‘Britain’s version of representative democracy is broken.’ Is it?

Constitutional reform. Yawn. Why am I returning to this – on the face of it – pretty boring subject? Because what intrigues me is the way the personal and political link up. And link they must. That link, courtesy of a rabid press, downgrading local government, impugning MPs motives as a media hobby, has been broken.

Most people aren’t political junkies. All the more reason for having institutions that they can readily connect with, and which are accountable.

As I argued in my last post I fear citizens’ assemblies – and constitutional conventions -won’t help us much. Talking shops unless explicitly linked to existing structures have a poor history.

UCL’s Constitutional Unit (UCL – University College London) has checked the parties’ manifestos for their plans on constitutional reform. Several have promised ‘citizen-led democratic initiatives’ in their manifestos, particularly on constitutional questions.  But, checking out their manifestos, they are a long way down the list of priorities.

The Economist, reviewing Labour’s plans ‘to redistribute power as well as income’, refers to its plans for a constitutional convention, advised by a citizen’s assembly. Democratic accountability will in their plans loom large in industry, the workplace and local government. (If the popular press is a lost cause for Labour, maybe, they reason, the workplace can an alternative forum.) The LibDems have a commitment a federal constitution, and citizen’s assemblies at both national and local level. The Tories are the party who have benefitted from the current chaos, so don’t expect serious ideas from that quarter.

I’m at one with the Economist in their concern that in Labour’s hands control could pass to highly committed activists prepared ‘to give up their evenings to passing composite motions’. I was once upon a time Father of Chapel at Penguin (publishers, that is!) and I remember well the power of faction and activism, and how little it availed anyone.

I’m not with the Economist, however, when it states that ‘Britain’s version of representative democracy is broken’. I’m tired of that mindless refrain.

Churchill’s take on democracy as the least worst form of government was memorable. I’d put the case for democracy more forcefully. The democracy we have is a miracle. It’s taken, decades, centuries if you will, to get where we are. But we’ve downplayed local democracy – downgraded councils and local elections, and we’ve been hit by a referendum the result of which conflicted with the will of parliament. So we have two expressions of the popular will. Suffice it to say the referendum version has a poor history.

Change and reform have always to be high on the agenda. But start from what we have. The best institutions, as with marriages, can get stale.

Citizens’ assemblies – yes. But as I said above – link them to existing structures. They can help revive them. But the last thing we want is open-ended talking shops. In the end we need strong and fully accountable government, not navel-gazing.

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.

Taking a break from politics

I am going to take a break from this blog for a while.  It will be hard to do. Blogging can be compulsive. (Two posts already today.) That’s why I must take a break. But before I do, I thought I’d sign off with a ‘where we are now’, ‘where I stand’ statement. With so many distractions, so much delay and prevarication, so many assertions, so much absurdity, it’s not a bad idea to put down a few thoughts.

How different this list from one I might have written ten years ago, when the outlook, recent financial crash notwithstanding, was somehow more rosy. You could, back then, at least trust the integrity of the protagonists.

In no particular order (apologies to Strictly contestants), though the first two or three are fundamental:

# pride in nation, as a citizen of Britain, of Europe, of the world, the best way, the only effective way, to exercise influence – linked to the awareness, and self-awareness, I mentioned in a recent post on the Tory leadership contest

# the dangers of referenda, trying to tie down that which will not be tied, as opposed to the sovereignty of parliament, which allows flexibility – the right to change your mind as a core feature of democracy

# recognising a free trade agenda as a chimera – your closest neighbours are always your best partners, and the benefits of the EU will only be appreciated when withdrawn, when too late – you get ‘owt for nowt’ (no benefits if no contributions)

# you negotiate better as part of a trading bloc – the importance of being part of, and a key player in, one of the three big economic groupings of the planet, the benefits from membership over more than forty years (delusional to think we would have reached better agreements negotiating on our own)

# global capitalism, how best to influence, to rein it in, while retaining its benefits – hard enough anyway, impossible to have any significant impact if we are a ‘free-trading’, Singapore-style economy

# the importance of collective action on climate change and conservation, on migration – working with the EU, not out on our own, likewise, on automation, and changes in the workplace

# opposing false notions of sovereignty, rebutting claims that we have sacrificed too much power either to the European Commission or European courts – what we gain in influence far outweighs what we lose – remembering also that we in the UK are pioneers of human rights – our influence across Europe has been profound

# working within the power structures that now prevail – opposing any reversion to old ideas of British and latter-day imperial clout, not least notions of an ‘Anglosphere’

# misrepresentations (Boris Johnson-style) of EU practice and policy

# Brexit impeding the EU reform agenda – the EU needs reform, in some areas radical reform, and we could and should be driving that process

