Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Britain's 'elective dictatorship'

A term coined by Lord Hailsham in 1976, later writing a detailed exposition, "The Dilemma of Democracy" in which [at 126]:
"In our lifetime the use of its powers has continuously increased, and the checks and balances have been rendered increasingly ineffective by the concentration of their effective operation more and more in the House of Commons, in the government side of the House of Commons, in the Cabinet within the government side, and to some extent in the Prime Minister within the Cabinet.  The sovereignty of Parliament, absolute in theory, has become more and more the sovereignty of the House of Commons, and like all absolute rulers, having more and more to do, and in consequence less and less time within which to do it, is becoming more and more the tool of its professional advisers, more and more intolerant of criticism, and less and less in control of the detail of what is done in its name."
The reason that politicians have governed as an elected dictatorship can be laid at the door of Edmund Burke who told his Bristol electorate in 1774:
"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
 In today's Daily Telegraph Philip Johnston writes that with the public's view of politicians at a low ebb, the clamour is growing for direct democracy; an article in which he refers to a lecture given by Peter Kellner, YouGov, he of an Upholland connection. That lecture was given at the Reuters Institute/BBC David Butler lecture yesterday and the transcript can be read here

Both Johnston and Kellner appear to be of the opinion that direct democracy begins and ends with the introduction of referenda (something which those of us with any understanding of direct democracy know to be totally incorrect) with the latter appearing to make a case for the continued elective dictatorship that we have in this country - and, by association, the continued membership of the European Union (which is understandable, especially bearing in mind the income of his wife).

Kellner is of the opinion that we are in fact drifting towards a political system in which a combination of modern technology, mendacious journalism and angry voters will undermine representative democracy - to which I would add mendacious politicians. He asks whether people on the whole accept the principles of representative democracy and promptly quotes findings from one of YouGov's polls that show people have no understanding of democracy per se, let alone representative democracy.

In arguing for representative democracy he maintains that something has gone badly wrong with it and cites MPs expenses, spin doctors and what he terms the bear pit of Prime Minister's questions. He then offers what he considers is an equally important factor, stating that representative democracy has proved to be insufficiently robust to repel its detractors; that its outer defences have been overrun, and that its enemies are now at the gates of its citadel – the authority of Parliament. Has he forgotten that the representatives of our democracy made no attempt to repel their detractors (the EU), in fact they welcomed them with open arms, consequently those enemies of which he speaks, never mind being at the gates, are actually inside the citadel - resulting in Parliament having no authority whatsoever where the governance of our country is concerned.

Furthering his argument for representative democracy Kellner, no doubt with great delight, quotes Margaret Thatcher, who in 1975 said:
"Our system, which has been copied all over the world, is one of representative Government under which those who have not time to look into every detail of this or that Bill choose people who are honourable and with whose opinions they are in harmony to discuss these matters."
The problem with this argument is that for decades now, those chosen by the people are no longer honourable nor are their opinions in harmony. Kellner also believes that the political class have abrogated their right and duty to take important decisions, which is why he believes that today we have held referendums (or promised referendums) on devolution, electoral reform, relations with the rest of Europe and our currency. Kellner cites the abrogation by the political class of their right and duty to make decisions is the reason why we are where we are in respect of the call for referenda - but is not the reason why we are where we are not the result of dictatorial decisions taken by our political elite exercising their supposed right and duty? Should not the people of a country have the right to decide for themselves by whom - and how - they should be governed? Should not the people of a country have the right to decide on how their country conducts itself in the world? Should not the people of a country have the right to decide whether they wish to change their currency?

In his argument against referenda Kellner cites an example which involves the NHS and queries whether as a result of a referendum the wrong decision was taken. He then queries whether that decision would need reversing by means of another referendum, saying that this could take months. I have to ask whether a wrong decision taking months to reverse is not better than the present system, which to reverse a decision taken by politicians, can take years? On the same matter, Kellner states that people tend to vote for the status quo, citing referendums on the Alternative Vote(2010) and membership of the United Kingdom to remain members of the European Union (1975) but fails to acknowledge that in both instances a 'level playing field' did not exist.

An illustration that confirms politicians care not a jot for public opinion but are more concerned about their own standing and that of their party is exemplified by Kellner's statement:
"But I have to report that when politicians ask me about what the public think, it‟s normally along the lines of, “how‟s our party leader doing?” or “how can we persuade working mothers to vote for us next time?"
Where our present system of representative democracy would flounder on the rocks is where Kellner states that:
".......it would surely help if MPs were to admit the limits to their power, to parrot fewer pre-baked soundbites, to give straight answers to straight questions......"
Surely Kellner realises that they cannot as to so do would only illustrate their impotency where the governance of this country is concerned, viz-a-viz the European Union?

Kellner illustrates his lack of understanding where our present democracy is concerned - and I use the word 'democracy' with a large emphasis of sarcasm - when he writes, in respect of Dicey's idea of a 'people's veto:
"That is, it should be possible for the electorate, local or national depending on the issue, to say to their elected politicians: “this time you have gone too far. What you propose is utterly unacceptable”. It would apply to new laws or regulations, after they have been approved by parliament or other elected bodies but before they are enacted."
So, as an example, when the EU issues it forthcoming Directive on the composition of the number of women on company boards and the public disagrees they can say to our puppet government this is totally unacceptable? And our puppet government can do what, exactly?

One can be forgiven for thinking that this lecture was composed by his wife - which it probably was!

I have written on the matter of our democracy on many occasions previously and readers may wish to refer to this post as an example of my views, if they have not already done so.

Update: Richard North, EU Referendum, adds his far superior critique of Kellner to that of my poor effort above.

Update (2): Kellner implies that allowing referenda could result in a plethora of same. This is a list of all referenda held in Switzerland, which practices Direct Democracy. from 1848 to March 2012. Do not misunderstand, I am not suggesting the Swiss system is copied - just the principle.


Anonymous said...

Richard North writes at EURef: To be fair to the man, in identifying the problems with referendums, he makes some good points - not least that politicians, in deciding when, where and on what terms referendums are held, can use them as a tactical device to achieve their own ends.

In Swiss Direct Democracy, the people have the power to set the terms and times of the referendum. The time table is fixed like US presidential elections, so politicians cannot tinker with it to further their own ends.

Do I detect a whiff of fear and panic in the ranks of the entrenched elite.

WitteringsfromWitney said...

DP111: Methinks you do indeed!