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Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

The Big Society, the market, and society: why deficit reduction might actually be a good thing

In Economy, Events, Ideology on July 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

David Weber

I must admit that I originally intended this to be a full response to James Bartholomeusz’s recent article on working class politics and welfare reform. However, while reflecting on his various arguments, my response to his comment underneath the article quickly became feature length, and an article in its own right:

The problem is, [the Big Society] dovetails a little too nicely with the market fundamentalism that got us into this mess, and the tough deficit reduction plan which has ostensibly been forced upon the government against its will. [emphasis added] Read the rest of this entry »

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Question Time 23-06-11

In BBC Question Time, Ideology on June 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Another week, another Question Time (and yes, I am aware that the last time I blogged about this was nearly a year ago).

Normally I only write about this show if a particular question, response or comment sparks a chain of thought, and this week is no exception. The comment, or rather comments in question came during the midst of a rather philosophical debate about the nature of U-turns and, if you accept my extrapolations, could be quite illuminating about the reasons for the proliferation of “big government”, and popular support for it.

The Philosophy started predictably enough. David Mitchell came out in favour of a Burkean view of democracy, with MPs and ministers elected to serve with principle, politely ignoring all populist indulgences and doing the best job they can until the next election. The slight flaw that comes with his argument, that it assumes that all U-turns are made on the basis of populism alone, rather than suddenly realising you’re about to make a rather serious error, wasn’t highlighted in Norman Baker’s opposing view, but it was the basic gist of it. However, more surprisingly, it was a point rather quickly lost on the audience.

Often in Question Time some form of consensus begins to emerge about half way through the time spent debating a certain question. What happened here followed this pattern, with three opinions in quick succession expressing a very similar view: 1 U-turn is careless, 2 unfortunate, and 3 either incompetent or unprincipled.

This is the kind of view that, in the exact spirit of such incompetence, manages to be both excessively cynical and naive. Not everyone realises that cynicism and naivity can go hand in hand, and are not mutually exclusive, but it is often the case. Cynics are often so obsessed with finding negative reasons for mistakes that they make naive assumptions. This is such a case, because in assuming that the only reason for constant U-turns is populism, these cynics assume that the MPs and ministers who rule their affairs are near deities in terms of their inability to make unintentional mistakes.

Whatever your view of democracy and meritocracy, any basic critique of government has to start from the assumption that the people inside it are hardly less incompetent or mistake-prone than ourselves. Or, if you really have a more optimistic view than I do, look at it in a more irrefutable way: 100,000 people collectively are no less likely to make a mistake, than 60 million people individually*, if both have the necessary information at their disposal.

Now, many people assume that the only rationale for government is that situations exist where a specific collection of 100,000 people are less likely to make a mistake than 60 million people individually. This isn’t actually true. The qualifier I added — “if both have the necessary information” — makes all the difference. Most areas of government are there because 60 million people have neither the time nor the patience to make decisions based on the necessary information during their own free time, so they employ others to do it. There are also areas where it has been decided, for better or for worse, that 60 million people should not have all the information to begin with, such as defence and policing.

But in most areas of government policy, people can get the necessary information if they motivate themselves enough, or at least something approaching it. So it is often for this reason that governments make U-turns when a public campaign reaches a certain level of intensity, because the collective wisdom of the public has outweighed the limited wisdom of the government. This does not deny the existence of cynical, populist U-turns — I would myself cite the abandoned Forestry privatisation as an example of one. An intense public campaign does not imply an educated public. But it can do.