# too easy to forget, it seems, how the EU has guaranteed the peace since 1945, and how remarkable that is

# the alternative to the EU – throwing in our lot with Donald Trump, over whom we will have no influence, and signing up to trade deals on US terms

# the simple necessity of bringing our media back home, and making owners and editors publicly accountable, the importance of debate and the pursuit of truth – too many newspapers have become house journals of parties or factions

# the dangers of populism, fake news, alternative truths, post-truth, opinion masquerading as fact

# the delusional appeal of personality politics, where personality trumps policy, where the shouters drown out argument – Farage-style conspiracy theorists

# the dangers of authoritarian, illiberal capitalism – the downgrading of democracy whether it’s China, or Turkey, or Hungary

# Brexit as a knowingly false agenda – 1) claiming a no-risk, no-danger, all-benefit scenario against all evidence, 2) bringing in a free trade agenda, never a priority of the wider population, under the cover of anxiety over immigration

# the sidelining of social welfare, the removal of safeguards and regulations advocated by Dominic Raab and others – the irony that there are Labour supporters of a Brexit driven through by hard-line libertarians

# the real risk of a possible break-up of the UK – think yourself into the shoes of a Scottish nationalist or a Northern Irish Catholic, soon to be the majority religion

# and finally, the omnipresent danger of unintended consequences – as Daniel Hannan, said of the Brexit saga to date, ‘it hasn’t quite worked out as he expected’

 

Making the case for silence

Zen is about silence. No soap box required.

I want to call out for silence – to call, not shout. Nothing comes of shouting, rabble rousing, name-calling – only further division, and the defeat of reason. We have too much shouting out there. Endless Brexit arguments and silence aren’t easy companions.

Silence is something we can all share, all people and all persuasions, all races and religions … silence makes no demands, it is there if you wish to find it …. silence leaves he or she who shouts loud out in the cold … it gives space to think and consider, has little time for short cuts and easy solutions.

I remember my son being disciplined by the school librarian for telling the librarian to shut up because her continued calls of silence were breaking his concentration.

You can’t command silence.

But silence is unexciting. Why not follow the pied piper? Or he or she who shouts loudest?

Shouting divides. With the European elections around the corner we find ourselves more polarised than ever.  ‘We are the people.’ The 52%. But what did we vote for? Brexit at any price? Remain also has its ranters. Shouting embeds ideas, good, on occasion, usually bad.

Reasoned argument is beyond ideology, beyond ‘big’ ideas, beyond assumptions. Reasoned argument requires silence. A prayer before we start. OK, unfashionable. It doesn’t have to be a prayer. But silence. Time to reflect. And, maybe, he who is most eager to speak should go last. Or speak not at all.

But that’s as maybe…

We’re faced with big subjects, big themes – with globalisation (which is ironically the natural and only outcome of a ‘free trade’ position), on the one hand, and the sense, and the reality, of being left behind by elites, by the big cities, the bankers, even by the younger generation, on the other. Pay is pegged back, annual increments a rarity, austerity has for many been brutal.

‘There is a real question about whether democratic capitalism is working, when it’s only working for part of the population.’ The words of Nobel-winning economist Angus Deaton. Could the country be at a tipping point?

More than ever, we need to step back. We need silence. An end to shouting. Instead we need engagement, close engagement, with all the areas I mention above – engagement across Europe and not just in this country. That’s been our role in the past, and I see no reason to give up on that now.

In the recent past many of us have been too cautious, too reasonable – too slow. Silence has been a negative state. A place we retreat to. A place to hide. (We treat elites as somehow inevitable. We shrug and get on with life.)

I’ve found the last three years one hell of a challenge. (I am not alone of course.) The sense that there’s a continuity between my private world and the wider political world out there has been broken. Extremes and wild ideas have become common currency. If I acquiesced in a too-slow change of pace before, I can no longer do so now.

Silence has to be more positive, more active, more pro-active. More political.

But it must still be silence. Paring back the rush of ideas, allowing quiet space in between, that space which anger and emotion too easily fill. Don’t be fooled by the loudest voice. Or a half-truth in a headline.

There’s wisdom, a real wisdom, in silence. If wisdom isn’t too unfashionable a term these days.

Climate change – just another news story?

‘At what point will we realise that the world we see on our TVs is actually our world – and that it is time to act?’

I was on London’s South Bank last Thursday, and realised something extraordinary was happening on Waterloo Bridge. I’d chanced on the Extinction Rebellion protest. As an infrequent visitor to London these days, I was taken by surprise – unlike most people in central London, who’d found not only Waterloo Bridge blocked, but also Parliament Square and, famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view), with a pink boat, Oxford Circus.

