Change, Change, Change, but ... Whither democracy in Britain?Our government in the 1200s was much better than anything else around. The Magna Carta was so good that it only took a few years for the Danes to pinch it. The nascent Parliament of 1266, which was composed of two knights per county and two burgesses per town was truly revolutionary. British democracy has been the template for many governments, and has been a marvellous improvement on indigenous undemocratic rule in countries around the world.
Our democracy has not stood still, but has slowly evolved into what we have today. Unfortunately, slowly has meant at a snail's pace, and with many a backward step. Many countries that didn't even exist back then have leapfrogged over us in terms of both quantity of democracy and quality of governance. From leading edge we have slipped to trailing badly. Worse, our democracy has nowhere near kept up with us.We were once a society of illiterate toilers, unable to fathom the weighty issues of governance, and needing a paternal system that decided for us. The citizen was a source of tax and a recipient of government but not a participant in government.This relationship has sadly not changed even though we have. We are now an educated thinking society fully capable of sharing in deciding these "weighty issues", but although the son of a circus performer can now become Prime Minister, in his time in office he ruled with little more input from his fellow citizens than M'Lord did in the past.
On every day other than election day, except for the rare occasion that we are now promised a referendum, we are subjects of, not participants in government. The London Times put it bluntly on election day, 1997, when they wrote,
"This is the day on which the tables are turned - not Labour against Tory but the governed against the governors. On this day politicians, from the Prime Minister downwards, are our servants not our masters."So this means that we have no way, other than at election day, to object to laws passed, or to propose laws that our fellow citizens can pass, as in Switzerland, for instance, where democracy is considered to be owned by all the people.Britain today: a state of flux
'This is a British Democracy....It is different.'Ever since 1832 we have gradually been excluding the voters from government. - Sir Humphrey Appleby reminding, and Bernhard Wooley remembering "why power oughtn't to be vested with the voters"After 800 years of snail's pace democratic and governance evolution we are faced suddenly (comparatively speaking) with not one but with many radical changes. How these pan out will define how much democracy we enjoy as well as the quality of our governance in the future. In a more pessimistic outlook, and unfortunately increasingly more likely outcome, we can look forward to minimal democracy and increasing rule by bureaucrats (by regulation) or by persons appointed or indirectly elected. Historically not the best methods to get accountable, in the best interest of the citizen rule (quangos and the Soviet electoral system). A worst case scenario could see us ruled by five different levels of government with minimal to negligible accountability and representation: international, European, national, regional, and local.From an optimistic point of view, if we manage these radical changes half-way right, we could end up with enhanced power and prestige, greater democracy and better government. Let's look at these different levels of government.
Internationally democracy carries great power and allows countries that are seen to have it to punch above their weight, e.g., the attention paid to tiny Denmark when a referendum rejected Maastricht, or to a lesser degree democratically, when the US President has to get the Senate to ratify his treaties. If our system of government had a method of treaties being ratified by us, the people, we would gain both from our ability to take part in what our country did internationally, and from the better bargaining position our leaders could bring to bear on our behalf.2) European
"Big apples good. Small apples bad"
The European Union and democracy are now chalk and cheese. With enhanced democracy , we would be better placed to reject inappropriate regulations from Brussels, as well as to have a bigger footprint in deciding policies that ultimately (and increasingly) impact our whole social structure, from working conditions, to foreign policy, to the use of public funds.
The House of Lords is undergoing a major reconstruction. If this includes some form of democratic review and check on the Government of the day, we will have both improved democracy and better government. However, if what we get is a House of appointed "Yes" men, we will sorely miss our present unelected, but mostly independent quaint anachronism.
This is still wide open. Depending on the system and the amount of involvement we have in it, we could get a wonderful example of decentralised democracy or the nightmare of rule by quango.
Local government should be the closest to the people government, but in practice is a bit of a mixed bag. Whilst we cannot make all the petty decisions they make on our behalf every day, we need a mechanism to decide the larger issues and in principle directions.A proposal for a "House of the People"
"In Britain today our government operates without a written constitution or Bill of Rights; includes an unaccountable House of Parliament where membership is through inheritance or appointment rather than election; has eroded local democracy through the transfer of powers and functions from elected local officials to appointed and unaccountable quangos; and is elected by a voting system which fails to reflect the true wishes of voters. These factors contribute to a large degree to the disaffection of voters." Alex Salmond MP, 1997
Only on rare occasions, does a Government reverse its decision by popular demand. The poll tax was the most striking example in recent times, and there was an unprecedented level of violent discontent before there was any "backtracking" on that issue.The "Body of Ratifiers"
Without an adequate second House with sufficient levels of review and balance, there can only be extreme discontent to stop decisions taken on our behalf, that most of us think are clearly wrong.
