Monday, September 03, 2007

Ask, And Shall Ye Receive?

Going back through the year of this blog’s life, it does appear that I draw a little too much inspiration from otherwise throwaway comments. Indeed, Sir Humphrey’s description of something “running around Whitehall like a grenade with the pin taken out” seems apt at times. Nevertheless, I have indeed been set off once again by one of the women in my life (and no, I most definitely do not mean that in the Randy Newman sense…) The lady in question is my aunt, who admonished me recently that, “you can’t tell people what to think”.

Once upon a time, Britain had a governmental system called a representative democracy. In that system, people voted on a fairly regular basis for a talented individual to represent them and the place they lived in the Palace of Westminster where they deliberated over the great questions of state (yes, I know I’m glossing over a few million things, such as the fat Tory landowners who were made MPs when they reached a certain weight, but stick with me for a moment!)

And then two somewhat related developments changed things. In the first instance, the politicians started to demystify themselves through a remarkable tactic called “getting caught shagging prostitutes”. Yes, they’d always been doing it and yes, changes in the media climate played some part but either way, somewhere along the line we stopped thinking that politicians could be honest, dedicated, moral people. To compound the problem, we then stopped voting as if they should be those people.

That whole process was made easier by the second factor, namely the nationalisation of general elections between 1945 and 1970. Again, the development of media technology made that inevitable, but it distinctly changed the relationship between an individual candidate’s performance and their vote. Where once, a candidate could lose by being out-husted by a particularly talented opponent, suddenly there were at least 300 seats where one party’s candidate would have to be caught blowing goats to lose.

The whole thing became a vicious circle in the selection process. When the skills necessary to be a good parliamentarian and those necessary to be a good candidate coincided, there was at least a sense that the parties selected on that basis. As I am perhaps too fond of reminding people, when Alan Clark was selected in Plymouth Sutton in 1973, he had to beat Michael Howard and Norman Fowler to do it; no doubting the depth of the shortlist there.

But in the nationalised era, candidates only needed to be nice people who would toe the party line. The George Galloways of this world could still get through by force of personality, but that led to a house where the good parliamentarians were mavericks preaching to their own miniscule choir. As an actual debating chamber, the Commons collapsed.

How then could this Parliament Of None Of The Talents justify itself? Very quickly, the public started to ask what value the parliamentarians added to the system if none of the members were particularly bothered by the chamber itself. The answer they found is currently causing certain former parliamentarians to drill their way out of their graves.

For where Edmund Burke cautioned his fellows not to submit their judgement to that of their constituents, the new breed discovered that, having no judgement of their own, they had to submit to the judgement of their constituents. Suddenly, politics became about listening to the electorate, not to gauge their opinion, but to subsume it.

The result is a country whose political psychology is at odds with its political mechanisms. Exhibit A in that respect has to be the Iraq War protests in 2003. At the time, I discounted the repeated calls for respect towards democracy it as a combination of lefty naivety and internal guilt modulation. In reality, that response is only to be expected; having spent years being told that government was about listening to them, is it any surprise that people felt that when, on such a critical issue, the government didn’t listen to them, that this was a criminal act of betrayal?

Ultimately, I’m all for sensitivity to public opinion and I’m proud that we as Liberal Democrats comprehensively outshine the other parties on delivering it. We must be careful, however, that sensitivity does not become subservience. Representative democracy still works; it still allows us to do collectively things that we would not do individually. But if we continue to tell people that they have power when the mechanisms actually deny it from them, the result will be mutually assured destruction, for representative democracy cannot work when the electorate believe that any adverse outcome is an act of treason.

Or to put it in a way that responds to my aunt’s original question; I have no problem with not being able to tell people what to think, but why am I not allowed to ask them to consider changing their mind

PS I heartily recommend Unlock Democracy's recent pamphlet on citizen's initiatives for further reading on how we can include the electorate in a more formal way.

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