bustling North Orbital, at a healthy 15 mph, I wondered if we should apply that sort of thinking a bit more in other parts of our lives.

Take elections, for example. The keen eyed of you will have noticed that we seem to be living in a time of frequent elections and electioneering, with each event being described as critical to our future, and, when the result goes the wrong way, catastrophic for the world at large.

Notwithstanding results, I wonder whether we should be taking a bit of a gander at how this electioneering process takes place – we have a system in place in the UK that seems roughly in line with practices of the 19th century at best, and I can’t help feeling we could be, well, driving on the other side of the road if we moved on a bit. Here are three ideas that I reckon would be worth thinking about:

1, Licence MPs.

If you’re employing a doctor, a dentist, a teacher, a lawyer or any other profession, you’d check their professional credentials. When you got them to the point of employment, you’d offer them a job subject to some sort of due diligence – credit checks, acceptable references etc. In my old corporate world, you’d also run regular vetting during the course of their employment, and sling them out if they went awry. To the best of my knowledge, which I accept may be flawed, there are no such checks in place for MPs, and the selection approach is actually not a million miles away from that of the 1700’s. Really, pretty much anyone can stand as a member of parliament and, if they have some sort of backing of their party, stand as a candidate and become a key part of the decision making process running the country. I know that the line of sight from ‘I’d quite like to be an MP’ to ‘I am currently minister for defence’ isn’t quite as clear as that, but I’d really like to know that the person that I’m voting for is actually qualified in the same way as the pilot that takes me up in a plane, or the doctor who looks in my mouth or the mechanic who fixes the brakes on my car. My last but one MP, who I’m pretty sure had no relevant qualification or experience, campaigned on zero tuition fees, got into parliament, abstained on that particular crucial vote, and went on to be about as effective as an MP as a damp piece of lettuce. In fact, I think of him whenever I see a damp piece of lettuce, although sometimes I need to pour quite a bit more more water on to get a really good comparison.

2. Licence voters

After the Brexit vote, there was quite a lot of noise made about getting what you deserve by giving a vote to people who didn’t understand the issue they were voting on. So, just in the same way that we licence MP’s, we should licence voters. Now, I know that many people have given up a lot for each and every person to have a democratic vote, but I think that was assuming that people would use their vote responsibly. And they don’t. People use their votes to follow a load of nonsense that is now being charmed with the title ‘fake news’ and, importantly, don’t seem to be particularly well informed on different sides of the argument. How about a process where each voter had to acknowledge that they’d understood what they were actually voting for? The point is that while times have moved on apace in many other places, the political system has left the voter stranded with a load of nonsense and attention grabbing misinformation, so they end up voting on the wrong issue anyway. If you don’t believe me, ask a pro-Brexit voter whether their vote was influenced more by immigration than economic sustainability. Maybe there should be some sort of hustings in advance of any election vote, where you actually got to choose between different policies, presented in a clear and differentiated fashion. Maybe we should grab some ideas from those comparison websites that actually put different products next to each other and describe the difference, without needing any biased ad campaigns…

3. Impose a media moratorium

…which brings me on to the media. In the 70’s and 80’s, I remember debate about how influential and biased the media was, and why this was A Very Bad Thing. Since when, very little seems to have stopped the slide. Nowadays, people are far more likely to believe information about (say) conservative policy from reading ill informed tweets about Theresa May, Facebook opinion about immigration and Sky News about, well, just about anything, than they are from some sort of balanced assessment. Many other parts of our world have moved on from this – again, if you look at how we recruit into organisations, the push for anonymity in CV’s to suppress bias over applicants names is a good example. So why not do something similar ahead of an election. Just for 24 hours even, allow nothing to influence the voter except information on policy. Might be a bit boring, but done right could help us all appreciate the value of this fabulous thing that we call democracy.

I think it’s unlikely that these changes will ever take place – if they do, they’re unlikely to happen any time soon in the UK or the US. Which is a shame, as I really can’t help feeling that we’re all driving on the wrong side of the road.


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