The Athenian Option Revisited

I have to admit that I didn’t stay up to watch the results come in from the referendum on Scottish independence, primarily because I knew I had a very busy morning ahead of me and needed an early night. Not eligible to vote myself I did toy with the option of having a bet on the outcome, but the odds on the “no” outcome I thought more likely were 9-1 on so hardly worth a flutter at all. The opinion polls may have had difficulty getting this one right, but I generally trust the bookies’ assessment.

Anyway, to summarize the outcome:

  • “No” obtained a mark of 55%, which corresponds to a solid II.2 with no need for resits.
  • “Yes” obtained a mark of 45%, which is a Third Class result, but may claim extenuating circumstances or request another attempt.

Sorry about that. I guess I’ve been doing too many examination boards these days…

On balance, I’m glad that Scotland voted “no” but I don’t think it would have been that much of a big deal in the long run had they decided otherwise. There might have been some short-term difficulties but we’d all have survived. In the end what matters is that this whole exercise was run democratically and the issue was settled by voting rather than fighting, which is what would have happened in the not-too-distant past.

The aftermath of the vote against Scottish secession has been dominated by talk of greater devolution of powers not only to Scotland but also to Wales and even the English regions. One striking thing about the referendum was the high turnout (by British standards) of around 85 per cent that contrasts strongly with the dismal rate of participation in, e.g.. the recent European elections. In the light of all this I thought I’d resurrect an idea I’ve blogged about before.

Some time ago I read 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. In reason times, we have seen dramatically increasing disillusionment with the political establishment, which has handed  out billions of pounds of tax payers’ money to the profligate banking sector causing a ballooning public debt, followed by savage cuts in public spending with consequent reductions in jobs and services.

Meanwhile, starting under New Labour, the culture of cronyism 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 grew by about 12% (from 465,7000 to 522,930) between 2004 and 2009. 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 started in the Thatcher era with  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 government. Big Brother isn’t as far off as we’d all like to think.

The furore over MP’s expenses 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 absolutely 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 in ancient Athens 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.

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, for example, 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 (possibly more than one) 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. Turkeys won’t vote for Christmas.

Anyone care for a revolution?

 

7 Responses to “The Athenian Option Revisited”

  1. Standard answer: First introduce PR (which would have happened in an independent Scotland) then discuss details. A two-party system is only marginally better than a one-party system. First the foundation, then the roof (and maybe walls in-between).

    In general, a good idea. There is a science-fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke in which the chief executive of the government is chosen randomly, the idea that having ambition for the job should disqualify one for it. (Incidentally, this is an argument in favour of a monarchy—constitutional, of course—though people in the UK shouldn’t judge this by thinking that their own monarchy is typical, as it is atypical in many ways.)

  2. Incidentally, here is a proposed outline for the division of England into regions (The North, The South, and The Midlands) each of which would have its own regional assembly..

    regional assemblies

  3. Possibly it’s called the Athenian option because the Athenians did for a while have an executive body selected by lot, the boulē. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boule_%28ancient_Greece%29). The direct democracy thing, while true, is not really as relevant.

    • Yes, that’s the interpretation in the book but I think most people think that Athens was more of a democracy than it actually was, which was my general point.

  4. Chris Chaloner Says:

    The trouble with PR is that it is looking at the system from the central perspective – “is it fair to this party or that party?”. What we need is a system that is fair to the electorate – and most PR systems fail to deliver MPs who clearly have a duty to represent a specific group of electors. In the UK we see this most clearly in the Regional List system for MEPs, where the candidate lists can be manipulated by the central party machines (of all colours) and then the MEP responsibilities are unclear – in the South West we have 7 MEPs representing a constituency >250 miles across (+Gibraltar) and no connection with the electorate.

    • Several points: First, does “the electorate” exist at all? In other words, do I really want MPs to represent some average opinion of my region, rather than some average opinion of those who think like I do? And, of course, representing the region has the danger of pork-barrel politics. This is often cited as a weakness of PR by those who live where it doesn’t exist, but is rarely an issue at all where it does. Second, if you have a constituency, then defining it in a bad way, as in the example you gave, is not a weakness of PR itself. Third, one can have PR but allow the voters to decide on the order of the list (this exists in several places). Fourth, one can have, say, half the MPs elected via first-past-the-post (or majority vote with runoff) in conventional districts, but have the total number of seats determined via a second vote on the same ballot, via PR, with list candidates making up the difference between what PR wants and who was elected directly. The best of both worlds. (This is the system in Germany, for example.)

      Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject PR for some reason which can either be easily corrected or has nothing to do with PR at all.

      • “This is often cited as a weakness of PR by those who live where it doesn’t exist, but is rarely an issue at all where it does. “

        “This” refers not to pork-barrel politics, but rather to the idea that with PR MPs don’t feel that they represent a particular region.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: