Tanya Jones sets out her vision of, and process for building, a sustainable, democratic society whose members treat one another with respect, justice, compassion and active non-violence, across the generations – but reminds us that “shortcuts signposted ‘Utopia’ lead, at best, to nowhere”
I was at the Glastonbury festival for the 2016 European Union referendum result. I woke early and lay in my sleeping bag, huddled in foreboding. It took half an hour before I could bring myself to switch on my phone and confirm what the lump in my gut had already told me. But if there was such a thing as a good place to get the news, that was it. The Left Field tent was crammed as Billy Bragg recalled his own political epiphany; the morning when, as a teenager, he had woken to the chilling double knowledge that Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and that he hadn’t voted. This result, he prophesied, would be the spark that lit a new generation of passionate political creators. It wasn’t a great consolation, but it was heartfelt and it was something. Visually, too, we were heartened. One painted sign in particular caught my notice. “Hold the vision; trust the process,” it read. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but it coalesced some of the swirling emotion inside me, firmed it into a determination to keep on my small path, to face the worst, clear-eyed but without succumbing to despair. The phrase came back to me during the long night of November 8th, as the Radio 4 voices grew more sombre as the cold dawn approached, and the fears of the world were realised in President Trump. And again this month, as the Christmas reprieve was packed away with the tinsel, and the Stormont Executive, after a few short months, and the irony of the Fresh Start, collapsed in bitterness and recrimination. The difference this time was that there was something I could do.
Standing for the Green Party in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Arlene Foster’s home constituency, is, I don’t mind confessing, something a little less than a cert. But it will be the third time that my posters have had an airing, and I’m growing used to the oddness of it all. Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a fascinating constituency; by a demographic quirk almost precisely divided between unionist and nationalist, the seat of Bobby Sands’ dying victory and the birth of Sinn Fein’s ballot box success. In 2010 Michelle Gildernew’s majority was four votes, with an inevitable court case following the multiple recounts. By 2015, when I stood as the first ever Green Party candidate for the seat, the unionists were determined to defeat her, with not only the DUP, but also the TUV, UKIP, the Conservatives and any other vaguely red white and blue grouping declining to stand in favour of the Ulster Unionists’ Tom Elliott. It worked – just, and I hope that they conclude it was worth it. The Assembly election of 2016 was only a little less exciting, with the count functioning as an imperial coronation for Mrs Foster and the playground for a squabble between Sinn Fein, who had accidentally selected too many candidates, and the SDLP, who managed to slip through and get a seat back. With all eyes upon Foster, and a reduction from six seats to five, this year’s contest will be no less fraught. The main difference is that nobody wants it.
I’m standing for the eight hundred odd (some, no doubt, very odd) people who voted for me in 2015, and the 897 who gave me their first preference vote in 2016, for all the others who were grateful for an alternative option, and for the Green Party itself, which for the first time last year stood a candidate in every seat. I’m standing in the hope that, even if I’m not here to see it, one day progressive politics will transform our sad and sectarian landscape. And I’m standing because that phrase still resonates with all that I am and I do. But what does it mean to stand in an election that the voters don’t want? And what does the slogan mean anyway?
I searched the Internet for it, in the confident expectation that the phrase was the pithy encapsulation of a political philosophy I hadn’t previously encountered. Whoever had said it, I thought, would have reams of further writing elucidating those two imperatives. To my dismay, the only results I found were blogs about vaguely New Agey, gap year style individual self-discovery, all well-meaning and harmonious enough, but about as useful to political analysis as a set of Himalayan goatbells. So, if I wanted to use it as a guide, I’d have to make up the meaning for myself.
The first part was easy enough. I’ve been involved, on and off, in Green politics for a long time, certainly long enough to establish what I understand by it. The vision, of facilitating a society whose members treat one another with respect, justice, compassion and active non-violence, where they can participate fully in decision making, where the natural world is respected and cared for and where resources can be accessed fairly both among the present generations and those of the future, is something that I have little difficulty in holding on to, however distant it sometimes seems. I may, I hope I do, change my mind on particular issues and policies, when pertinent facts are pointed out, but the fundamental principles are just that, embedded in my spiritual as well as social beliefs.
