Sunday, 25 June 2017

Let us be done with representative "democracy"


One voice I continue to ignore in the Brexit debate is that of David Allen Green. There is only so much sanctimony a person should have to tolerate and I see more than my share of it from other commentators. This particular post though, in which he argues against the use of referendums, cannot be ignored. You can read the preamble on the FT website but I will get straight to the meat of it.
The difficulty with the 2016 referendum result is not so much that it was in favour of Leave. Wrong or irrational political and policy decisions are made all the time. The problem is that it has proved irresistible and irreversible. The people have spoken, there is a mandate, and so the mandated thing must be done. There is no check or balance. There can be no stopping it.

The use of referendums, especially on a UK-wide basis, contradicts the principle of parliamentary supremacy. The referendum injects a poison into the body politic which cannot be contained. There is nothing the parliament can then do to gainsay the referendum result.
Um, well, actually, there is, and they gave it some considerable thought in both chambers of the house. We can argue the toss but there were opportunities which could have been exploited. The question is one of whether they dare - which is another matter entirely. In the end they rolled over without placing any substantive obstacles in the way of triggering article 50. 

And why do you suppose that is? Well, I'll tell you for why. Public trust in Parliament was on trial. Binding or no, parliament voted by a substantial margin to refer a constitutional decision to the public. The government even went as far as saying that decision would be implemented. A contract was written. The government had the authority to make such a contract by way having won the election. To then have told 52% of the electorate after the fact that they were only testing the water would have been to invite a bloodthirsty contempt.

That mistrust, though, did not arrive overnight. There was a strong objection to the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, we were lied to about it's purpose and a major constitutional change was made without direct public consent. Arguably, had their been a referendum on Lisbon, we would not now be in this mess. Article 50 as an instrument would not exist and a less rigid framework for exit would be possible. We may not even be leaving.

Moreover, Green speaks of the referendum being "irresistible and irreversible". Except of course, actions of parliament can also be irresistible and irreversible, not least a major transfer of powers to Brussels - some of which we may never regain - even by leaving the EU. Certainly what has been done is not easily undone.

Green argues that "Until modern times, referendums and popular mandates were seen as not only alien to the parliamentary tradition but as subversive". He quotes Edmund Burke setting the objection out in his 1774 speech to the electors of Bristol.

Firstly one would note that this is not 1774. This is a vibrant free society with as close to a free press as we have ever had, with unprecedented amounts of information available to the public, where the deliberative debate extends far beyond the reaches of Westminster - the actions therein are transmitted in real time to the rest of the world.

There is no reason why the populace should be excluded from constitutional questions - especially one like the EU referendum, which is a basic question of who the people want as the supreme authority. If that is not a matter for a referendum, then what is? We should also note that in 1774 MPs were elected by a tiny minority of electors without universal suffrage - with MPs largely forming a ruling class who saw it as their god given right to rule. In some respects that mentality has not changed.

To become an MP you need to join a party. Independent candidates do not fare well since politics is played out  through the media and people, sadly, vote from brands and leaders rather than voting on issues. To join a party means conforming to the party scriptures, to bury one's own personal ideas and instead suspend one's own critical faculties to push the tribal narrative.

It takes a certain sort of mediocre person to do that. A particular kind of narcissistic, ambitious type with few scruples and generally without the intellect to see why this system is a huge part of the problem. As bad as that is, we have a system that puts them all in one room to decide the fate of the nation. Being it a metropolitan London culture, subject to its own traditions, behaviour patterns and groupthinks, it exists in a parallel universe. How can this possibly be representative or even wise?

For as long as this system exists we will forever have a ruling class whose value system is entirely alien to the rest of the country. Not for nothing do we call it the Westminster Bubble. And in this bubble we have these same ambitious nobodies seeking as much exposure as possible, constantly courting the eye of bubble dwelling reporters, seldom ever taking a break to absorb and understand the issues, largely taking their brief from that same ill-informed media or badly researched party literature. Deliberative it is not. More often it is tribal and completely bovine. Labour was only ever unified over the issue of the EU out of political expediency.

Meanwhile, we have so many ministries and committees that there is always scope for an ambitious MP to find a step up the greasy pole. Promotions are offered in exchange for conformity meaning MPs will often quell their personal misgivings in the belief they can use their position of influence to the greater good. It never pans out like that though. The system has ways of muzzling dissent. Consequently we have old timer MPs who came to do good but stayed to do well - where few leave office poorer than they went in.
 
Green argues that for UK-wide votes "there is no compelling reason for a decision to not be taken by elected representatives – even if they pass the legislation for the referendum. Part of the problem is caused by the notion of a “mandate”. Taken literally, it is an instruction, not a permission. The government is mandated to to do something it otherwise may not do; the people have issued a mandatory order".

What Green is saying here is that MPs ought to have the power to contradict the public. The word democracy stems from the Greek word, dēmokratía, comprising two parts: dêmos "people" and kratos "power". If the people have only limited powers over their representatives then we can say with some justification that this is not a democracy at all - not least when in many constituencies there is no chance whatsoever of unseating the incumbent.

But then Green explores general elections.
"Of course, in general elections the supposed mandate is no such mandatory order. The content of a manifesto has some constitutional effect in that the House of Lords under the Salisbury Convention will not block policies set out in a manifesto of a party which has gained a majority in the House of Commons. But the content of a manifesto can be disregarded by a victorious party, and indeed it often is. The mandate has no mandatory force.

