I’ve been working with a 12-year-old student – we’ll call her Sian – on philosophy. We’d been following a storyline for several weeks. Her job was to consider the issues thrown up by the situations in the story and look at possible solutions from different perspectives.
Here’s the story so far: She had woken one morning as the only inhabitant of a remote desert island, with a crown, a pen and a blank scroll headed Rules of The Island. She had no recollection of how she got there but discovered ample food supplies, fresh water and materials to make a shelter.
Over the weeks, Sian had worked diligently to compose her set of rules to live by, to decide that – in the absence of all others – she was sovereign of all she surveyed and to develop a style of living which would ensure her own survival but protect the species and ecosystem of the island.
A couple of weeks ago, so the story continued, a group of migrants arrived on the island and asked to stay. Sian considered all the implications of this and agreed to accept them. She showed the new arrivals where to find food and water and suggested where they could construct shelters.
On June 23rd (Referendum Day in the UK, and yes, I did plan it that way!) she had a new philosophical dilemma to face. Now that she was no longer alone on the island, how were decisions to be made? Would she keep her crown and insist the newcomers obeyed her rules or should there be an alternative form of government? What were the options?
I presented her with a whistle-stop tour of all forms of leadership from dictatorship and monarchy, through various forms of oligarchy to democracy, carefully avoiding passing on any bias of my own. We also took a passing look at anarchy.
Sian sifted through the options with commendable thoroughness.
“Don’t want that one – it’s like Hitler!”
“No, you’ve got to have some rules or it would be horrible.”
“I like democracy best. That’s what we’ll have!”
“OK,” I said. “There are two forms of democracy. There’s representative democracy, where people vote for individuals to represent their interests and make decisions on their behalf, like we do at general elections, or there’s direct democracy where every single person has a vote on each decision, like in today’s referendum. Which do you prefer?”
Sian thought again. She considered politicians and what she’d heard about them – how they looked after themselves first and broke promises.
“I think direct democracy is the fairest,” she finally decided.
“Fine,” I said. “So each person on the island has an equal vote in all matters. You’re happy that would work?”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “Wait – NO! What if there was one of them who had really bad ideas?”
“Well, they’d only have one vote,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but they might be – you know – good at persuading other people to do what they wanted. It might be someone who said everyone had to prove themselves by swimming with the sharks or something. That would be an awful idea. It would be really dangerous. And some people would just go along with what they said.”
“Ah,” I smiled. (I so love lessons like this, and the way – left with time to consider – children will think things through.) “So what would you do if that happened?”
“Kill him,” she returned, calmly.
“Would that be democratic?” I wondered.
“Oh no, it wouldn’t, would it? So no, I wouldn’t kill him, but… Oh it’s difficult!”
Yes, Sian. It is.
The following morning I, and just about everyone else in Britain, was reeling from the shock of the vote to leave Europe. We knew it would be close, but we didn’t expect the Brexit lot to win. Not even they expected it.
At 8am, as I walked into the main station of a nearby city, a TV camera and microphone were thrust into my face. What did I think about the result?
I was taken off-guard. I had many thoughts, but all I could manage to splutter was, “Horrifying – just horrifying. But it was a democratic vote, so I suppose we’ll just have to deal with what happens now.”
Like my young student, I’d felt the full force of democracy’s dark side. People are easy to manipulate. Let them believe they’ll be better off and have more opportunities and they’ll vote to swim with the sharks every time.
A week in politics is a long time, though. The politicians are so busy stabbing each other in the back that it’s hard to imagine who will be left to lead. A House of Cards scenario playing out, complete with a Francis Urquhart character? You might very well think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.
I decided to put my fears and fury aside and to meditate.
I was shown – so clearly I could call it a vision – a huge pile of Lego bricks on the ground. They were in a dark place, jumbled and chaotic. As I watched, three narrow beams of light shone down on them, illuminating parts of the pile. I realised I was being shown the purpose of Lego. It’s for building. The more complete the destruction, the greater the opportunity to build something new – something better. Our British nations have been controlled by fear and blame for so long. Our political system stood on these twin pillars. Perhaps they needed to fall. Perhaps the ugly underbelly of xenophobia and self-interest needed to be revealed so that it could finally be dealt with. I choose to believe that something finer will, eventually, emerge. That’s where I’ll put my energy.