Now this is why I fear that this combination of public cynicism and naivety is no certain good thing. For it involves the public not just elevating its politicians’, but also its own abilities. And if, despite their regular contempt for the motives of politicians, the public secretly believe them to be superior and wiser beings, then it is not surprising that big government prolongs itself, despite public dissatisfaction. It is this type of mentality that only opposes government for doing the wrong things, or doing things the wrong way, rather than questioning the need for it to do things to begin with. It can be summed up thus: “the world would be a far better place, if only politicians were less corrupt and did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C”. This is not just a reason for the proliferation of big government, but it is also a reason for the proliferation of incompetent government, and arrogant government.; as governments which don’t admit mistakes are always the former and quickly become the latter. I don’t doubt that some of the blame lies with politicians — pride is a basic human weakness, after all — but I would suggest that if such a public attitude could be overcome, government might be a lot better for it, not to mention more democratic. (I lean towards the Norman Baker, rather than the David Mitchell, vision of democracy.) Like many problems, many of the reasons for big government start with and must be fixed by the public.

And, almost as if to reinforce my suspicions about big government and the public, the last question was about whether to ban live animals in circuses, and not one person who spoke, from the panel or the audience, questioned the need for a full ban. It’s not that I necessarily oppose a full ban, or support the use of live animals in circuses. I’m not exactly sure where I stand. But it would have been nice to have had the facts debated: I might have learned something, and begun to form an opinion. Instead, a politician proposes something which sounds principled, and no-one felt willing to explain their support for this proposal in any detail. Was this to avoid looking heartless on television? Maybe now I am being too cynical and naive.

*Estimations may not be 100% accurate. I’m no more a model of competence than any politician.

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.

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.

MP’s Expenses – Good for Democracy!

In Events, Home Affairs, The Media on February 20, 2010 at 9:49 pm

 By James Langford

Scandal has rocked the news, it’s rocked Parliament and it’s rocked democracy. After this latest landslide attempts have begun to rebuild the relationship between Parliament and the people. What exactly has happened since and what does the future hold for this country? This article will attempt to examine some of these issues and offer a wider perspective into the new world of politics.

Firstly it is a new world. The expenses scandal has been good for us – it’s brought politics alive again – while many may not be able to name Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party they will all be able to dub their MP a thief. They’ve all come to the conclusion that politicians are no good and that politics itself is a dead end – part of the problem rather than the art of resolution. If you don’t believe what I’ve just pointed out then I suggest you go canvassing some time in the near future – it’s all people want to talk about on the doorstep – and believe me they are angry and they want their elected representatives to know.

So that is the founding premise of this article – I’ll say it again – the expenses scandal has been good for democracy. Many things have happened since. Firstly Parliament has conducted the deepest internal audit possible with thousands being paid back and in the longer term many MPs announcing they will not be seeking re-election. This is brilliant – we will have more new faces to politics after the next election than ever before. The establishment has gone – new faces will bring a new politics.

One example that springs to mind is Sir Nicholas Winterton. He recently publicly criticized removing the first class train ticket allowance MPs currently enjoy. This desire to protect certain privileges is not the mindset we want from an MP and I hasten to add by no means representative of the modern conservative party (hence Cameron’s spokesman who quickly wished to deny affiliation with these comments).

What’s more we have gone further. Not only has every guilty MP been ridiculed by the media (the onslaught was led by the Telegraph) but those guilty of the most heinous abuses are going to face prosecution. Natural justice and the rebalancing of democracy are once again in play with public demand making inaction almost impossible. In the future Sir Christopher Kelly will redefine the scope of allowances for parliamentarians and we can be sure systemic abuse will never occur on such a scale again.

However all of these actions are to be expected. They’re not particularly interesting (although it will be something special if those MPs facing charges are convicted) and none of them really deal with my founding premise. In fact the results of this scandal (those not being reported by the media) are much more interesting. In essence democracy has been re-born, and after a baptism of fire, people are looking to see if this is the ideal which they can still idolize.

At a national level the result has been for Labour to once again explore a change of voting system. Alas, this shows that those who permanently reside in Westminster (and not their constituencies) don’t understand what is happening. A change of voting system is profoundly reckless – as I will go on to show Westminster is not where the solution to this problem lies and we must solve this problem before we go on to tackle the issue of electoral reform. This article is neither supports or challenges the need for electoral reform.

