Please scroll down for the title you would like to read. Here you will find Thoughts on ... 


A radical manifesto for the election and beyond


Walk Mendip, Walk Somewhere


A quick guide to democracy


Replacing GCSEs 


The Rock of Ages and the bedrock of love 




Thoughts on …                                                                       


A radical manifesto for the election and beyond                   21/11/19


It’s manifesto time again. At the last election I wrote a piece about manifestos and looking at it again I am broadly happy with its content. (see Alternative manifestos) I have therefore made just a few changes to it and invite everyone to consider the ideas it offers.  


In terms of the conventional political spectrum it is fair to say that these ideas are part of the radical, self-reliant left, but not the “big state” left, except that I believe we need the state to restructure our economy which is too heavily influenced by free market ideology. It is time, in my view, for such a restructuring to happen in order to redistribute wealth more equitably in society, and also to recognise the true worth of all labour especially that which is often termed unskilled.


However, although the manifesto leans towards the left of the political spectrum it also offers proposals which embody the notions of self-reliance, personal responsibility and enterprise – qualities that might be considered right of centre.    It doesn’t seem to fit in with conventional ideologies and orthodoxies, or the received wisdom about capitalism and socialism, but I like to think the ideas it contains would move us towards a better society.


All of us, especially those who are putting themselves forward to become Members of Parliament, need to question whether our philosophies, ideologies and political allegiances will deliver what must be our foremost aspiration: to ensure the best possible mental and physical well-being for everyone irrespective of our varied human attributes such as age, gender, ethnicity,  beliefs, or any form of disadvantage.


This surely is the only ideology that matters in our society or any society. It is a simple philosophy that should be in the forefront of our thoughts at all times and, of course, whenever political issues are discussed.


I want to be fair to our politicians who work hard to serve us but they seem to inhabit a world where questionable tribal ideologies, and misplaced loyalty to them, are getting in the way of serious thinking about how best they can ensure the well-being of every individual and family they represent.


We therefore need to change our way of doing politics. We need our discussions and decision-making to be based less on tribal dogma and more on rational  thinking about how society should be organised.


And we all need to engage in this thinking. We need to think about the structure and philosophical basis of the society we would like to inhabit and we need to think about the detail of how best it can function.


So instead of leaving it to politicians to come up with all the policies at this election everyone should form their own views on a wide range of issues. You can then do what I’m doing and, if time permits, make up your own manifesto to share on social media or in face to face conversations.


And come election day if you can’t make up your mind which way to vote you can always use your ballot paper to register a positive abstention and write down that you’re voting for your own party. Which is probably what I shall do.


Click here for the manifesto.




Thoughts on …                                                                        


Walk Mendip, Walk Somewhere  (for accompanying pictures click here)



People have been walking Mendip for thousands of years. Until perhaps the beginning of the 20th century they walked for practical purposes not as a leisure activity. They walked to find food, to trade goods, to get to work on the land or in the lead mines, and to meet up with the inhabitants of neighbouring settlements. However, the arrival of the car has given all of us quick and convenient access to the countryside and this, along with an increase in leisure time, has made walking on Mendip and elsewhere a popular recreational pursuit rather than a practical necessity. 


I have been fortunate, privileged in fact, to have walked Mendip from an early age. I remember walking up what we called Water Valley (Rowberrow Bottom) with my parents and I can never forget at the age of seven or eight doing some running as well as walking. I was chasing our dog on Burrington Ham when I fell over and hit my head hard on the ground. I think it’s the only occasion when I’ve been concussed and as a consequence I had a few days off school.


I have continued to walk the Mendip Hills for many decades since my childhood. Living at the western end I regularly walked my dog over a low slope at the foot of higher ground. I also drove with the dog in the back of the car to a nearby woodland on the other side of the hill and to a track that led to a conifer plantation. This gentle rambling was often a good way to clear the mind and mentally prepare for the next day’s lessons in school.

Without my close companion I have strolled, strode and clambered most parts of Mendip either as a one on my own, a two with my partner, or a four with my walking friends. Whichever was the case I’m sure each outing will have been both enjoyable and invigorating.


Walking Mendip takes you to gloriously varied landscape and scenery. You can tread the turf of open hilltops, follow streams down combes and valleys, and climb slopes that are as steep or gentle as you choose. You can listen to the whispering of deciduous woodland and the stillness of coniferous forest, and you can brush past heather and bracken. You can cross fields where sheep graze, step briskly along lanes and keep hedgerows company. In the Winscombe area you can walk the route where once there was a railway line. 