I climbed over the crash barrier – wanting to enquire rather than directly participate. To find out more.  Warm weather helped. Trees and greenery had been brought in, a band was playing quietly (yes, quietly) and under an awning one of the organisers proffered advice on dealing with journalists and possible arrest to younger questioners.

For they were young, the protestors. Theirs is indeed the future. They have a claim on it, which we – we older folk – do not. It’s the point which the Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, has been making so eloquently. And we can’t, surely, just brush it off as another example of youthful high spirits and idealism.

The key aims of Extinction Rebellion? ‘The Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, … and act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.’

The upside: shaking us out of our lethargy regarding the consequences of climate change, and highlighting the action that must be taken to arrest it. (Whether or not a 2025 target is realistic, the aim is to shock.) The downside: commuter traffic has been seriously disrupted, and businesses and shops have suffered as a consequence.

Which side am I on? Are we on?

Section of the press would have it that the protestors are all middle-class hippies. The Daily Mail has printed pictures of the organisers’ homes in Stroud. Billionaire media owners are the beneficiaries of the status quo: yes, climate change may (just about) be real but responsibility is down to us as individuals. Plastic bags and the like. Governments, where lies the power to push through radical change, are off the hook.  

Readers of the Mail and Express and Telegraph, redoubtable papers all, are protected species in all this – protected from the imperatives of climate change. Given that reality, what choice do the protestors have but to put themselves out there?

So back to that question. What about us?

Are we prepared, as over a thousand were, to be arrested? Or is our support at second hand – we’ll argue their case (‘their’ case, not ours) and their corner, but we won’t join the front line. Or we’ll aver our support for action, but decry radical means to achieve it. (And thereby play into the hands of climate change deniers?)

There’s a rather dubious statistic doing the rounds. 3.5% of the population (only 3.5% …) committed to your cause and the momentum for radical change will be irreversible. I don’t buy this. But there is another tipping-point – beyond which we can’t avoid taking sides.

I’d like to think that could be now. I’m not going to rush to be arrested. But I know which side I’m on.

That same Thursday, 18th April, at 8pm, David Attenborough silenced any who question his commitment to action with his BBC TV programme, Climate Change: The Facts. No-one watching could be in any doubt about the terrible consequences of global warming. The facts as he described are brutal.

To repeat my opening line:

At what point will we realise that the world we see on TV is actually our world – and that it is time to act?

Will parliament claw back control?

Two days from Tuesday’s crucial vote ….

It’s curious how the argument has become the legislature against the executive, parliament against Theresa May’s government’s Brexit agreement with the EU. I’m not a fan of historical parallels, but I’m reminded of Parliament before and during the time of the Civil War, clawing control away the monarchy, ensuring that the executive would be beholden to the legislature. The 1689 Bill of Rights enshrined this in statute. Only the government could originate legislation – but why put forward a bill if it was unlikely to get through parliament?

Three-line whips, control over the parliamentary timetable and the sheer bludgeoning effect of government have tilted the balance toward government in recent times. Time in the eyes of many for a re-balancing.

Why are we in this situation? Because of the natural tendency of the executive to arrogate power to itself. The referendum has brought arguments over what has been effectively a transfer of power to a head. The government has arrogated to itself a new power to be the guardian of ‘the will of the people’. While Charles 1st wasn’t too good at bringing ordinary folk over to his side, we’ve already a good few examples in other countries in our own time of noisy politicians with big ideas asserting the power of government, in the name of a people, of tradition, of race or nation, over a legislature.

I’ll say again what I’ve said before – we are a parliamentary democracy. It’s taken us almost eight hundred years, if we go back to Magna Carta, to reach this point. Ultimately the legislature has to call the tune – not a government arguing that a third-party, ‘the people’, ‘the will of the people’, has a prior claim. The will of the people – it may reflect, as the Brexit vote did, a groundswell of opinion, but fashioned too easily by others, not least the media, for their own ends.

And opinion can change. From one year to the next. All decisions of government need reversibility. That has to apply to referenda if they’re to have any legitimacy. Every government operating through parliament knows that it has not only to get its legislative programme through – it knows also that it will be held accountable, and everything could indeed be reversed, come the next election.

Government vs parliament. There has to be, in the name of good government, only one winner. And last Friday, yes, we do have to thank Mr Speaker for entering the lists, and allowIng a vote on an amendment which breaks with recent precedent and allows the House of Commons a much greater role in determining the parliamentary timetable.

