26. 02. 2016

Values, Global Citizenship and the EU Referendum: a Mind-Boggling Mindset Mash-up!

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I don’t feel good about this, but I can’t help despising most of the people involved in the Brexit campaign: Nigel Farage, Iain Duncan Smith, Norman Tebbit, Owen Paterson, George Galloway, Michael Gove, John Whittingdale, Chris Grayling, Liam Fox, Peter Lilley, John Redwood, Boris Johnson – actually, I don’t despise Boris Johnson, but I do deeply distrust him.

They’re all ‘pale, male and stale’; all pulpit-bullies; in my opinion, all intolerant and ungenerous in their opinions about people; almost all climate sceptics, or outright denialists. And all, I would guess, as loud and proud Little Englanders, pretty contemptuous of the whole idea of global citizenship.

On Monday night, I felt very privileged to give the annual UCL Lecture on Global Citizenship. As a Visiting Professor at UCL (within the Institute of Global Prosperity), I’ve discovered that UCL does a lot on global citizenship, and over the last four years has built up an amazing two-week summer programme for its students, immersing them in a host of courses, topics, themes and projects – all (explicitly or implicitly) celebrating the notion that we are all citizens of one world. There will be more than a thousand UCL students signed up for it this summer.

The title for my Lecture was ‘Climate Change and Global Citizenship: the Post-Paris Agreement’. And my starting-point was a certain amount of scepticism about the very notion of global citizenship: 

‘Global citizenship is a much-loved rhetorical device for those who inhabit the world of international politics, with a long and honourable backstory. But it rarely translates into any substantive impact on global policy-making or legal processes, and has literally zero resonance with the vast majority of global citizens.’

I duly apologised for these rather less than generous comments, and went on to suggest that the Paris Agreement may well mark the point where the concept of global citizenship begins, at last, to impact properly on our decision-makers.

It’s been fascinating to see how the implications of the Paris Agreement are now beginning to sink in. One way or another, we’re in for an extremely disrupted couple of decades: either we really do get stuck into the kind of accelerated decarbonisation story mapped out in Paris, with huge implications not just for energy markets (needing, for instance, to scale up from today’s $330bn of investment in renewables and clean energy per annum, to around $1tn!), but for transport, infrastructure, manufacturing and land use. Or we don’t – in which case the lives of more and more people will be profoundly disrupted by increasingly severe climate shocks of one kind or another.

The demands on individuals, in either scenario, will be unremitting – in terms of the degree to which their values will be tested, and their capacity for tolerance and empathy stretched to the very limit. The readiness of citizens to live by the Golden Rule (‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’), all around the world, will be called into question on a daily basis – and should things begin to melt down much more seriously, with the rule of law at risk, and the norms of day-to-day decency and civility set aside, one can only assume that the Golden Rule will become the rarest of rare exceptions.

And that’s where the whole question of values kicks in. The values people have (and the behaviours that these values give rise to) will clearly play an absolutely critical role in the way communities and whole nation states navigate their way through this ‘age of disruption’.

Happily, I felt emboldened in using my UCL Lecture to dive deep into the values story through having just read a rather extraordinary new report from the Common Cause Foundation: ‘Perceptions Matter: the Common Cause UK Values Survey’.

This provides a penetrating snapshot of people’s values here in the UK, based on a detailed survey of 1,000 people, conducted by IPSOS Mori. It asked people what they valued in life – providing a range of compassionate values (broadmindedness, a world at peace, equality, protecting the environment, helpfulness, responsibility etc) and selfish values (wealth, social status, prestige, authority, conformity, preserving public image, influence, ambition etc). Just to reassure you, they took great care to correct for any bias with people understandably tempted to overstate the importance they attach to compassionate values and understate the importance they place on selfish values!

The results are encouraging: 74% report caring more about compassionate values than selfish values. This isn’t to suggest that selfish values, such as wealth and social status, are unimportant to most people; at some level, they’re important to everyone. But these results corroborate earlier surveys of UK citizens in showing that most people place greater importance on compassionate values than they do on selfish values.

But I was actually much more interested in a second batch of questions focussing on respondents’ perceptions of other people’s values. 77% underestimated the importance that a typical British person attaches to compassionate values, and overestimated the importance they attach to selfish values. Many people responded along the following lines: ‘We have a culture of self, and not a culture of responsibility. It’s all about me, my needs, not society’s needs.’

So what? Well, the significance of this chronic misperception on the part of our fellow citizens is then elaborated in terms of the readiness of people to get involved in various forms of civic engagement – volunteering, for instance, supporting community initiatives, or even voting:

‘Our results also show that a person’s perception of a typical fellow citizen’s values are important in predicting civic engagement. We found that the more strongly a person perceives a typical fellow citizen to hold compassionate values to be important, the more positive that person’s attitude towards various forms of civic engagement, and the more likely that person is to vote.’

Just to spell it out: as a nation, we actually perform rather well on what some have called ‘the compassionate predisposition’. But for all sorts of reasons, we don’t really believe that to be the case as far as other people are concerned, which ends up with far fewer people actually getting stuck into making the world/their community a better place. And far fewer people actually voting.

I’m bound to say that I attribute a lot of responsibility for this rather gloomy analysis to our mainstream media – particularly our predominantly right-wing press. And here’s the thing: just as I can’t help despising all those right-wing, narrow-minded elitists driving the case for Brexit, I feel equal contempt for those negative, narrow-minded right-wing papers urging voters to seize this moment to get us out of Europe: the Mail, the Express, the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph – with only the Guardian, the Mirror and the FT offering any kind of balance.

It’s all horribly interconnected, with significant implications for the body politic here in the UK. And there was one little kick in the data that I’ve teased out of the demographic details: ‘Older people hold compassionate values to be significantly more important – and selfish values to be significantly less important – than younger people.’

Ye Gods! If I draw any consolation for the mess we seem to find ourselves in here in the UK, it’s the idea (misplaced perception, perhaps?) that young people can help turn things around faster and more effectively than anything else in the mix.

So I’m drawn back to the thought of those 1,000 UCL students, who this summer will be finding out more about the world, playing out their prospective future role as global citizens, and, hopefully, testing out their own ‘compassionate predisposition’.

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