I’ve just finished reading a very interesting an provocative little book called The Athenian Option, which offers a radical vision of how to renew Britain’s democracy.
The context within which this book was written was the need to reform Britain’s unelected second chamber, the House of Lords. The authors of the book, Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty, were proposing a way to do this even before Tony Blair’s New Labour party came to power in 1997, promising to reform the House of Lords in its manifesto. Despite being well into it’s third Parliament, New Labour hasn’t done much about it yet, and has even failed to offer any real proposals. Although it has removed voting rights from the hereditary peers, the result of this is that the House of Lords is still stuffed full of people appointed by the government.
The need for reform is now greater than ever.
Over the past year or so, we have seen dramatically increasing disillusionment with the political establishment, which has been handing out billions of pounds of tax payers’ money to the profligate banking sector causing a ballooning public debt and the imminent prospect of savage cuts in public spending with consequent reductions in jobs and services.
Meanwhile, under New Labour, the culture of cronyism has led to the creation of a myriad pointless quangos doing their best to strangle the entire country with red tape. Although Gordon Brown stated in 2004 that he was going to reduce bureaucracy, the number of civil servants in the UK has grown by about 12% (from 465,7000 to 522,930) between then and now. If the amount of bureaucracy within the British university system is anything to go by, the burden of the constant processes of evaluation, assessment and justification is out of all proportion to what useful stuff actually gets done. This isn’t all the fault of New Labour . It started with previous Conservative governments who viewed the public services as a kind of enemy within, to be suspected, regulated and subdued. However, there’s no denying that it has got worse in recent years.
There is an even more sinister side to all this, in the steady erosion of civil liberties through increased clandestine surveillance, detention without trial and the rest of the paraphernalia of paranoid goverment. Big Brother isn’t as far off as we’d all like to think.
The recent furore over MP’s expenses has led to further disgust with the behaviour of our elected representatives, many of whom seem to be more interested in lining their own pockets than in carrying out their duties as our elected representatives.
The fact is that the political establishment has become so remote from its original goal of serving the people that it is now regarded with near-total contempt by a large fraction of the population. Politics now primarily serves itself and, of course, big business. It needs to be forced to become more accountable to ordinary people. This is why I think the suggestion of radical reform along the lines suggested by Barnett and Carty is not only interesting, but something like it is essential if we are to survive as a democracy.
What they propose is to abolish the House of Lords as the Second Chamber, and replace it with a kind of jury selected by lottery from the population in much the same way that juries are selected for the crown courts except that they would be much larger, of order a thousand people or so. This is called the Athenian Option because in ancient Athens all citizens could vote (although I should add that there were about 5000 citizens and about 100,000 slaves, and women couldn’t vote even if they weren’t slaves, so the name isn’t at all that appropriate).
Selection of representatives from the electoral roll would be quite straightforward to achieve. Service should be mandatory, but the composition of the Second Chamber could be refreshed sufficiently frequently that participation should not be too onerous for any individual. It may even be possible for the jury not to have to attend a physical `house’ anyway. They could vote by telephone or internet, although safeguards would be needed to prevent fraud or coercion. It would indeed probably be better if each member of the panel voted independently and in secret anyway.
The central body of government would continue to be a representative Parliament similar to the current House of Commons. The role of the jury would be limited to voting on legislation sent to it by the House of Commons, which would continue to be elected by a General Election as it is at present. Laws passed by the Commons could not become law unless approved by the juries.
Turnout at British general elections has been falling steadily over the past two decades. Apathy has increased because the parliamentary machine has become detached from its roots. If nothing is done to bring it back under popular control, extremist parties like the British National Party will thrive and the threat to our democracy will grow further.
Living in Wales, I would add another element to the argument. The creation of regional assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland has not been as successful as it might have been because it has resulted not in more democracy, but in more politicians. The Welsh Assembly has little real power, but has fancy offices and big salaries for its members and we have it as well as Westminster and the local Councils.
We also have a European Parliament, again with very little real power but with its own stock of overpaid and self-important politicians elected by the tiny fraction of the electorate that bothers to vote.
My solution to this mess would be to disband the regional assemblies and create regional juries in their place. No legislation would be enacted in Wales unless passed by the Welsh jury, likewise elsewhere.
To be consistent, the replacement House of Lords should be an English jury, although perhaps there could be regional structures within England too. We would therefore have one representative house, The House of Commons, and regional juries for Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. This would create a much more symmetrical structure for the governance of the United Kingdom, putting an end to such idiocies as the West Lothian Question.
Of course many details would need to be worked out, but it seems to me that this proposal makes a lot of sense. It retains the political party system in the House of Commons where legislation would be debated and amended before being sent to the popular juries. The new system would, however, be vastly cheaper than our current system. It would be much fairer and more democratic. It would make the system of government more accountable, and it would give citizens a greater sense of participation in and responsibility for the United Kingdom’s political culture. Politics is too important to be left to politicians.
On the other hand, in order to set it up we would need entire sections of the current political structure to vote themselves out of existence. Since they’re doing very nicely out of the current arrangements, I think change is unlikely to be forthcoming through the usual channels.
Anyone care for a revolution?