We could, as is done in many countries, simply elect a second chamber. This could give review and a check on Government, but as we can see from experiences elsewhere, is unfortunately far from ideal. We would, after all, be electing another House of politicians. They would almost all come from the main political parties and therefore vote as they were told. The result would be that if the majority was from the same party as the Government, there would be little review and no check. If the majority was from a different party we would have review ad nauseum and as much check as it could get away with politically.
In a democratic ideal we would all gather together in Westminster and vote on the different issues as did those original democrats, the citizens of Athens, in their Assembly 2500 years ago. This is patently not possible for us but could we, as proposed by a number of people, all vote on bills on the World Wide Web? The web and its supporting structures is already sufficiently developed technically but there are non-technical snags. Everybody would have to have access to the web and be sufficiently computer literate to use it. The time it would take to read through each bill plus the for and against arguments, and then vote, would mean that we would only vote on a few issues that interested us, or perhaps not vote at all. Almost perfect from a personal democracy point of view, but with a miniscule, self-selected vote, terrible for national democracy and a disaster for the quality of governance.
We propose a method that would give the same outcome as if we all gathered together to vote, but without the downsides. Enter the Ratifiers.
The Ratifiers would be randomly selected from the Voters Roll at a ratio of perhaps 1 to 100, which, given that there are approximately 44 million parliamentary voters in the UK, makes around 440,000 Ratifiers (a lot less are needed statistically to make the Ratifiers vote identical to a general vote, but 1% gives a larger proportion of voters the opportunity to serve). The term would be one year, and as this would mean some commitment in time and effort, should be voluntary. Once having served a term, the Ratifier's name would be taken off the selection roll.Function and Duties
The purpose of the Ratifiers is to ensure that legislation passed by Parliament is acceptable to the people of Britain, without putting restrictions on our parliamentarians to act as leaders and lead (but not drive) us. It would no longer be necessary for the electorate to have to rise up in anger as in the Poll Tax demonstrations, to defeat a bill that has no popular mandate at all.
The Passage of a Bill
The Bill would be introduced to Parliament by one of its Members and would be debated, perhaps amended, and ultimately voted on by the House of Commons and passed. (In the House of Commons of the near future, there will most likely be a mixture of directly elected MP, and "top up" MPs, who will be elected by proportional representation. Thus, a House with different levels of constituency. This is envisaged as being able to work smoothly in a single chamber.) The Body of Ratifiers would receive the final approved Bill for consideration. The main parliamentary proponents and opponents would have a period (perhaps a week) to submit their combined arguments together with a rebuttal of each other's arguments, to the Ratifiers Commission.
Any other interested parties could also submit their arguments as to why the Bill should, or should not become law. At the end of the period, the submissions are placed on computer together with any background or historical information that the Commissioner judges to be helpful in understanding the ramifications of the Bill becoming law. If a Ratifier has access to the World Wide Web, he could look at the information there, but if not, then in all the local libraries, there would be a simple terminal that requires no computer expertise to operate.To vote, he would enter a voting booth (also in the local library) which contains a simple terminal connected to the central Ratifiers Commission voting computer. The Ratifier would identify himself, receive security clearance, and register his vote. After a voting period of perhaps two weeks, voting on that Bill would be closed.
If the required number of "Yes" votes were received, then the Commissioner would forward the Bill to the Queen for Royal Assent (as is presently the case when the Parliament has passed a bill) to sign it into an Act (law). If the Ratifiers reject the Bill, the Commissioner would return the Bill to the Parliament. The Government could then either let the Bill die, or could alter it to get greater Parliamentary and Ratifier support and reintroduce, as an amended Bill.Inverse Proportional VotingCould the Opposition play a more positive role in formulating laws?
