Representative democracy – the best form of government yet devised

I’m following up on my last post (on Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers) with another on broadly the same subject – representative democracy.

It is fundamental to our future.

Hamilton had a nascent Congress in mind, we have the House of Commons. Always a problem, now more than ever, is how ordinary folk connect with elected, representative assemblies. Not least in our own time, when the House of Commons is widely seen as both distant and corrupt. And ineffective.

Deliberative democracy, in the form of citizens’ assemblies, chosen rather than elected, is often suggested as a way of feeding in a wider range of opinions, and involving people more directly. How would they work? To quote the RSA (Royal Society of Arts) on the subject:

Much like a jury in a court case. You might have between twenty and a hundred people representing a cross section sample of the population. They spend three or four days hearing prepared evidence from all sides on a specific topic – it could be anything from abortion reform to public spending priorities. This is followed by questioning, investigation and debate. The group then comes up with recommendations, usually based on consensus.

I’m a big supporter of the RSA. But I’m cautious in this case. Just as parliament is swayed by factions, so too will be assemblies.  The criteria by which members of such assemblies will be selected will cause division, before they even meet. And strong personalities will as ever emerge and dominate. There may be a requirement to debate at a parliamentary level, but none to enact.

The one recent example of a positive outcome from a deliberative assembly was the Irish constitutional convention, which recommended action on same-sex marriage, abortion and blasphemy. These were then enacted following referenda and legislation.  This is legislation that would probably, not certainly, have been enacted in any case. The assembly facilitated the process.

Helpful on the subject is the article, ‘Pot-luck democracy’, in the Prospect December 2019 issue, which highlights the assembly, or ‘fixed council’, which is being trialled in Ostbelgien, a Belgian province.

Assemblies do have a role, and let’s trial then further. But the danger is they could be a distraction. We must look elsewhere if we want to achieve a significant re-engagement of the public with everyday politics.

Better to focus on how the wider population can best feed into existing structures.

A high priority must be to re-invigorate local government. One of Margaret Thatcher’s legacies is a switch of authority and finance away from local to central government. The respect in which local government is held, and the calibre of people drawn to it, have suffered significantly as a result. City mayors and the Northern Powerhouse are much quoted as ways forward, but real democratic progress requires a much greater devolution of power, with local people taking ownership of education, health and social care and transport in ways that are impossible now.

The pathways that link local and central government will need to be much closer. Local councils should be a useful training ground for politicians with aspirations at a parliamentary level. And closer links to local authorities would, almost literally, bring MPs with, maybe, delusions of grandeur down to earth.

When local people bring issues which are best handled at a local level to MPs’ surgeries, that shouldn’t be a problem. MPs and councils would be used to working in tandem. And MPs in turn would be available to discuss the impact of national issues at a local level.

With local and central government more closely linked it might well be easier to accept and understand the benefits of supranational authority. We need to be key players, on the inside, rather than lobbyists, on the outside. A narrow definition of sovereignty is categorically not in our interest.

A European parliament with local electorates fully engaged should function as a direct means of holding the councils and committees of Europe to account.  That has always been the idea – but in the UK especially strident voices in the press have made this all but impossible.

There’s the rub. How do you make the case for representative democracy at all levels when populism is so stridently funded?

First and foremost – argue the cause. In any and all public forums. Not for the old and tired status quo. But for an active and engaged system of connected representation. One where people feel they are actually represented, and not taken for granted.

I’ve not spelt out any detail here. The purpose of this post is simply to put the argument for our existing system(s) of government. We have the most remarkable instrument of government ever designed anywhere on earth in Westminster, and a parallel structure at a local level which likewise has evolved over centuries.

Energising those structures is where our focus should lie.

The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton – and the UK

‘…the best commentary on the principles of government ever written’.  (Thomas Jefferson)

That marvellous musical, Hamilton, has taken me back to the Federalist Papers, not normally the subject for an Englishman. They are remarkable in every way – high principle and skilled argument, without any apparent pressure of faction or dominant individuals (though that was there of course), arguing for a sustainable and, for the standards of its time, remarkably representative republic.  The very nature of the post-revolutionary America was at stake: a nascent republic pitched against a powerful anti-federalist movement.

There were extraordinary men to meet the challenge, not least Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the two principle authors of the Papers.

I quote passages from the Papers below. They are desperately relevant, and readily overlooked, in the USA today. They are also directly relevant to the UK.

Hamilton asks at the beginning of Federalist 1 ‘whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice [my italics], or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force’.

Madison in Federalist 10 argues for a representative body, defined as a republic, as appropriate ‘for  refining and enlarging  the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations’.

What has suffered terribly over the last three and a half years in the UK has been the popular right to representation. We have been obliged by a rogue referendum to marry an emotion-driven and ill-argued and mis-represented referendum with the ordinary process of representative and consultative democracy. The two cannot and will not go together. Support for referenda by the leaders of political parties was predicated on the inevitable victory of their point of view. They were wrong. In the language of the Federalist Papers there were factions at work, not least the popular press and rogue elements of one political party, who demonstrated that faction can stir up a population, and win the day.

None of this is to argue against the real resentments over inequality and alienation felt by wide sections of the population. Representative government has been found wanting – failed in the essential requirement of engaging and looking after the interests of all sections of the population. But it is for representative government to reform itself. There is no other way.

Brexit itself, the severance at worst, long-term disruption at best, of our links with Europe, is a consequence of that failure of government. But in no way can it be an answer to that failure. But to argue this is not the purpose of this post.

I will let the passages from the Federalist Papers speak for themselves.

(Federalist 1, author Alexander Hamilton)

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America … It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

(Federalist 10, author James Madison)

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction … such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention …

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking…

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

(Madison’s second point of difference, highlighting the benefits of a larger over a smaller republic, with the representation of a wide range of interests and points of view, and the difficulty therefore of any faction in disrupting government, is not directly my subject here.  Though always relevant.)