And that is how parliament should work. Whatever is in a manifesto is always subject to getting past the House of Commons. It is up to ministers to propose a measure and up to MPs to then decide. That is representative democracy in action. And if voters are unhappy then they have a remedy at the next general election. And as no parliament can bind its successor, then unpopular legislation can be repealed and unworkable policies abandoned.
So again we see how voting for a manifesto is largely just an exercise in politicking - and if that was true in days of yore then it is ever more true now. Voting is largely a gamble and the chances of getting anything close to what you voted for are somewhere around nil. We have a ruling class free to do as it pleases. In fact the EU referendum is probably the only time in my life where I did actually get what was promised in the election. 

Then to assert that we have the "happy remedy" of removing governments at an election, again ignores the reality of the system. A government in its first term seldom has coherent opposition, they are usually rebuilding their base and are largely introspective. For the first term a government gets to do as it pleases and in recent times we have seen that same insular navel gazing spanning many terms. It was this very dynamic that allowed Labour to ratify Lisbon without much of a parliamentary debate let alone a national one. Our glorious representatives barely bothered to read it. Is this what Green thinks is deliberation?

Green says that "with mandates from referendums, this valve is removed. MPs on all sides vote on the issue not with the consciences or their knowledge but in accordance with the referendum result. There is no scheduled way for the mandate to be either renewed or reversed. The electorate in a referendum seems to bind all parliaments, and indeed binds the electorate, for all time".

As much as that safety valve is barely functioning, it is interesting Green would talk about MPs voting with their knowledge. Given that the man has set himself up as a Brexit oracle, if he is halfway competent, then he knows full well the sum total of that knowledge is, well, bugger all really. As to binding parliaments and the electorate, what does he think the ratification of Lisbon did?

Green opines that "One curious feature of the push for the EU question to be settled by a referendum is how it is contrary to the UK institutions to which many Leavers say they want to have sovereignty reinstated. Parliament is not able to make a decision on EU membership contrary to the referendum result, and the courts are no less than “enemies of the people” for insisting that decision by made by parliament. In the constitutional equivalent of the Bến Tre saying, it became necessary to undermine the sovereignty of parliament and of the courts so as to “take back control”.

This all depends on whose sovereignty we are talking about. If, as Green claims, we are a representative democracy, then the power derived from the people is held in trust by our MPs. Power and sovereignty that is not theirs to give away. It is for the people to decide where that power should reside. 

In this I am, like many, perplexed as to why Brexiteers would want that power rest once more with Parliament since Parliament did this to us in the first place. But yes, it is absolutely right that the powers of Parliament should be undermined if that Parliament is abusing the trust placed in it. The repatriation of powers to their rightful place very much is taking back *some* control. We need to go one further and take more powers away from Westminster.

We should note, though, that this referendum did not pop up out of the blue. This was fought for and won not over the space of a year but from the very early days of the Anti-federalist League, on through to the Referendum Party and on to Ukip. This was no ordinary issue plucked from the air. This is a matter ultimate sovereignty and a major constitutional issue on which the public have repeatedly been defied - largely in thanks to an immovable establishment which knows full well that that the people cannot usefully exercise their own power.

In his closing remarks Green states that "Any reversal of Brexit should not be done by a referendum. What is needed is for the UK to return to and reassert itself as having a representative system. Further referendums and further (contested) mandates may have a pleasing result in the short-term, but the long-term cost is to the democratic system itself. Referendums are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Let’s instead return to being a parliamentary democracy".

No thank you, David. Our system of parliamentary "democracy" has descended into retail politics where political parties use the resources of the state to bribe and solidify their power bases. Vital decision making powers have been taken away from the people and put into the hands of fraudulent, virtue signalling, vain, venal and shallow creatures belonging to a particularly parched gene pool, incapable of acting with integrity or wisdom - so evidenced by three absolutely pointless and destructive military incursions. As bad as this is, it rules out the possibility of fiscal prudence.

Green would have it that we remain passive serfs who give up our influence to one of these specimens where the fullest extent of of our participation is taking part in a voting ritual every five years or so. How can that ever produce anything but an elected tyranny? Under this system we are ruled, not governed, and ruled by an odious political class entirely immune to the debate in the public sphere. It rather seems to me that we are not having nearly enough referendums and there are insufficient checks and balances to ensure the wishes of the public are heeded. 

For as long as this system of parliamentary democracy exists we do not have democracy at all. The power triangle is the wrong way up. The regions should be instructing London, not vice versa. Whichever way I look at it this system is spent. It has no life left in it and there is no possibility of reforming it. 

There are those who believe that tinkering with the voting system might help, but the means of selection is not really the problem. It still means a congregation of politicians in London making decisions on things they cannot begin to comprehend with no system of feedback while they are trapped in the bubble. A creation of our media which did not exist in 1774. 

What we need is decentralised politics where the regions make decisions locally by means of their own selection, thus inverting the power hierarchy and reducing the volume of decision making in London. The idea of regional assemblies has been floated before, but this is largely based on the idea of subsidiarity rather than a recognition that the people are sovereign. What we need is for London to be the servant, not the master - and until we de-londonise our politics, we cannot de-londonise our economy and culture. 

The Palace of Westminster is a relic of a bygone age. Designed for a politics that no longer exists, it can no longer usefully provide for the people. It is time to close it down and save it for ceremonial events. Its purpose has passed and we need to look at other ways of doing political business. If we can't take Westminster out of politics then we have to take politics out of Westminster.

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