A Bill that received the support of the major parties and say, 95% of the elected chamber's vote, should not be able to be stopped by a simple majority of Ratifier votes against. This would stop our parliamentarians from leading us. Conversely, a Bill that passed with 51% for and 49% against should not require an arbitrary preset supermajority (such as two-thirds) of "No's" from the Ratifiers to fail. The answer to this dilemma is Inverse Proportional Voting where the majority of Ratifiers against a Bill to fail it is proportional to its Commons support. In other words, the first Bill with 95% Commons support, would take 95% Ratifiers against, to overturn it. In our second example with only 51% of House support, the Bill would fail if 51% of Ratifiers were against it.
Courage and Leadership, or Arrogance?
A Bill that received enough votes to pass with the Inverse Proportional Voting but with less than a simple majority, would go back to the House of Commons for their "political reality check". Do they think that this is so right or needed that they would enact it against the wishes of the majority of the electorate? If they do, and vote accordingly, then the Bill passes, going off for Royal Assent, to be signed into law. A Government that does this too often or is not perceived to be right over time, will be in opposition after the next election; but one that is perceived as having been right, will be credited with vision, strength and leadership.
"It is in the process of legislation that the impotence of the opposition parties and backbenchers when faced by a cohesive majority government may be seen the most clearly" - Rodney Brazier, constitutional expert, 1988Citizen Initiated Legislation and the Ratifiers
In the last election, Labour won a substantial majority in the House of Commons due to the "winner takes all" nature of the voting system, despite opposition parties receiving considerably more of the total votes cast (56.8%). Yet Opposition has no chance of getting bills enacted and very little influence on the form or substance of a Government Bill. The Government always has the numbers. (The same was true for Labour in their long years in opposition.)
The Opposition is reduced to playing the very negative role of trying, by fair or even foul means, to portray the Government and its policies in a poor light; useful in making the Government justify its actions (sometimes) and keeping it honest (well, sort of honest) but still negative."Opposition is four or five years' humiliation in which there is no escape from the indignity of no longer controlling events." - Roy Hattersley, from the Labour wilderness in 1995What if, instead of being impotent, the Opposition could, if it could muster say 30% of the Commons vote, propose its own Bill dealing with the same matter and in competition with a Government Bill? The Ratifiers would then vote in order of preference for: the Government Bill, the Opposition Bill, and neither Bill. Both sides would have to justify their positions to the Ratifiers and even if the Opposition could only just get the 30% House support and therefore not have much chance of getting its Bill passed (it would need 70% Ratifier vote), a majority of Ratifiers in favour could make the Government moderate or abandon its own Bill .
There is increasing rhetoric from British politicians of all stripe for the electorate to express opinions. Poll-taking has increased immensely, especially when an election is in the offing. Referendums have begun to be put to the people, also, on issues such as Welsh and Scottish devolution (with us footing the bill for the Government's campaigns).There are, however, a number of more legitimate concerns that need to be addressed:
At present, if you want a bill to have a chance to become law, you really need to be a member of the Government. Even then, backbenchers who introduce "private members' bills" have little chance of them even being debated in the Commons! These private members' bills are regarded a bit like the babbling of young children experimenting with first words, and listened to as earnestly by their elders.
As for laws originating with the electorate, to be voted on by the electorate, er well, no. We don't have any of that.
Citizen Intitiated Referendums (C.I.R.) have often been proposed in Britain but never enacted. A major reason for this is that a large number of our elite both in and out of Parliament believe in their right to rule without interference from the sweaty masses, except (reluctantly) for the occasional election.1) Initiatives that are written at the kitchen table, get the required signatures to be placed on a ballot, and then go directly to the electorate for their vote, have sometimes been found, after being passed, to be flawed. They may not say legally what was intended to say, have effects on other law that was not intended, or be unconstitutional. Often, these initiatives are challenged successfully in the courts, with the result being that a law that the people agreed with in spirit, and therefore passed, is not allowed to be enacted.
2) An initiative can be written to deliberately deceive the electorate with hidden effects, or appear to say one thing but legally say another.
3) The electorate does not have the ability, as does a legislature, to debate and perhaps amend an initiative.
4) The electorate gets most of its information from the media and can be unduly and adversely influenced, particularly by 10 second TV bites.
5) The vote of the whole people on an initiative is so "hard" and "final" that legislatures have difficulty repealing or amending such legislation as needed when times change.