We wait on Tuesday’s vote …

There can be no compromise

The Financial Times recently headlined warnings from leading economists about the dangers of Brexit. I expected something more forthright when I read the article. They were hedging their bets, not, I imagine, wishing to be caught out when things do not work out quite as they forecast.

The muddle-through-to-a-glorious-future approach has few supporters among economists. But simply muddling through, without the expectation of any glorious future, seems to be a currency shared by many among both economists and the wider population.

For me, and millions like me, opposition goes much deeper, and in the event of any kind of Brexit our opposition to a departure from the EU will remain as virulent as now, until such time as circumstances oblige us to re-establish the connection we have so rashly thrown overboard.

For reasons, as I see them, read on. Feel free to add, or subtract.

historical (1): fly solo at your peril, build don’t tear down alliances – never over-estimate your power or position in the world, or assume that past prestige guarantees future influence – never draw empty parallels, one example being the specious argument that the UK leaving the EU is a re-run of England versus Rome in the 1530s;

historical (2): the bond created over seventy years of peace and cooperation since World War Two isn’t one to be lightly set aside;

political: it may or may not be that, under Trump, a transactional, case-by-case approach to policy will work for the USA, but a smaller country, and the UK is a smaller country, holds few cards – self-interest not charity among partner countries will always prevail – negotiations involve unpalatable trade-offs, a blank slate is no place to start – always build from strong foundations, with plans in place for all eventualities – bluster is no substitute for hard graft;

economic: on what basis could we ever assume that the EU would agree that we can take out (i.e. trade) we do now, without putting back (financially and in other respects) at a level comparable to current levels? – that we can somehow reverse gravity theory and its thesis that our closest neighbours are our best and favoured trading partners? –  that the theory of comparative advantage, whereby we all specialise in those areas where we have advantages not shared by others, could ever deliver other than diminished returns and destruction of existing industries, not least because we would be inviting in tariff-free products from a world which is unlikely to reciprocate?;

philosophical: for many a vote for Brexit was simply a vote for change, a plague on all your houses, but change rarely delivers what we expect, and that applies especially to change as little planned and falsely argued as Brexit – the frequently peddled and spurious notion that there is some kind of a contract between government and governed, which begs the question of what’s in the contract, who wrote it, and who are the ‘people’ – how democracy functions is a fundamental question, see next item, and flawed concepts do not help;

democratic: decisions must be reversible, and are best handled by elected and representative assemblies, referenda being the favoured tool of those who wish to bribe and manipulate, or as happened in the Brexit vote promote a specious ‘free trade’ agenda on the back of hyped-up panic about immigration, that of itself an example of how a critical issue can be radically mis-represented;

humane: rules and regulations exist to protect the working population, not as some would have it for their own sake, and future trade deals will allow minimal change from what we have already have;

humanitarian: we are all citizens of the world, as well as the UK and Europe, by definition, a simple and to my mind ontological truth – what we can bring to the world, not how best we can hide behind borders, should be our focus, and we can drive that worldwide agenda far better through the EU;

environmental: as ‘humanitarian’ above, working together with people in other countries, pushing a climate change agenda, exercising influence on the US and China which we could never do on our own;

judicial: the rule of law must always be above politics, a notion that has been unwisely challenged in some quarters;

sovereignty: we have greater sovereignty as part of a wider body wielding influence in a US/China/EU dominated world, than a supposedly greater say on our own – ‘taking back control’ is a fiction whereby we lose much more than we gain;

demographic: where comes our uniqueness as a nation: from closed borders, from excluding foreigners? – the opposite has always been, and should always be, the case;

influence: why leave the forum through which are influence has been most effectively spread and felt around the world in recent times? – any more than we should leave the United Nations on the grounds of poor performance – we will effect change by working on the inside, rather than gesture politics on the outside;

reform: expanding on the idea of influence, there are vast issues out there in the world which British pragmatism and ingenuity can help solve, but we will do that as insiders, pulling levers, arguing in corners, never by grand-standing;

pragmatism: implicit in all the above, but worth separating out – pragmatism is what has always defined us as a nation, which is why so many beyond these shores are astonished to see so many in our land practising the politics of division – and badmouthing the institution with which they’re negotiating, and yet anticipating a happy outcome … curious indeed;

reputation: why be taken as fools, as we are being already, and risk being taken as greater fools, with our new friends the Republican right, the supporters of Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy….

The flag of St George turned into a jingoistic banner cannot be the way forward for this country (for sure, it can’t be for Scotland, or for Northern Ireland, and, despite a majority voting for Brexit, for the population of Wales). With sanity and pragmatism we can avoid fracture now, not least territorial. Without it the battle-lines will remain, and skirmishes and worse continue, for many years to come.