20 February 2014
In my last post, on History & Policy, I suggested there were two reasons why studying history can help us resolve some of the problems we face in the present. It provides background and context, to help us understand why people acted the way they did in the past, and it can help us think of options we may not have considered before, remove the blinkers of the present and open our eyes to other possibilities.
There is a third reason: history can remind us of fundamental principles which may have been forgotten. It can explain why institutions, laws, values and principles were first established, and help us judge if they need to be preserved, or if they no longer fulfil their original purpose and should be abolished or simply forgotten.
In my business career I came across the popular concept of the four stages of competence. Very briefly the idea is that, as individuals, we learn a new skill in four stages:
- unconscious incompetence: we don’t know we are doing something wrong
- conscious incompetence: we realise we are doing something wrong and could do it better
- conscious competence: we learn to do it right
- unconscious competence: we become so good at it, that we do it right automatically, without thinking
If you search for the 'four stages of competence’ on the web, most sites claim that people perform best during the fourth stage, unconscious competence, when they do something automatically, without thinking; like driving a car, or riding a bicycle.
But there is another side to unconscious competence. It can lead, all too easily, right round the circle and back again to the beginning, to unconscious incompetence. We can become so good at doing something without thinking about it, that we fail to realise that the world around us has changed, or that we have changed and are no longer as good as we thought we were.
It seems to me that a tendency to forget fundamental political, social or moral principles – why certain institutions were first created; the United Nations or the European Court of Human Rights for example, or why we elect MPs, or why we have elected local authorities – is very similar. We continue to do something because ‘it has always been done that way’, like going to the polling station to vote in elections perhaps? This may not matter, but sometimes we may be surprised when things start to go wrong, and we don’t know why – the law of ‘unintended consequences’.
For my PhD, I studied the years immediately after the Second World War, researching twelve important and influential British people living and working in occupied Germany between 1945 and 1948: what they aimed to achieve, and why, and how this changed over time. Many fundamental aspects of the world we live in now were created at this time, in response to our parents’ or grandparents’ experience of the death and destruction of war. My parents, and many others of their generation, believed that they had to do everything they could to prevent another war and another Hitler coming to power; that everyone, regardless of which country they lived in, should be able to lead a decent life free from fear of hunger, poverty, disease, or expulsion from their homes; that governments should be freely elected and should act in the interests of all those they represent; that minorities should have certain basic rights enforced by law, such as the freedom to speak their language and practice their religious beliefs.
These principles were embodied in many of the institutions created during or soon after the war in Western Europe and internationally, such as, among many others, the United Nations, the European Union, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the European Convention on Human Rights and, in Britain, Oxfam and the National Health Service.
Fundamental issues such as these were especially important for the British people I researched for my PhD, working in occupied Germany. Their task, as they saw it, was to try to prevent another war, by disarming the German armed forces and dismantling weapons factories, but also by helping to create a set of political structures, after twelve years of fascist dictatorship, which would prevent another Hitler coming to power. They realised they could not do this on their own; it had to be done in co-operation with Germans, their former enemies. The structure of the Nazi state had to be destroyed, but what should take its place? Should the structure and institutions of the Weimar Republic be restored? Or was this too risky? In many ways the constitution of Weimar Republic, established in 1918 after the First World War, was a model of good democratic practice, but it had not prevented Hitler seizing power in 1933.
After a not very successful early attempt to introduce British democratic practices in Germany, such as the first past the post electoral system, the people I studied realised that democracy can only be introduced in another country through a process of dialogue, not by force or by totalitarian means. As I wrote in my policy paper published on the History and Policy web site, Germany: a case study in post-conflict reconstruction, they agreed with leading post-war German politicians on many basic principles, even if they disagreed on the details of how the principles should be implemented in practice. For example, they agreed on the decentralisation of power, the need to protect basic rights and safeguard the individual against excessive demands from an authoritarian government. They agreed that the electoral system should promote stable government with an effective but loyal opposition, that it should discourage extreme or ‘fractional parties’, and that electors should vote for a person to represent them, as well as voting for the political party that best matched their views and interests.
In Britain today, many of these principles appear to be forgotten. Central government has taken more power from local government. The government and right-wing press are arguing that decisions of the European Court of Human Rights should not apply in Britain. Extreme political parties, such the BNP and UKIP have not (yet) succeeded in gaining significant representation in Parliament, but there is no guarantee that the British electoral system will discourage this in future. As the number of people who vote in elections declines, (the turn out in the recent Wythenshawe by-election was as low as 28%), it is easier for a small number of activists to secure a majority in some constituencies. New technologies could enable electors to vote in direct referenda on a number of issues, which may have the advantage of increasing participation, but runs counter to the principle of representative democracy, in which voters elect an individual, who can, or should, study and consider the issues and act accordingly. In a referendum, decisions on complex issues are made by a simple majority of electors, voting to express an opinion which may be carefully considered, but may also be based on hearsay, prejudice, or influenced by emotionally charged campaigns in the press.
History does not provide all the answers, but it can help us ask the right questions.