In “The New Aristocracy” I described the evolution of a modern international elite and the general reasons why elites are so successful in preserving their privileged position. My purpose here is to examine how the natural and probably ineradicable tendencies of political elites to behave abusively and selfishly towards the mass of men may be moderated by institutional and constitutional means. The article is directed at the British political system, but has a broad degree of general application.
In resisting the abuse of the many by the few, Britain begins with the great advantages of a parliamentary system with MPs elected by the first-past-the-post method and a non-executive head of state chosen by a means outside any political manipulation short of outright criminality such as murder. These advantages provide a massive barricade against a Prime Minister who would be a despot. He cannot act without the support of an elected parliamentary majority. His cabinet in practice must be overwhelmingly drawn from elected politicians. He may change his cabinet, but he cannot do so without regard to a cabinet member’s status and popularity within the party on whose support he depends.
Most importantly, the prime minister cannot become head of state. The mere existence of the office of president, be it executive or ceremonial, provides the greatest opportunity to subvert parliamentary control of the executive. The example of France in the early years of the Fifth Republic demonstrates how easily a President’s powers may be extended by the overtly democratic means of a referendum against the wishes of a Parliament.
That is the strength of our political circumstances. But it is still anything but democratic. If our parliamentary system by its very nature makes outright dictatorship improbable, it remorselessly promotes oligarchy, and that is the poison – the power of the few over the many – which must be drawn if democratic control is to mean anything.
The means by which we may democratise our politics are threefold. The first is by the restriction of the powers of politicians; the second by ensuring that the ordinary elector has meaningful access to the political process and the third by the removal of barriers to the use of public instruments such as the law.
The present great engine of British oligarchy is the power of the executive in Parliament. How may it be restrained? By the abolition of the Royal Prerogative which allows a government to do much outside the remit of parliament, including the vitally important power to sign treaties. By the abolition of the whips. By placing the selection of candidates for any party solely in the hands of the constituency associations. By insisting that no one may stand for a Parliamentary seat until they have ten years experience in work unrelated to politics – this would kill the modern career politician. By greatly restricting the number of government post holders, including outlawing the use of unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries – I suggest a government of twenty four comprised of twelve ministers and twelve deputy ministers and no others. By removing all powers of patronage from the government and particularly from the PM. By giving greater powers of scrutiny to politicians outside the government. By dismantling barriers to standing in parliamentary elections such as the deposit – this would greatly assist minority and new parties to compete. By ensuring that minority and new parties get reasonable amounts of media coverage.
If those changes were made, how might our parliament work? The cabinet could be elected by a Commons vote from candidates for each ministerial position. Nominations could be made by any MP. The successful ministerial candidates would be subject to dismissal by a simple majority vote of “no confidence”. This latter proposal would not change the present position in theory. However, the absence of whipping and general party control would make it a much more potent threat. Any member of the Commons could be allowed to propose legislation with an equal chance of getting it onto the statute book. The cabinet could propose a scheme of legislation as it does now, but its acceptance would be meaningfully dependent on its majority acceptance by the entire membership of the Commons.
Such a system would not destroy the power of party, nor make government impracticable. Parties would still be able to have a party policy. Party election manifestoes could be still be published. The executive could still propose legislation. Moreover, the natural sense of common purpose that a party engenders would ensure that most of the legislation proposed by a government would be passed. What such constitutional reforms would do is restore a more equal balance between the executive and the backbencher, between party and the individual MP and diminish the Prime Minister’s role. The actual day-to-day operation of Parliament throughout much of the period of Britain’s greatest power and influence, the nineteenth century, had much in common.
What of the Lords? A second chamber by its very nature becomes part of the oligarchic control of politics. If the second chamber is too strong, it has much the same effect as a hung parliament or a political system with a structural separation of powers such as America. If it is too weak, it provides no meaningful safeguard against abuse by the chamber with power, but muddies the democratic waters. Where the second chamber is unelected and its workings are largely conducted by the placemen of successive governments, as is the Lords, it is purely a creature of the elite. For those reasons I favour what is in modern times a novel form of second chamber.
I suggest a house of 1,000 people selected by lot for a single term of office of five years. It would be selected from those who put themselves forward. The only qualifications would be that the person was born a British citizen and was literate. The use of selection by lot would ensure that it was not selected on party lines. It would in effect be a grand jury for the nation. The house would not have the power to initiate legislation but would be able to annul or amend legislation from the Commons. For those appalled at the idea of selection by lot, I would point out that is exactly what happens in jury selection and we trust juries to make decisions about whether a defendant should go to prison and to sit through some very complex trials. The size of my proposed jury would remove obvious group bias, prevent effective horse trading and make unimportant the presence of people who were incompetent to make decisions.
To these blocks on the professional politician’s power should be added a codified constitution which can only be changed by a large majority of the electorate and which is adjudicated by an authority independent of Parliament. For that independent authority I would again turn to the second house established by lot. Why not a supreme court of legally qualified judges? Well, constitutional rights are essentially political not legal matters. One only has to see how far the American Constitution has been corrupted by politically motivated judges to see the danger of a small number of people drawn from the elite making the decisions.