It is at a constituency level where the most interesting changes are taking place. I’ve already indicated – people are once again interested in politics. These are people who have always had ideas about what should change but now they are more willing to voice them and more willing to criticize national politics. This has re-opened a dialogue between local parties, their MP’s, Parliamentary Prospective Candidates and the people they wish to serve. They’re not talking about the big things which politicians so regularly love to get involved in – they’re talking about the local issues which matter to them.

It is very difficult to exemplify this and I am certainly not about to talk of my own experiences of this at a local level. However one example of MPs reconnecting with the people does spring to mind: broadcast on channel 4 “Tower Block of Commons” aims to show four MPs what it’s like to live in a rough urban tower block. No one could have predicted the results of this experiment and I admire the four MPs who were brave enough to take part.

The show puts MPs in some of the most difficult circumstances which many people have to endure every day. From living off benefits to finding syringes at your doorstep MPs and the wider public are offered a real insight into this lifestyle. The different MPs all adapt to cope with the situations which they face and I believe (as the program seems to suggest) that there were some real benefits to the local communities which took part in this experiment.

This is what I’m trying to get at; all of the people on this program are not talking about budget deficits or inflation but they are talking about community centers and gangs. Moreover we also get to see different reactions to the BNP – some want to vote for them while others find their presence utterly unhelpful. My conclusion here is becoming evident – the old westminster politics has to go – democracy is alive again. The best place for politics is on the doorstep and in the community – not in London. Parliament has great potential to install real change but the most effective changes are often delivered at a local level and it is here where our new parliamentarians must now focus their time.

Interestingly Labour MP Austin Mitchell who took part in the tower block of commons describes the show as an attempt to demonstrate that MPs are out of touch, with the aim of the show focused on ruining the image of MPs. In his case the show did both. He was the only participant not to live and eat with the residents he met but rather demanded his own flat and that his wife join him. He refused to live off JSA and instead was busy hosting dinner parties in his flat as well as escaping to friends for dinner. He’s certainly a great character and the work he did with the youth center was beneficial. Yet I think he failed to grasp the opportunity which so many MPs have missed. This was a show all about connecting MPs with reality and I think Mr Mitchell probably missed some of this reality by not fully connecting with the life of a resident in a tower block.

Democracy is alive my friends and we want to keep it this way. If we can once again stimulate a full revival in local politics and get it right the national scene will sort itself out. This next election is the most important ever – it’s time to transfer voter apathy into votes! If parties work together to rebuild the image of politics we can solve so many of our current political problems. We can, we will, we must!

Get our own house in order first – by David Weber

In Europe, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm

“The EU is undemocratic”, “The EU is anti-democratic”, “We have our lives dictated to by unelected EU bureaucrats”, “Nobody was given a say over the Lisbon Treaty”, “The Conservatives have now reneged upon their promise to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty”…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

I’m sorry, what was that? I was just dreaming of a constructive debate about the EU, of actually looking at what we can do to improve it and engaging for once, rather than moaning incessantly about it whilst ignoring the many ways we can still influence direction.

The magic word for Eurosceptics is “undemocratic”. They simply cannot help themselves, it’s a gift of a word: everyone hates it, no-body entirely understands what they refer to by it, and it goes way beyond the normal nationalistic base of the Conservatives and appeals to all who broadly oppose the EU for very different reasons. And no-one has had the guts to take them on over it.

The fact is the democracy begins at home. Before moaning about the EU as an institution, we need to get our own house in order, and look at how we could improve democracy purely by our own, independent, action. And the answers appear to be blindingly obvious.

Before I go on, let me try and, in a very simplistic fashion, analyse the various structural elements of the EU, that people believe ought to be democratic, and consider how democratic they actually are.

First off, we can exclude the European Court of Justice fairly easily. I don’t think there are many, even among extreme Eurosceptics, who genuinely believe that justices ought to be elected.

