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Speaking Truth to Power

I read this morning, in Guy Watson’s musings on the card that comes with my Riverford Vegetables box, of his grave disquiet about the plight of farmers not only in this country but elsewhere. They have become squeezed between the power of the big corporations which no one seems able to challenge successfully and the costs of fuel and other inputs which they need to grow food. The big corporations include both retailers who continually revise downwards the payments they negotiate with farmers for the food we eat and the fossil fuel giants whose diesel is a necessity for farming machinery. Both are making profits while the farmers are making a loss. As Guy points out, farmers have cut their costs to the bone, sent their partners out to work in other industries, and done without employees, working themselves into the ground as a result. Increasingly, the only way of making a living from farming is to become part of an agribusiness, dedicated to profit at the expense of everything that has made farming an enjoyable and fulfilling occupation. Hedges are ripped up to make arable fields bigger, animals are kept in cruel conditions without thought for their welfare as living beings, and all to keep food as cheap as possible, while the supermarkets take bigger and bigger cuts. Agribusinesses have more clout with their buyers, but their main reason for success is cut-throat competition, in which animals kept for meat and milk and the environment on which wildlife is dependent are the main losers. Farmers recently set up 49 scarecrows outside Parliament, to represent the 49% of farmers who believe they may go out of business over the next 12 months.

But will it do any good? In the wake of the whistleblowing watchdog who shone a bright light on the horrendous policy that is the UK’s current way of dealing with asylum seekers, and the lack of transparency in Westminster, by sharing his own experience of the powerlessness of watchdogs who are supposed to point out failures – for what is the point if their reports lie gathering dust on a government shelf? – I began to think about how important it is (to use Edward Said’s phrase) to speak truth to power. People in power are sometimes altruistic and idealistic, sometimes not, but they all find it hard to be transparent about decision making, and to apologise for failures. This is, in part, because they are vulnerable – especially in these censorious and judgemental days – to overwhelming criticism for the slightest mistake. In part, also, it is a kind of protective mechanism, used to guard against the fear of losing power. Almost no one who has power in government or industry has taken it up solely, or even mainly, in order to make a difference – I say ‘almost’, because there are a few who are exceptions and have clearly allowed themselves to be elected to high office because of a genuine public service ethos; the difficulty is that even those can so easily by corrupted by holding power (as Lord Acton famously pointed out).

In medieval times, kings sometimes kept a jester – a clownish character who was actually expected to poke fun at the king and keep him grounded. British Prime Ministers who have a close colleague who is not subservient or dependent on the one in power for his own position – think Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, for example – or US presidents with a First Lady who is a politician in her own right, as Bill Clinton had in his wife Hillary, have a ready-made source of challenge and advice from someone who is essentially on their side. This mitigates the tendency of powerful persons to become distanced from those around them, and over-focused on their own position and holding on to it (although both Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton ended by challenging their partner to the point of bringing them down). 

We ordinary folk cannot single-handedly remove those who abuse power from their posts, though in a democratic system we can certainly use our vote to hold them to account. But we can all speak out, whether in a blog as I am doing here, by writing to MPs or local councillors or the newspaper, or simply by engaging in conversation with others as we think through together how power should be used rather than abused. Change can come, and in the past has come, but only through the courage and persistence of those who in their various ways made the attempt to confront those in power with their own wrong actions in the hope of showing them the truth.



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