The constitution should be designed to perform three tasks. First, to give legal rights which will both strengthen the democratic process and protect the citizen, for example a right to free expression. Second, to diminish the opportunities for politicians to subvert the democratic process, for instance a clause stating that no treaty may be entered into which extends beyond the lifetime of a parliament. Third, the enshrinement of the form of our political system, for example a clause making first-past-the-post the method of electing Parliament, which would ensure that we should never be in a position of perpetual coalition government.
Although favouring first past-the-post, I think it might be improved to both better reflect the number of votes cast for each party and to provide electors with more choice in who should represent them. This could be done by having two member constituencies with the two candidates who gained the most votes being elected. Parties would be allowed to run a maximum of two candidates each so it would still be possible for a constituency which was strongly in favour of one party to elect two members of that persuasion. However, it would also allow electors in constituencies where opinion was significantly divided to have MPs of different persuasion representing them. That would be more democratic. . Such a system would retain the constituency link and prevent a state of perpetual coalition.
The duties of an MP need to be defined in law. The MP is at present under no enforceable obligations to his constituents. The Burkean idea of the MP as a representative independent of his constituents was designed for an aristocratic age by Burke who was a particularly assiduous toady of the nobility. If the ordinary elector is to have any meaningful representation the MP must become a mixture of delegate and advocate. I would favour a system which gave electors the power to recall their MP.
The position of the ordinary citizen may be further strengthened by referenda. However, referenda should only be initiated by the electorate, never the politicians for they will inevitably only call referenda when they believe that they can be won. The rules for referenda must also be strict to ensure a lack of bias in the public presentation of arguments. How often referenda would arise is debatable, because with a second house not selected on party lines there would be a permanent public scrutiny of what professional politicians were doing.
Secrecy is the cloak of oligarchies, openness the backcloth of democracy. Democracy by definition requires the electorate to know what is being done on their behalf by elected representatives and public servants. With very few exceptions, such as some military data, information in the public sphere could be made available to the electorate without compromising the interests of the country.
Secrecy allows governments, their non-elected agents and public servants to subvert democracy. In particular it allows agreements to be made secretly which range from the straightforwardly immoral to the damagingly mistaken. In particular, secrecy allows the promotion of the beliefs and interests of the those with political power.
Of all the instruments to restrain the abuse of power, the law stands highest. If any citizen can challenge the abuse of power by the state in open court, confident that the administration of justice is not tainted by political interference, that is the most massive and immediate bulwark against oppression that a society can have.
The English legal system still is as fair as any in the world. It has an ancient unbroken tradition, well established principles of due process, the long accepted principle of equality before the law, widespread use of the jury and provision for legal aid. Yet English law falls well short of justice. The most obvious shortfall is the fact that the quality of legal advice a man receives is largely determined by his wallet. In civil suits the size of his wallet determines whether he may even go to court. To ensure true equality before the law, money must be removed from the equation. This can only be done by the state funding all legal work. Lawyers should still work for fees and be treated as self-employed, but the amount they earn for any given work should be determined by Parliament. I hasten to add that this would not affect the ability of the individual to choose his lawyer. Indeed, it should improve his or her chances of getting the lawyer of their choice.
Our legal system also has too great a political involvement. The Lord Chancellor in effect appoints all judges, the attorney general my both initiate and end prosecutions. The solicitor general acts as the attorney general’s deputy. All three appointments are in the gift of the PM and all three appointees belong to the party led by the PM. Political involvement in the law should be restricted to the passing of laws, the funding of the legal system, and the acting as a court of last resort for complaints of maladministration of justice brought by the public. All judicial appointments should be made by lot from those with sufficient legal experience.
Outside the formal institutions of the state lie the mass media. The mass media are part of the democratic process. At present the British media is effectively closed to the ordinary citizen. Overwhelmingly, appointment to media posts is not by merit but by influence. It is not that all mediafolk are incompetent, merely that they do not get their posts by open competition. A statutory right of reply would be a good start to opening up access to the media, but means must also be found to broaden the base from which mediafolk are chosen. Outlawing nepotism would be one.
Realism says that institutional and constitutional reforms will not remove the oligarchic tendency in human beings or the propensity of elites to manipulate and abuse the majority. But we have the evidence of the past two centuries that the tendency can be ameliorated and controlled to the extent that it is kept within such limits that allow the masses a reasonable degree of freedom, material comfort and physical security. However, that can only be achieved within a clearly defined political and cultural setting, the most efficient of which is the nation state.
Outside the nation state there is a malign ghost at the democratic feast: supranationalism. This is inimical to democracy because it allows elites to dilute democratic involvement to the point of nullity. If, for example, Britain remains within the EU, it will not matter what constitutional and institutional safeguards are introduced into the British political system, because they would not have supremacy over EU law and executive decisions, both of which are made by an hermetically sealed elite whose values are profoundly antidemocratic.
Globally, the supranationalist threat presently comes from American quasi-imperialism, the UN and its agencies, particularly the IMF and the World bank, the EU, treaties such as that which commit Britain to the dictates of the Court of Human Rights and above all from indiscriminate free trade which is the greatest engine for dissolving the nation state the internationalist ever discovered. In the not too far distant future a resurgent Russia and a newly powerful India and China will also become pieces on the internationalist chess board.
To be truly democratic, Britain must recover control over her affairs. That means leaving the EU, using our veto at the UN to block internationalist interference, repudiating all treaties which restrict what we may do in our own land and moving from the destructive madness of laissez faire economics both at home and abroad to a system of judicious protection of our own economy and interests.