Daily Archives: November 2, 2010

Making servants of our masters

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.

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