Now, the legislature of the European Union is divided into two parts. The weaker of the two (although, allegedly, made slightly stronger by the Lisbon treaty) is the European Parliament. The European Parliament is, currently, the only directly elected institution of the European government, at least in this country. It is elected by proportional representation (which seems a reasonably democratic ideal), through a closed-list system (which doesn’t) in all regions barring Northern Ireland, in 12 separate regions of the United Kingdom (The 9 regions of England and the 3 other countries in the Union, so a degree of localism exists).

Now, these elections use an abominable system called closed-list, which incorporates pretty much every flaw known to PR. There is no individual accountability, as one can only vote for the party, not for the person. The regions are big enough in England so to dilute any concept of direct representation thoroughly, but small enough so to lead to absurdities in the system, such as the BNP gaining two seats, on a smaller swing than the Green party received for nought.

There is no possibility of transferable voting, and indicating preference between candidates and parties, as there is with STV (although this is part of the reason why STV is not true PR, as such a feature invariably leads to disproportional results). So closed-list minimises choice whilst placing parties firmly in control over the election of their preferred candidates.

Now, there is no reason why this must be the case for elections to the European Union. EU rules only specify that the system should be a form of ‘PR’, which it specifies can include the Single Transferable Vote (but, confusingly, don’t appear to set down in any detail how big the constituencies should be which would seem to indicate that the Alternate Vote can be PR, an absurdity). I think I am right in saying that the list classification could also allow the Additional Member System, further adding to the flexibility of elections to the EU. So the government could easily make the EU more accountable and democratic through abolishing closed-list and putting in its place a reasonable, accountable system of ‘PR’ or STV. Almost any reform would improve it, even through simply introducing open lists, although my preferred way would either be the introduction of STV or a change to an Additional Member System, which would introduce more direct representation and bring representatives closer to the people.

So, that’s the EU parliament out of the way, the only directly elected institution of the EU. Fine, you might say, that’s the easy part over and done with, but this hardly transforms the EU. Fair enough, I’ll admit, so I’ll move on to the other institutions and show you how wrong you are.

Secondly, we have the Council of the EU (formerly known as the Council of Ministers, and not to be confused with the European Council, or the Council of Europe [the latter not even being an institution of the EU]). This is the more powerful of the two legislative bodies, and is the principle decision-making body in the EU. It is not directly elected.

However, it is comprised of ministers of state in national governments. Which actually means that a lot of the decision taken that parties decide to conveniently “blame on Brussels” are, in fact, signed off by a collective meeting of the relevant national ministers of state. Which indicates that actually, many decisions allegedly taken by “unelected bureaucrats” are in fact taken by our secretaries of state, weighed up in the national interest, so a lot of the fuss is actually smoke and mirrors. Which means, if you really want to know how effective democratic decision-making in the EU is, it would be better to analyse the voting records of our ministers in the Council of the EU. Strangely, hardly anyone seems to do that.

The Council has a rotating presidency, which is a truly national concept of democracy, in that each country gets an equal right of participation, rather than the position being elected by majority. So much for the EU “undermining the nation state”, in key ways, it acts to preserve it in intergovernmental decision-making.

The Presidency, incidentally, also chairs the European Council, which is similar in constitutional nature to the head of state of a country, although it is a political decision-making body, unlike our own Head of State in the United Kingdom. The European Council is a meeting of the heads of state or government of all member states, which meets in summit around 4 times a year. This, however, will change with the Lisbon treaty, just to add confusion, an additional post of president will be created, separate to the rotating presidency, who chairs the European Council. The new president will not hold any national office, which strikes me as a little absurd, as he will be chairing a meeting of nothing but holders of national office.

This brings me on to the new position of the president of the European Council, which is not elected, and is often cited by Eurosceptics as the greatest evidence of increasing federalism. I say it is not elected, but it would be better to say that it does not have to be directly elected. Instead, it merely has to be elected by qualified majority vote by the European Council.

However, in practice, it would be absurdly easy to introduce democratic contribution to the election of the post — a law could simply be introduced to bind the head of government to the decision of the people in a prior election of all official candidates held in the UK. This would undoubtedly cause turmoil in the ranks of other countries contributing to the European Council, and could easily have a knock-on effect.

