The EU is undemocratic

The EU is undemocratic, I hear people say.

No, it isn’t, I reply. No more than the UK, anyway.

Let me explain why I believe this.

There are elections for the European Parliament every five years. Just like the UK parliament. You get to vote for the MEP of your choice. It’s a proportional representation vote, not first past the post.

It’s actually a more democratic process than the elections we have for the UK parliament.

What about those faceless bureaucrats and unelected commissioners though, eh..?

We’re really just talking about civil servants. You do know that, don’t you. And you don’t get to vote for the civil servants in Whitehall, do you? You probably don’t complain too much about that either.

Did you know there are about 33,000 civil servants working for the EU (population 500 million), while there are about 400,000 civil servants in the UK (population 65 million).

That doesn’t sound like a top-heavy bureaucracy to me.

© European Union (2015)
© European Union (2015)

As for the EU Commissioners (who are often cited as the unelected mandarins of Brussels), there are 28 of them — one for each member state. They’re appointed by the elected government of the country they come from.

That’s the way democracy works — you vote, you get a government, they make decisions about how things are run. Some you like, some you don’t. Nothing’s perfect. No one’s perfect. Not you, not me. Nothing. No one.

Everything the EU Commission puts forward (policies, proposals, decisions etc) has to be sanctioned by the EU Parliament, which is made up of the MEPs that everyone gets to vote for every five years.

That’s democracy.

The UK is also a member of the UN, which is not an elected body but which makes decisions about invading countries, going to war, ignoring genocide, you name it. See also NATO, which the UK is a member of. We’re also in the Commonwealth — not an elected body. Part of the World Trade Organisation — not an elected body. You can add the International Monetary Fund and the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe to the list too.

If you are adamant that the EU is a bad thing because it is undemocratic I hope you are as vocal about the House of Lords, the Royal Family, and the raft of government-appointed so-called Tsars and special advisers.

I would like to see reform of the House of Lords. I’m not anti-royal, but beyond the head of state I would like to see the rest of the royal family – the extended bit full of dukes and whatnot – disbanded. I’d like to see elements of the EU (parliament and commission) reformed, or at least investigated with a view to making changes.

But I’m not convinced things are so bad that we have to take our ball and go home.



Democracy, disintermediation & dining out at the all-day information buffet

Remember when you watched the TV news in the evening to hear about important stuff for the first time?

Remember when you read a newspaper in the morning so that you would feel informed of the weighty matters of the day?

I’ll bet neither of those things has happened to you for a while.

In pretty much every aspect of modern life, not just when it comes to the news, relationships between the public and the various providers of services and information have changed irrevocably.

You can call it disintermediation.

You can call it the democratisation of the means of publishing.

You can talk about citizen journalists if you really feel you need to.

But those of us who have regular contact with the internet no longer get our news in the old-school manner. Instead we use our RSS subscriptions, lists on twitter, messages via Facebook and other social media platforms and news websites to get our daily feed of news.

And we graze. A lot.

We take a mouthful of twitter-gossip, a bite of bloggetry, and chew on the wares of our favourite news sites. From this we get our fill of news.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a very important role for broadcast news and newspapers. But they’re rarely the first place you get to hear about something.

A growing number of people create content as well as consume it – blogs and tweets are some of the most obvious mechanisms for so doing, but there are others.

Ordinary people, for want of a less pejorative way of putting it, are now right in the centre of the flow of news and information, and are no longer reliant upon the traditional methods of staying informed. This is a trend (dare I even say phenomenon) that can be witnessed elsewhere.

How often does seeing one advertisement inspire you to go out and buy the product concerned?

Not often I imagine.

Would you buy something because a brand you like (or even “like”) is on Facebook? Again, probably not just off the back of that one thing, I expect.

Tweets, likes, reviews on blogs as well as in magazines (and their online variants), personal recommendations and so on, all go toward helping us make what we feel are informed choices about the goods and services we buy, and the ones we avoid. A lot of that information doesn’t come from what might be considered traditional sources, but is user-generated in the main.

Mobile phone companies are experiencing something similar. Do you feel much allegiance to your network provider? Despite statistics I’ve seen from research done by one of my clients (which indicates that two-thirds of us have been on the same network for at least three years) the likes of O2 and Vodafone can only dream of enjoying the kind of brand-kudos many of the handset makers revel in – Apple, BlackBerry, SonyEricsson for example.

It doesn’t stop there. The growing use of data-based services on smartphones, some of which will let you make VoIP calls (via 3G or wi-fi) effectively bypassing the carrier’s voice network completely, is another headache. People don’t get excited about the network they’re on – unless it stops working. The network has been usurped in people’s hearts by the app makers and handset manufacturers.

The common thread in all of this is that the old order is no more.

If your job involves managing customer relationships, or sales, or marketing, you ignore this at your peril.

If customers don’t see any perceived value in dealing with you they will simply ignore you and direct their attention to those people and organisations they feel an affinity for.

The challenge then is how to be valued in what is an undeniably information-rich world where there is no shortage of voices clamouring to be listened to.

You need to be present wherever your customers may be – and in every format they will be coming into contact with. You need to present a human face and treat people with the same respect that you would like to be treated with yourself.

Ultimately you want to be trusted and believable.

And it’s not rocket science, which makes it all the more noticeable when brands get it wrong.

The revolution will not be televised

The revolution will not be televised. That’s what Gil Scott-Heron told us in 1970. And if that’s news to you, if that’s a piece of music you are not familiar with, then take a few minutes to click on this link and listen.