6) There is a delicate balance in the proportion of voters' signatures required to the number on the voters roll. Too high,and it becomes very difficult if not practically impossible to mount an initiative, too low and the poor voter is faced with hoards of complex and sometimes conflicting questions at election time.OREGON voters had 22 Questions to vote on at their November 1996 election, and that was just at the State level! There were many more on the County and local level, all presented at the same election.So why bother with CIR?In SWITZERLAND, authorities are concerned that the high number of initiatives and frequent voting involved in their system has both decreased the proportion of the electorate voting, and skewed the voting away from the national demographic picture. The most heavily-represented voter today is German speaking, male, middle class, middle age, and city-dwelling.7) Another often quoted problem that is fortunately groundless is that the "extreme right", the "radical left", or "big business" will "take over" the C.I.R. process and "push through" their legislation. Statistically, in none of the countries or states that have C.I.R., has that proved to be the case. Non-public-interest initiatives lose more times than they win and the more extreme or self-serving the proposal, the more likely it is to fail. Money spent sometimes appears to win, but other times when even more is spent it fails.With all these problems (and any critic worth his salt could probably think up a few more) why do we bother with CIR? The answer is that we wouldn't HAVE to if our politicians could act for us in our best interest.But unfortunately, this is where the Law of Politics comes in, which goes something like this:"Don't act for the common good if you will alienate one group, only to get the praise of a smaller, less powerful group." The proportional representation vote tends to exacerbate this problem of politics tailored to small, non-representative "constituencies".How Citizen Initiatives and the Ratifiers could work together for better governmentAn admittedly petty case that illustrates the importance of initiatives when the Law of Politics has frustrated the common good, comes from Washington State. For years if you wanted to get dentures or even denture repairs you had to go to a dentist who would then sub-contract to a dental technician who would do the work. The dental technicians tried to lobby the politicians to allow the public to come directly to them but the Law of Politics didn't permit; there were more dentists (and they were organised and powerful) than dental technicians. End of Story. The dental technicians finally banded together, gathered the signatures for an initiative and put it to the voters with the proviso that the technicians had to attend an extra course on the skills of fitting dentures. The initiative passed with a very resounding YES! Having cut out the expensive, protected middleman, the hassle and expense of dentures plummeted.One can easily see examples in Britain similar in their politically protected status to the Washington dentists: barristers, doctors perhaps, some trade unions and a few businesses or groups of businesses. There is also the ideological or moral positions of sometimes very small groups that get political consideration totally out of proportion to their numbers, and to the detriment of the rest of society.
In order to solve some of the problems with C.I.R. already mentioned, a number of states and countries only allow initiatives in the form of petitions to their legislatures. Sometimes this works well and is just the little nudge needed to get lawmakers to debate particular issues and pass legislation that they would not otherwise have considered.
On other occasions, if they can only see themselves losing politically, or if the petition doesn't fit in with the ruling party's priorities, lawmakers can just sit on petitioned initiatives and procrastinate, for years if necessary, until this humble form of the initiative dies a frustrated death. No one has yet devised a viable method of compelling a parliament to face an issue if it doesn't want to.Citizens wishing to introduce an Initiative would first register and pay a fee. This fee would go towards the cost of a mandatory consultation with a legal expert appointed by and accountable to the Court (at the highest level of government in which the Body of Ratifiers is operating; we say this because the Ratifiers could also bring a much-needed level of democracy to the devolution of government to Wales, Scotland, the new English regions, and now also Northern Ireland). The purpose of this expert would not be to dictate what was allowed but to point out constitutional or legal problems and suggest ways or wordings to overcome them. The final decision would be with the Initiator but the legal opinion would be attached to the Initiative.
After gathering the required number of signatures, the Initiative is presented to the Ratifiers. They would not be asked to pass the Initiative into law but rather: Do they want Parliament to look at the issue covered by the Initiative or not? If not, then that's the end of it, although, of course Parliament can look at any issue it wants to whenever it wants to. This screening of Parliament by the Ratifiers from initiatives that are frivolous or don't have broad voter support could allow easing in the difficulty of introducing an initiative, by reducing significantly the number of signatures required.