And always you will have vistas, magnificent vistas, unique and full of interest. Vistas of the terrain that lies ahead; of spectacular cliffs; of distant hills and mountains; of a patchwork of fields stretching across the levels below; of villages and church towers; of lakes and rivers; of a grey estuary and, on a fine day, of a silver sea.


Somehow, we seem able almost unconsciously to absorb these vistas and other features of the landscape into our minds but we will appreciate them more if, every so often, we pause our walking and focus on specific aspects of the views we see. Similarly we should pause to process the sounds as well as the sights: the gurgling of streams, the swishing of trees, and the music of birdsong.


And when we do more and begin to observe the detail of what is around us we will discover we are inside a vast open-air exhibition with an infinite variety of items on display. These are the exhibits which inform us about the natural world, about local and international history, and about geology connecting us to the distant past.


Every plant and every creature that we observe will not only be enchanting to look at it will have its own story to tell – about how it survives and reproduces, why it is made the way it is and what part it plays in our local and global ecosystems. You will see ash, beech and silver birch trees, and maybe some field maple, some spindle and some whitebeam. You will be able to notice their bark, their leaf shapes and their seeds – the ash keys, the beech nuts and their cases, and perhaps the magical berry of the spindle. You will see wildflowers of every colour and hue: primroses, bluebells, orchids, cow parsley, campion, rock-rose, knapweed and much more. Look out for the dramatic nodding thistle in summer – it is menacing and attractive at the same time. In autumn admire the mysterious fungi that have appeared by stealth completely unannounced.


Exquisite butterflies will be dancing from flower to flower whilst all around birds will be calling and singing their songs. Buzzards and skylarks, rooks and ravens, and wrens and woodpeckers will be just a few of the many different birds you should try to observe. You do not need to be an expert to be able to wonder at the glories of nature – I am certainly not.


This great outdoor exhibition which you have entered without charge is a showcase for history as well as nature. You can wander among the Bronze Age barrows at Priddy and contemplate the lives of those who were buried in them. You can stroll along the ramparts of a great Iron Age hillfort and imagine who used it and what it was for. At Charterhouse you can pick up a piece of shiny black slag and reflect on the hardships of the lead mining industry. And on Black Down you can see the evidence of a large decoy site constructed during the Second World War to make enemy bombers believe it was Bristol. 


As for the geological exhibits they can be seen in the cliffs and quarries where rock is exposed and in the fossils you might find if you really search for them. They can be seen, too, as you walk past entrances to caves and swallets which lead to the vast underworld of Mendip, a fraction of which we can experience in the splendid tourist attractions open to the public at Cheddar and Wookey.  


Undoubtedly we can be absorbed by what we view on a screen or in a museum but this cannot match seeing the real thing in a real place. When you walk Mendip, and when you walk anywhere, you will have a greater engagement with what you encounter, and a deeper experience, than when you just see images or exhibits – however interactive these may be.  


So walk with your family, especially your children, walk with your friends, walk with your partner, walk with your dog, walk on your own. Walk for just an hour, for an afternoon or for a whole day. Chat and talk about anything as you walk – chatting and talking brings us together – but make time to look closely at some of the things you see.


Walk Mendip this November. If you can’t get to the Mendips Walk Somewhere, Anywhere. You’ll find it uplifting, life-enhancing, good for the body, mind and soul.



Thoughts on …


A quick guide to democracy                                                    10/9/19 


The word democracy is being bandied around rather a lot at the moment. It’s a big word, difficult to hold on account of its size and the fact that it’s also hard to grip firmly – like other big words such as love, happiness and justice, for example. So in order to try and explore the concept for myself, and anyone else who is interested, I thought I would attempt a quick guide.


Where should any guide begin? Perhaps with some more big words – familiar ones that are small in stature but big in effect. There are five of them and we should use them more often to clarify our thinking. The big words that ask the big questions are: “what”, “how”, “where”, “when” and “why”. (1) Apply these to the term democracy, or anything else for that matter, and come up with the answers, and you will have a guide that will be as basic or as comprehensive as you choose. Mine will be the basic version but I am conscious that more detailed answers would enable a more thorough exploration of the concept to take place.