The same also applies to the European Commission, the embodiment of the notorious unelected bureaucrats referred to by the Eurosceptics. The Commission is roughly comparable to the government or executive of a nation state, and is not elected (similar, in fact, to our own government). Each country is responsible, however, for appointing a commissioner — so why not make the post subject to national election? What better way to reinvigorate the interests of democracy in the EU than by making commissioners accountable for their actions in office? Again, this could easily have a knock-on effect, with other countries seeking to follow suit. It would not lead to greater presidentialism, as each country contributes its own commissioner, meaning that the values of national democracy would be strengthened — and again, as with every other suggestion above, this is entirely possible unilaterally. It would require no consensual decision-making within the EU; it is a reform that could be introduced quickly and easily by the national government.

Other suggestions have been made — there is no end of ways of making MEPs more accountable to their constituents, through creating incentives to hold more regular constituency surgeries, to splitting regions up into districts which each MEP has individual responsibility for. Eurosceptics generally moan about the state of European democracy, but they singularly fail to realise that democracy, much like charity, begins at home. The EU was founded through intergovernmentalism, and it can be improved by the actions of national governments first and foremost. Unilateral action could introduce the type of dynamic agenda for European democracy that many people have longed for since the establishment of the EU — and the only thing stopping this from happening is the selfishness of national governments.

Was the 20th Century the age of democracy?

In Foreign Affairs on November 6, 2009 at 12:22 am


This essay will start by outlining the reasons for thinking the 20th century was the age of democracy, namely the rapid increase in the number of democracies, due to the failure of alternatives to democracy and increased economic development.  However, this essay will argue that the 20th century was not in fact the age of democracy (on a proper account of what it means to be democratic) due to foreign intervention to crush democracy and, more significantly, a lack of real self-rule in apparently democratic countries.

The statistics suggest that the 20th century was the age of democracy, meaning the century in which democratic governance became predominant.  Professor John Keane points out that “ in the year 1900, when monarchies and empires predominated, there were no states that could be judged as representative democracies by the standard of universal suffrage for competitive multi-party elections. By 1950…. there were 22 democracies accounting for 31 per cent of the world’s population….by the end of the twentieth century…. out of 192 countries, 119 resembled representative democracies (58.2 per cent of the globe’s population), with 85 of these countries (38 per cent of the world’s inhabitants) enjoying forms of political democracy respectful of basic human rights, freedom of the press and the rule of law.”  However, the statistics alone do not establish that the 20th century was the age of democracy – that long-term, not easily reversible, historical processes had led to this development – for all the statistics tell us, these countries could have all reverted to being dictatorships by the beginning of the 21st century.  Two factors may suggest that the 20th century was the age of democracy.  Firstly, the 20th century saw the failure of alternatives to democracy.  Absolute monarchy was dealt a serious blow by the failure of the Tsars to govern Russia adequately, for example being humiliated in war against Japan, and being unable to supply sufficient food to urban dwellers during the (again disastrous) First World War.  Fascism and Communism were also (largely) discredited, not least by the mass starvation and repression evident in Communist China and the Soviet Union. Secondly, global economic development rapidly increased.  One estimate puts the increase in global GDP between 1900 and 2000 at 1800%.  Fukuyama argues that there is a correlation between the level of development as measured by per capita GDP and democracy”.  Countries with a per capita GDP of over $6000 are vastly more likely to be democratic: indeed “we’ve seen a number of countries that have industrialized, like South Korea and Taiwan, and right on schedule, when they hit around that $6,000 income level they develop democratic movements… It has something to do with the growth of the middle class – people that own private property have something to lose and therefore want to participate in the political system.”  Thus global economic development, a key feature of 20th century world history, has significantly contributed towards making the 20th century the age of democracy.