If the majority of Ratifiers want Parliament to look at the issue covered by the Initiative, then Parliament has a statutory period, of perhaps six months, to do so, during which time they may:1) Endorse the Inititiative, which would then go to the Ratifiers, to be passed into law if an inverse proportion of Ratifiers voted in favour.2) Vote against the Initiative, which could only pass if an inverse proportion (a "super majority") of Ratifiers were subsequently in favour.The House of Lords - whither away?3) Pass their own Bill on the issue, in which case the Ratifiers would have a choice in preference from one to three:The choice with the least support would be eliminated, and the votes for the last two are counted. Because of the inverse proportion, (a minority of Ratifiers in favour could pass legislation previously passed by Parliament), it is possible for both final choices to pass. If this happens, the whole matter would go back to Parliament for a further statutory period for reconsideration and voting.1) The Original Initiative
2) Parliament's Bill
4) Parliament can also table the Initiative and "lose" it (an already common fate for bills without powerful sponsors, or issues that are too sticky, like CIR!), in which case, when Parliament's allotted time for consideration has elapsed, the Initiative would automatically go to the Ratifiers, for them to pass into law or reject, by a simple majority.
Under our proposal the Body of Ratifiers would take over the House of Lords' main functions of review and check on Government. Should the Lords therefore be disbanded? Not necessarily. Lords also have various legal and ceremonial duties, and as a body of wise counsellors to the nation (if that was what they were seen to be) they could still play a valuable role. They could tender their judgments and suggestions to the Ratifiers on bills and alternatives put forward by Government and Opposition. Another possibility is that they could pass an initiative that would then proceed (or not) in the same way as an initiative from the citizens. If, however, they are perceived to be a bunch of cronies and old duffers, they will be ignored and will have brought irrelevancy upon themselves.Devolution and Democracy
Devolution itself does not equal any better government than we have now, unless we are proactive about instituting democracy in the process of change. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the eight somewhat Orwellian-titled English Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and whatever they are to become, and the institutions that are currently under construction to provide home rule in Northern Ireland can all be the means to a level of modern democracy that suits the Britons of today, or can be yet more costly layers of government issuing directives without public support, run by "other" people with no mandate, much power and little accountability, such as the European Union has become.We have a fair way to go to get to Abraham Lincoln's democracy of "government of the people, by the people, for the people". We now have a chance such as we have never before had, a chance that people around the world have literally died for; while we are dismantling part of our system, to build a better one that gives us, the modern citizens of Britain, a say in how we are governed, and gives our government a system of checks and balances it now lacks."...we know what's right for the country. The principle necessity is to have a small group in charge and just let the people have a mass vote every few years." - Sir Humphrey Appleby
We applaud the The Economist, a publication that has been vigilant in pointing out the lack of adequate democracy. On January 22nd, 2000, they wrote of " . . . .a prime minister who boasts already of presiding over 'the biggest programme of change to democracy ever proposed.'"
But while The Economist advocates electing the Lords, that will not solve the problems of enacting the people's will any more than the US Senate does today.
The Ratifiers provides what another House of what would be professional politicians with their faction support, can't.
There has been much talk of Britain as now a nation of watchers. Television. Sports. Government.It's your life, and the future of your country. Do you want to just be a spectator?
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Australian Ratifiers' Republic Model
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Other sites we recommend:
Reform" or a dangerous anti-democratic centering of power?
Read for yourself, The White Paper on the House of Lords
YouGov.com, a British site that says about itself:
" YouGov.com intends to promote open government by making service-providers more accountable, developing the mechanism of best value and creating a new partnership between government
" Contains not only a 24-hour news service, but maintains itself as an interactive poll. In their words: "A major feature of the site will be 'People's ParliamentTM', enabling citizens to vote on the same issues on which Parliament is voting with results emailed to MPs prior to them voting - and results posted back to citizens." YouGov also maintains an excellent Glossary of Politics.
Richard Kimber's Political Science Resources UK-based and excellent
UK Online's British Politics portal Very well done, and fast one-stop shop for links and news
UK Politics Pages by Sam Turner. Very useful, both for connections to media, people, and groups, with an unusual Usenet politics list, too. Well done re speed, without annoying graphics
Election Data Resources on the Internet International, and well kept, always up to date, another personal public service page, this one from Manuel Álvarez-Rivera
The UK Parliamentary System, a brief guide Good place to get a concise explanation of how it all works.
Search the UK Parliament pages This is where you go if you want to read the text of bills, and read recorded debate
Politics from the BBC
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