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Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.


Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.