Starting with the “what” question, what actually is democracy? It can be complex in its implementation but essentially it is a way for groups of people, especially large communities and societies, to make collective decisions about matters which affect them. At a national level these decisions will largely involve government expenditure, legislation on a wide range of issues, and executive action on foreign policy or other pressing matters.


A democracy permits people to discuss issues which affect them and then vote on what should be done. It is widely regarded as a better way of organising society than the alternative: people being told what to do by unelected rulers. One of its crucial components is liberty – people having the freedom to make their views known through discussion and the ballot box.


Moving on to the “how” question, how democracy works, we  normally think it works by people having the right, the hard-won right it should be remembered, to vote in national or local elections. But, if we pause to add in the “where” and “when” words, it can also work in other contexts: where and when people openly discuss and vote for different courses of action in any organisation to which they belong, be it the local cricket club, the WI, or the students’ union.


In terms of national governance democracy works using different systems in different countries but with one crucial common factor: the requirement that all adult citizens are permitted to vote for those in whom the final power of decision-making is vested. The latter include presidents and prime ministers – the executive arm of a government, and members of assemblies such as parliaments or senates – the legislative arm.


The United Kingdom has a system of representative democracy in which every five years, in theory, we elect MPs, who support the principles and policies of a political party, to deliberate on issues and take decisions on our behalf. (2) In certain circumstances over the past few decades we have used the system of direct democracy by having referendums of the whole electorate to take decisions on important single issues. The referendum to leave the EU was the most recent of these. (3)


When it comes to the business of voting in a democracy a number of different methods are available. These are clearly explained on the website of the Electoral Reform Society and make interesting reading. (4) At some point in the electoral process the collective opinion of the electorate will be determined by using the highest number of votes cast for a political party, a person or a proposal. (5) In 2011 a referendum was held to decide whether or not the UK should adopt a method known as the alternative vote (AV) for parliamentary elections. The idea was overwhelmingly rejected and we therefore retained what is known as the first past the post system.


As well as working by means of people casting their vote, democracy functions through engaging in discussion and consultation beforehand along with, hopefully, plenty of clear thinking achieved by calm, rational reflection. Having the right to discuss anything, anywhere, anytime is of supreme importance to the proper functioning of democracy. We call it freedom of speech and sadly there are too many places in the world where this is seriously restricted. Our country is not one of them.


The “where” and “when” of democracy have already been referred to by saying that it works in contexts other than national or local government. But clearly the most important where and when questions are, where in the world do we still need to see democratic societies established, and, when will this happen.


There is, of course, a historical dimension to the where and when questions: when and where did the notion of democracy begin and how did it evolve over time? This is a fascinating subject in itself but regrettably far too extensive to be covered here. However, it is well worth visiting some websites and then we can  all reach our own conclusions about the relative significance of ancient Athens, the French Revolution, the Great Reform Act of 1832, and much more. 


And so to the “why” question. Why do we have democracy? The answer surely is that it allows all of us to have the freedom to choose the kind of society in which we wish to live. For me this is a society in which we care for each other, we are fair to each other and we provide the freedom for each other to decide how to find fulfilment in life. In other words it should be the means to achieve the best possible well-being for each individual member of society. When it does not achieve this it is failing.


It fails, too, when it does not respect and try to accommodate minority viewpoints and those who have been on the losing side in any vote. It fails when it does not acknowledge that it is perfectly proper to continue expressing one’s views after a decision has been taken and implemented. And it fails, as the political turmoil following the EU referendum indicates, when a decision has been reached by a majority vote which is then actively undermined by some of those who voted the opposite way. (6)


The way ahead for democracy in this country and elsewhere is to examine the concept closely by asking basic questions about it and thinking carefully about the answers. We must acknowledge its purpose and learn how to use it for the benefit of all members of society. A public discourse in which politicians and citizens alike argue calmly, rationally and without animosity, would greatly help in this endeavour.


I hope this quick guide may have been helpful and hope, too, the word democracy is not used too casually by those on both sides of the Brexit debate. It deserves far greater attention and respect than it is presently receiving.




1  I have not included “who” as it is implicit that the word affects everyone, whether they live in a democracy or are longing for one. But it does mean I have omitted the great thinkers of the past who have contributed their ideas on the subject.


2  It’s a system which seems to rest on the belief that the rest of us are too dim to make important decisions ourselves. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 created a five year period between general elections.