But “trusting the process”; how does that work? Electoral processes that have given us a looming Brexit that only 27 per cent of those eligible to vote asked for, the inauguration of a US President who lost the popular vote, and the bizarre failures of representation brought about by first-past-the vote races are scarcely confidence-builders. And that’s even before we look at the power-sharing system of Stormont which ironically rewards exactly the binary sectarianism which prevents it from working effectively. We have to operate within the electoral processes which we have, but need constantly also to be analysing how they might become fairer, more representational and accessible. To assume that they will necessarily, unreformed, produce a beneficial outcome is positively Pollyannaish in its complacency.
The mindful bloggers seem to use the phrase to mean “trusting God”, which begs far more questions than it answers, or “trusting the universe”, an entity which, though reassuringly vast, has no particular discernible interest in the progress of Northern Ireland’s politics. So what was I left with? Over a series of bus and train journeys and a sleepless night I realised that what I was really thinking about were our own processes, as progressive activists, candidates, parties and movements, the ways in which we act in pursuance of our goals.
Trusting the process, in this sense, means acting consistently with our vision, so that each action is not only a step towards, but also a minor enactment of it. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is an exhortation usually addressed to individuals, but it is equally true of groups.
The Christian tradition, to which I, with many caveats, broadly belong, has been obsessed for centuries with orthodoxy, or right belief. Its effects have been toxic, sometimes horrifically so. Now some of the most interesting contemporary Christian thinkers, such as Brian McClaren, have sought to undermine its poisonous legacy by talking instead about ‘orthopraxis’, or right action: the Gospel imperatives to feed the hungry, heal the sick and liberate the oppressed. It is not only a perspective which echoes Jesus’s impatience with Pharisaic quibbling, but one which makes practical sense.
By contrast, an end which justifies inconsistent means is itself distorted and ultimately destroyed by those means. The greatest horrors of history have not always been violence, exploitation and corruption in themselves but their use as intended shortcuts to objectives which were originally benign. But the shortcuts signposted ‘Utopia’ lead, at best, to nowhere.
The scandal, fiasco, call it what you will, which has led us to this election is itself a parochial example of the phenomenon. The big vision behind renewable heat incentive schemes, which are not, of course, particular to Northern Ireland, is to avert catastrophic climate change. The specific, closer objective is to help those who burn large quantities of hydrocarbons for heating to cease doing so, specifically by enabling them to switch to a more sustainable fuel source. If the big vision had consistently informed the process here, then the mess would never have arisen. If combating climate change had been the prize upon which the relevant eyes were fixed, it would have been clear that the flagrant waste of energy, even energy with the lower carbon footprint of wood pellet burners, was entirely incompatible with the purpose. However, to put it at its most charitable, the desire to make the scheme itself the focus, and to ensure maximum participation and reward, defeated the original object, or at least tarnished it to such an extent that it was no longer discernible.
What does all this mean for a candidate in an unwanted election? How should she proceed, other than, as the punchline says, with caution? I’m still, with my local colleagues, working that out. What I am sure of is that the key elements of the Green political vision: respect, non-violence, participation and justice have to be equally key to our practice. The reason that Green parties refuse donations from those whose tax affairs are not transparently unblemished isn’t puritanism but an understanding that you can’t work towards fair access to resources by using those unfairly obtained or retained along the way. Similarly, as Maurice Macartney has pointed out on this site, violence is no path by which to achieve non-violence, and humiliation no effective remedy to a lack of respect.
“At this rate,” a few, mostly older, people have said to me, “we won’t see you Greens getting very far in our lifetimes.” It’s meant as a counsel of despair. But I’m increasingly aware that each of our lifetimes is not very long. I’m, not content, but prepared to accept that change in Northern Ireland does take time. Much has already been achieved, but every stride forwards is followed by a little shuffle back. I’m unlikely to see all that I hope for, but that doesn’t invalidate either the hope or the journey towards realising it. When every staging-post is itself a shelter, it’s all right to be taking the long way home.
26 January 2017