However, three arguments will now be levelled against this thesis.  Firstly, that the 20th century has seen significant opposition to the spread of democracy.  America, the self-proclaimed “land of the free”, was involved in the overthrowing of numerous democratically elected leaders.  The election of Salvador Allende was seen as a disaster by Nixon, who promptly authorised $10m to stop Allende coming to power or to unseat him.  Kissinger said of the eventual coup, after which the dictator General Pinochet came to power, that the US “didn’t do it,” but “we helped them…created the conditions as great as possible”.  The CIA also organised a coup to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in 1954; some human rights activists put the death toll for the resulting unrest at 250,000.

Secondly, there are still vast numbers of people living in powerful countries that are not democracies.  Take the example of China.  The advantages of its undemocratic nature have even been praised by Western commentators, especially as regards the financial crisis; a fiscal stimulus package was quickly passed, without political wrangling of the sort seen in America (at least in public).  Also, the fall of the Soviet Union did not spawn a new breed of democracies: Freedom House’s report on democracy and civil liberties judged that “of the 12 non-Baltic former Soviet republics, seven countries are rated ‘not free’, four are ‘partly free’, and one [Ukraine] is ‘free’ ”.  For example, the main opposition party is banned in Kazakhstan, resulting in President Nursultan Nazarbayev winning the 2006 election with 91% of the vote.  Russia itself is also substantially undemocratic; as Gary Kasparov said in an address to the New York Democracy Forum, there is a “lack of a free press, the persecution of political opposition, and the steady demolition of democratic institutions… Aristotle himself couldn’t find a better definition of “oligarchy” than what we have in the Kremlin today.”

Thirdly – and this is perhaps the most fundamental and important argument – those countries widely acknowledged to be “democratic” are only democratic to a very limited extent.  It seems (to me) that democracy’s great appeal lies in its promise of self-rule: that we can be citizens, not subjects, choosing for ourselves the laws under which we are to live.  The citizen in a democratic state is fully autonomous: “every person, while uniting himself with all…obey[s] only himself and remain[s] as free as before” (Rousseau).  As mentioned in a previous essay, Wolff argued – and I have not yet seen a successful refutation – that both representation and majority-rule ensured that what we call “democracy” does not, cannot, allow citizens to be autonomous.  True democracy – understood as the the political and social arrangement that fulfils that inspiring promise of self-rule – is impossible.  Thus the 20th century cannot be described as the age of democracy.

This definition of democracy does seem rather restrictive.  There is clearly some difference between dictatorship and what is normally described as “democracy”, even granting the constraints of majority-rule and representation.  Can a more inclusive definition, that does grant that a “democratic state” is possible, rescue the thesis that the 20th century is the age of democracy?  It seems not, because existing democracies fall short of even this more limited ideal of democracy.  In America, the poor, the black, the powerless are systematically disenfranchised.  13% of black American men are prohibited from voting because of a felony conviction, which can be as minor as timber larceny.  (Apparently Abraham Lincoln’s great democratic statement, “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent”, only applies to those in the government’s favour.)  In Britain, under FPTP not all votes are worth the same, with political parties aiming at the 200,000 “swing voters” in the mythical “Middle England” whom strategists think are key to victory.  Only 22% of the electorate voted for Labour in 2005; is this not moving dangerously close towards oligopoly?  Furthermore, widening economic inequalities have resulted in an unequal distribution of political power.  For example, the majority of the population are effectively unable to choose the taxation rates it would prefer, due to the threat of capital flight and “brain drain”, as recent discussions over the wisdom of the 50% tax rates showed.

Overall the 20th century was not the age of democracy.  It was a century that saw significant obstacles to democracy, most importantly military intervention by America and widening economic inequality, undermining popular sovereignty.  A further factor not adequately explored in this essay is the impact of globalisation, which has shifted power away from nation-states (democratic or otherwise) to unaccountable supranational organisations to a great extent.  For example, the 1970s in particular saw the IMF and World Bank taking control of many developing countries’ economic and social policies, due to structural adjustment programmes.  Thus perhaps the 20th century is best described as the age of globalisation.