Then come back.

No, the revolution will not – in all likelihood – be televised.

Not that I am someone who blindly supports insurrection or feels that “the people” (whoever they may be) are somehow owed something by someone. I don’t condone violence, nor do I believe that simply rejecting the status quo will deliver a better future.

But I can’t be the only person in the UK who feels that something somewhere has gone wrong with the country I live in and call home.

This startling/not-so-startling insight came to me recently (last week to be more precise) in the most unlikely of settings…. while watching MasterChef – the UK flavour.

In the episode I watched four contestants were making tea for Henrietta the Dowager Duchess of Bedford, her son and his wife – the current Duke and Duchess.

According to the Sunday Times, the Duke was worth almost £500 million in 2005, making him the 102nd richest man in the country.

So, there I sat watching a show on a TV channel which is – by and large – funded by the TV-watching licence-paying public along with government subsidies, where one of the most privileged families in the country in their fabulous, inherited, stately home sampled a succession of High Tea offerings.

The same episode of MasterChef featured ex-service men and women from the Royal Air Force who served in World War Two. And as I wrote this, on ANZAC Day – when the sacrifices of the failed Gallipoli campaign of April/May 1915 are remembered – my thoughts turned to those generations that gave so much. In too many cases, they gave everything they possibly could; around 22,000 British servicemen died during that campaign.

Lloyd George promised the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the First World War a country fit for heroes. The post World War Two government set about building a network of social structures designed to bring about a greater degree of equality.

Those hopes, those dreams, the sacrifices of the fallen feel to me to be horribly at odds with the increasing inequalities of UK society that I see in 2011. According to a presentation given just a few weeks ago at the University of Cambridge, the rate of social mobility in Britain is slower now than it was in the Middle Ages.

If this is true, and far be it from me to pick a fight with the University of Cambridge, where is the incentive to work hard, do well and try to progress in a country where you are less likely to improve your lot than your ancestors 600 years ago?

Whether it’s law, medicine or politics, the most influential and prestigious professions in the UK remain dominated by the tiny proportion of the population that received an expensive private education.  Access to the top professions is probably as good an indicator of social mobility as anything else. 

I don’t want to live in a country where ne’er-do-wells get by comfortably thanks to state handouts. But nor do I want to live in a country where the descendents of a feudal elite continue to enjoy a super-rich lifestyle not because of their efforts, endeavours or enterprise, but because of a quirk of fate.  Where the sons & daughters of top professionals automatically follow in their parents’ footsteps, first to fee-paying prep school, then to top-flight public school (if you’re reading this from outside the UK ‘public’ in this context actually means private and fee-paying), then to a good university and so the cycle repeats.

The current generation of young Britons, graduates entering the workplace, could be – according to some estimates – the first that will not, en masse, enjoy a higher standard of living than the generation before it.

These are the same graduates that are leaving university with debts of as much as £30,000, at a time when unemployment is as high as it’s been for 15 years and when stringent government cutbacks have seen some towns and cities slash their spending on public services by 50 per cent or more. Public libraries are closing, museum opening hours are being restricted, and the provision of social care to “at risk” families and children is more precarious now than it has been since 1945.

Meanwhile, the cost of policing and security for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on 29 April is estimated to be in the region of £20 million.

No, the revolution will not be televised.

But that’s ok, the Royal Wedding will be.

Egypt, Twitter and social media tools

I have been an active user of twitter for about two years. I’m no veteran or social media maven, but I’m no newbie either.

Twitter’s helped me find work and business opportunities. I’ve used it to find people to hire, I’ve even forged friendships with people I would never have met had it not been for twitter.

Depending on how you use it, it’s an interesting and useful tool, or a way of revealing your ignorance. But a hammer can be used to help you hang a picture of your grandmother on the wall, or as an offensive weapon. It’s a tool.

Not for the first time in the last two years, I’ve recently found myself watching with a sense of mild bemusement as news of events thousands of miles away is broadcast via twitter along with a heady mix of opinion and speculation.

I am, of course, referring to Egypt. Political and societal turmoil – protests, demonstrations, and a death toll which rises daily.

As a former journalist, when something big like this happens I want to know about it: I want context and background, I want to question the sources of the information, I want to know how reliable they are.

The polarisation of the twitterati in such events as those unfolding in Egypt, is also interesting.

It doesn’t take long for people to decide there are Good Guys and Bad Guys and that somehow everyone involved, no matter how loosely, is affiliated with one side or another.

The other thing that really strikes me is the desire of many on twitter to broadcast every new, or not so new, detail in a manner that attributes equal weighting to everything, while simultaneously rushing to be the first to move the story on, so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of it has been well worth reading – such as the piece I read regarding the manner in which the lights went off across Egypt’s ISPs. But the majority of what’s appeared in my stream has tended toward being tub-thumping sloganeering.

I can only offer conjecture of my own when I wonder how many (by which I really mean “how few”) of the people I follow on twitter who are avidly tweeting and RT-ing Egypt-related information really have an understanding of what is going on there.

Yes, we all know the Mubarak government has been criticised for being oppressive and not committed to a meaningful democracy.

But what do we know of the forces within Egypt that have realised current events offer them a golden opportunity to exert influence, possibly even seize power and have the country march to the beat of their drum?

The answer is as obvious as it is depressing – very little.

The history books are full of accounts of popular uprisings and revolutions that before long were exploited by those with their own, sometimes deeply oppressive, agenda.

But reading history text books affords few opportunities to show off about how ‘aware’ one is.