3  It is worth noting that referendums are an established part of Switzerland’s political system.


4  See:


5  Using a proportional system the highest number of votes cast may not all be first preference votes.

Whether the system we currently use provides a democratic mandate for a government is highly questionable on occasions, one of the most notable being in the 2005 general election which was won by the Labour party with the support of just 21.6% of the electorate.


6  See my letter (second post) at:




Thoughts on ...


Replacing GCSEs                                                                      22/8/19


Without wishing to diminish the achievements of young people who are told their GCSE grades today I believe these exams are no longer required and should be replaced by something more useful.


Having exams in every subject is not necessary to fulfil two functions that are claimed for GCSEs. One function is to select young people for their future courses on the basis of their grades. This is not a good idea at this stage in their education as they are still developing their cognitive abilities and, also, may not have made firm decisions about their future careers. Moreover, if they are well-motivated and work hard they can probably train for most occupations, whether academic or practical, thus making selection by GCSE results unnecessary. 


The other function is to prepare young people for employment. As a means of doing this GCSEs are totally unsuitable. Learning about characters in Romeo and Juliet and writing at a frantic pace about them in an exam does not prepare anyone for any job I know – except an English teacher. Similarly knowing about the Popish Plot, or being able to solve quadratic equations rapidly in an exam, is not exactly essential knowledge for train drivers, doctors, care workers or plumbers.


The time to prepare for a specific occupation and be thoroughly trained and assessed is in further and higher education. What young people need at the secondary stage is to be presented with learning across a wide range of subjects that is engaging and exciting, and alongside this be given an all-round preparation for employment.


This should take the form of developing a high level of competence in four key areas: in literacy; in functional maths so they can apply correct numerical processes whenever the need arises; in computing for obvious reasons; and in critical thinking so they have the ability to think clearly and logically about any difficulties they encounter. An assessment of these subjects would take place at 15 using national tests marked without grades.


These four key areas of the curriculum will not only be vital for their future employment but for their future studies as well. Crucially, also, they are needed for the whole business of living that lies ahead of them. Critical thinking, particularly, will be vital to them in the decisions they make in life and how they form their views on various issues.


Replacing GCSEs with a key skills assessment would enable schools to give their pupils a genuine love of learning by getting rid of the exam production line which has blighted education for such a long time.





This post is similar to previous posts I have written on the subject but emphasises how and why GCSEs should be replaced. The argument is developed more fully in my book, Forever Learning, extracts from which can be found here.( See Chs 6 and 8 for a discussion of exams)




Thoughts on …


The Rock of Ages and the bedrock of love                             21/7/19


A short while ago I attended the annual Rock of Ages service held at the bottom of Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills. It took place opposite the cleft in the rock where, whilst sheltering from a storm, the Reverend Angus Toplady is said to have written, or perhaps had the idea for, his well-known hymn.1 We sang hymns to the accompaniment of a local brass band and listened to the thoughts of the vicar on the themes of shelter and having faith in God.


It was a delightful, uplifting service made all the more pleasurable by my sitting on the grass as I hadn’t brought a seat with me. So my grateful thanks to the vicar, the band and those around me who sang the hymns sweetly while I mumbled them in my usual untuneful way.2


As a metaphor the Rock of Ages beautifully conveys the ideas referred to in the service. There are times when we all need shelter from the storms of life and we all need our lives to be based on strong, rock-like foundations. People with Christian beliefs, as well as people of other faiths, can find strength and shelter in the rock of their belief in God. As well as strength and shelter they can receive guidance on how to lead good lives and, very importantly, they can be given the hope of eternal life.


But what about the rapidly growing number of us who have no religious faith? Do we also need a rock of ages and if so what should it be?

For many, myself included, Christian principles rather than a belief in a divine being, form an essential part of the foundations on which we should try to base our lives.  There are many occasions when personally I fall well short of putting these principles fully into practice but my Methodist upbringing, and consequent familiarity with stories and texts from the Bible, at least allow me to remind myself of what the key precepts are.


The texts I find particularly useful are those which offer instruction on how to  live well with each other. For example, in the story of the widow’s mite we learn the meaning of true generosity. In the Sermon on the Mount we are told to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies, and in the parable of the Good Samaritan we are simply but effectively told how we should show compassion and love to all our fellow humans.


