Falling trees in the forest of Westminster

When teaching philosophy of religion with Sixth Form students at a Northampton secondary school, there was the occasional reference to the following philosophical allegory, “When a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” In shortened form, this is an idiom meaning that opinions, thoughts, actions, etc., are ineffective and inconsequential if no one ever knows or hears about them.

Of course, the answer to the allegory usually depends on who you ask. The students to whom I directed the question gave a variety of answers, most of which had some philosophical or scientific merit.

The more scientifically inclined student would suggest that when a tree falls it causes a disturbance in the air pressure field in the forest, and that pressure field emanates away from the fallen tree, thereby affecting other forest habitats. The action of the falling tree creates a disturbance in the fluidic medium, air. That creates a sound, albeit one that may only be heard within the community of the forest. Such a phenomenon is part of the nature of forest life, even if not personally affecting the lives of those discussing the phenomenon.

The more philosophically inclined student would argue that, even as a tree falling in a distant place may not be heard by us, it still makes a sound and impacts its habitat. Similarly, if something happens in the communities we inhabit, we may not directly know or hear about it, but it may, nevertheless, impinge on our lives – to a greater or lesser degree. Such students would further suggest that there is little in human life that is inconsequential or ineffective. The interactive nature of human life is a given.

My thoughts returned to these classroom discussion as I listened recently to the news and media reports about the sleaze and corruption prevalent in contemporary political circles, especially in the present Conservative government. Reference was made to the similar situation that existed during the 1990’s, again focusing on a Conservative government. One journalist linked the two situations as a “filthy miasma steaming off the Thames at Westminster.”

The immediate cause of the current scandal was the revelation that Tory MP Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister, had lobbied government on behalf of two companies that were paying him tens of thousands of pounds very year. In doing so, and evidenced by written sources, it was found that Paterson was guilty of an “egregious breach of the rules” (the words of the Parliamentary commission for standards). What followed has now become history.

I am not a member of the Labour Party. However, my wife is. In due course, my wife received an email from the Team Labour movement which stated that our local MP, a Conservative, was another “who has taken money from outside interests.” This information came with the comment that Conservative MP’s (who together, it is estimated, have received £1.7 million in consultancy fees this year alone) “…think it’s one rule for them and one rule for everyone else.” This attitude, and the practices that emanate from it, seems to have become more prevalent since the Brexit vote. The Team Labour movement was seeking to organise a campaign aimed at the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to “show some leadership and ban MP’s from having consultancy roles.”

Under the circumstances, it seemed appropriate to email my MP about the matter of MP’s receiving sums of money to lobby parliament on behalf of private companies and individuals, or to accept paid consultancies. I duly did so, but without specific reference to the fact that my MP was actively involved in such transactions. What follows is a direct transcription of that email, with a challenge specifically aimed at my MP:

“I write with the wish that you are well.

“This email concerns a matter that effects every person in this country – the matter of earned income, taxation, ethics, and legalities. You will no doubt be aware of the news surrounding Eric Paterson and Geoffrey Cox, and the accusations that have been levelled at both MPs. There seems to be little doubt that both MPs have contravened parliamentary procedures in the event of receiving, what some would consider to be, extortionate fees, in return for their advice to business and legal organisations.

“They have done so whilst still engaged in, and receiving a most adequate salary for, the task of representing their political constituencies in the UK. Both have defended themselves by resorting to the argument that what they have done is not illegal. Whilst in the light of parliamentary investigations, that is now something to be argued over, there is also the question of the ethics involved in their actions. I am strongly of the view that the work of an MP is very much a full-time occupation, representing so many people in a single UK constituency.

“There is also attendance at and participation in debates in the chamber and the work of parliamentary committees, including the preparation that should be given to these, for example, reading of documents, preparing speeches, working with parliamentary aides, and ensuring that decisions of parliament are carried out. Whilst occasionally watching the events in parliament, I am often bemused to see how bare the benches are – on both sides of the House – a bit like a teacher being absent from the classroom when a lesson is to be delivered.

“You will realise, therefore, that I find it hard to accept that MPs have too much leisure time or time to work at other occupations, especially where substantial sums of remunerations are offered.

Indeed, whilst under certain circumstances (but not all), this may be legal, I would wish to question the ethics of the matter. This is particularly so in the cases the offending MP is residing overseas in an offshore cash/tax haven (with a British name to further shame the situation).

“Before retiring as a teacher in a Northampton secondary school, I found that it was necessary to devote all of my professional life to the job for which I was appointed – teaching a full Forms 1-6 curricula, setting and marking homework, setting and marking tests and examinations, researching classroom materials and equipment, taking part in subject, faculty, and whole school meetings, visitation, parent evenings, engaged in ongoing professional training, interviewing/helping students with school work and, not to be neglected, pastoral care.

“This gave me little time for other forms of employment, moonlighting, etc., even from earning additional money from subject coaching/private lessons. As a teacher (incidentally, with graduate, post-graduate, and professional degrees), I was not in a minority – the job demanded this amount of dedication, skill, and attention to the details of the occupation. Are you going to argue that the work of an MP is any less demanding than that of a teacher? If so, then I would suggest that MPs are paid the salary of a teacher, and a teacher is paid the current equivalent of an MP’s salary – I am under no delusions as to which salary level I would prefer!

“I would add that, if the above is the case, then MPs should cease regarding themselves with the self-importance that is all too currently evident – especially on government benches, not to mention a decision to refuse a salary increase when next it is due. I would imagine that all MPs, in receipt of sums of money from outside their specific work as an MP, would, nevertheless, not refuse a salary increase when one is offered; whilst, at the same time, voting against an increase for public service (e.g., nurses, and social workers on low salaries/wages)!

“I would like to believe that, as my MP, you would agree with most, if not all, of what I have stated in the correspondence. Notwithstanding, I would appreciate your comments on the matters discussed.

Yours Sincerely”

To date, I have not received a reply from my MP. Therefore, I am not at all sure what disturbances of the air will have occurred in my MP’s parliamentary office when he received the above email from me. The only fallen parliamentary figure, the single tree in the forest of Westminster, that I have heard of so far is named Owen Paterson. No doubt, the sight and sound of others will soon be heard. This is not the topic of scientific speculation or philosophical thought, it is a matter of ethical, effective, and purposeful government.

The sounds of silence have been heard. The broken, soiled, decaying parliamentary habitat has been broken into. The stench has been smelled; the destructive action has been seen; the agonising sounds of former silence have been heard.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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