Jesus taught that the two great commandments which should guide our lives were to love God and to love your neighbour. Those of us who, because of our beliefs, are unable to fulfil the first of these commandments can certainly strive to fulfil the second. And we can do so by building our lives on a rock that, in my view, is human rather than divine: the rock of love.


It is my belief that basic human instincts have bestowed on our species the essential emotional need to love and be loved.3 And because this is an instinctive biological need in every human being it is a universal attribute we all possess. Our rock of love is therefore bedrock that covers the whole of our planet.


But it is our individual piece of this bedrock which we must use to help us lead a good life. We must show love in every facet of our lives – in our families, with our friends and acquaintances, to strangers, to those who have done wrong to us and to those who are different from us in their ethnicity, religion, values or political opinions. We must show love to individuals, to communities and to nations.


And we should show our love as much as possible as this will be beneficial to others and also keep it in good shape – just as our bodies and minds are kept in good shape through constant use. We can use it in all our actions and deeds whether small or large, common or uncommon.


We will be putting it to use when we are caring, kind, thoughtful and sympathetic; when we look after someone who is unwell or has a disability; when we give up our time to help somebody and when we say some kind words.  When we give to a charity or take part in a sponsored event for a good cause; when we show love to those who have different lifestyles, or traditions or opinions; when we forgive those who have wronged or hurt us in any way. And when we remember to think about ordinary people in other parts of the world who may be suffering because of poverty, natural disasters, oppression or violence.


But we must constantly be aware that just above the bedrock that enables us to show our love in these different ways there are other rocky deposits of varying strength and depth which do not have the same benign effect. We need to be aware of them because these, too, cover the whole of the planet and can also be found in all of us. They include the rocky deposits of self-interest, self-image and self-indulgence which have been laid down within us during the long course of animal and human evolution. Sadly, also, amongst these deposits is behaviour that can be wholly undesirable and sometimes just plain evil.


We will probably never get rid of these deposits but the rock that matters, the bedrock, will always be stronger and deeper. It will provide us with the foundation on which we can base our guiding values. If we all love each other its outcrops will definitely provide us with shelter from the storms of life. And although it will not offer us eternal life its presence will be as solid and enduring as the Mendip rock in Burrington Combe.


It seems to me there should be no reason why those of us who believe in a human rock of ages and those who believe in the divine rock should not unite in a common endeavour to proclaim the values and behaviour that follow from a shared belief in the power of love.4 It should be our duty to tell people and, crucially, to show by example, that loving each other is by far the best way to live our lives. For the sake of those closest to us and for society as a whole we must strive unceasingly to ensure that love is the bedrock on which all our lives are built.5 





1  It’s a great story which either belongs to local history or local legend depending on whether it is true or not. The plaque on the rock states Toplady was inspired to write the hymn there but it seems no one knows for certain whether he did. Rosie and Howard Smith’s book, Somerset’s Hills in watercolours, contains a fascinating account of what they call “The Rock of Ages” controversy. They also mention that 30,000 people attended the Rock of Ages service in 1931. For a picture of the rock click here and scroll down almost to the bottom. 


2  The six hymns included, of course, Rock of Ages, the first two lines of which are: Rock of ages, cleft for me/Let me hide myself in thee. Among the other hymns were: O God our help in ages past, and Guide me O thou great Redeemer. The readings were from Psalm 71: … for thou art my rock and my fortress … ; and from Isaiah 51: … look unto the rock whence ye are hewn …


3  I have this idea, which admittedly is far more intuitive than scientific, that our loving instinct may be wired into us so that we can find a partner in order to create new life, and also for the purpose of nurturing the young to ensure they survive. Moreover, the instincts to help each other and get along together may perhaps be traced back to a basic herd instinct common to many creatures which exists to help them survive.


4  Although I’m not able to share Bishop Michael Curry’s belief that God is the source of love I certainly agree with the message of his inspiring, memorable sermon on the power of love at the royal wedding in 2018. It should be read or listened to over and over again.


5  What is needed for the non-believers is a rule book with some basic precepts and commandments plus a collection of philosophical, religious or literary texts, some mantras, some hymns and songs, some regular gatherings, and a commitment to persuading people that staying on the right path will result in a better life than not doing so. Non-believers also need to find a way of dealing with the thorny issue of mortality – a challenge if ever there was one, bigger even than the challenge of Brexit!