Archive for House of Lords

The Athenian Option Revisited

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on September 19, 2014 by telescoper

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?

 

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Equal Marriage Bingo!

Posted in Politics with tags , , on June 3, 2013 by telescoper

If you’re following the debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of the Equal Marriage Bill, why not play Equal Marriage Bingo? Just cross off the predictable stock phrases as and when they occur, and you might win yourself a full House (of Lords). Although why you would want one is a mystery…

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courtesy of Stonewall

Academic Publishing – added cost is not added value

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , on March 19, 2013 by telescoper

I was having a quick plough through the evidence submitted to the recent House of Lords enquiry into Open Access and found the following interesting exchange relating to the arXiv. The italics in the response by Steven Hall, Managing Director of the Institute of Physics Publishing company, to the question from Lord Rees of Ludlow, are mine:

Q44 Lord Rees of Ludlow: We know that things are discipline-dependent, even within the physical sciences. I have a question for Mr Hall, really. In physics and space science, as you know, there is a well­organised archive and repository, which is used by almost all of the community. It would seem that that has coexisted with journals to a surprising extent.I wonder if you would like to comment on that as an example.

Steven Hall: Yes, thank you for the opportunity. When I speed-read the pile of submissions on the train last night I noticed at least three references to the success of the arXiv and its lack of impact on physics publishing. There are a number of myths about the arXiv and it would be good to deal with those here. First, it does not at all cover all of physics. There are certain sub-disciplines where there are very high levels of deposit in the arXiv; there are others where there is none whatsoever. To come back to your point, even within a discipline like physics there are real differences of approach. The other thing about the arXiv is that it is essentially a workflow tool. Much of physics is highly collaborative. Physicists will deposit early versions of their paper so that they can be looked at by their colleagues. It is a means for physicists to distribute to their immediate peers those early results of their research. It is a sharing tool. Most of the content of the archive is pre-print, though. It is not accepted manuscripts; it is not works that have gone through peer review. My own company’s policy there is the author can do whatever he or she likes with the pre-print, before we have added any value to it. We take a different view once we have added some value to it. The arXiv cannot be compared directly to, say, typical institutional depositories, which might have lots of accepted manuscripts in them. It coexists with formal publishing. The vast majority of physicists who use the arXiv would say that it is complementary to formal publication.

Lord Rees of Ludlow: Formal publication gives the accreditation, but I think most read the arXiv and would like to see it extended to other fields. It seems to be a rather good model, which, one would hope, would extend a bit more to other areas of science.

It will come as no surprise to hear that I’m right behind Martin Rees in his praise for the arXiv; the comments about it by Steven Hall are notable only for their irrelevance. Extending the arXiv to cover other branches of physics, and indeed other disciplines, would be much less expensive for the research community than the model he favours. I’d say that the arXiv needn’t be viewed as complementary to formal publication but that the arXiv gives us a way to make formal publication entirely redundant.  It’s only a small step to turn that potential into reality, which is why IOPP wishes to dismiss it.

Steven Hall has repeatedly argued that Gold Open Access is best, which I suppose it is if you’re a publisher interested in making easy money rather than a scientist wanting to disseminate your work in inexpensive and timely a fashion as possible. However, I was struck by the totally misleading phrase in italics relating to “added value”. IOPP does not add value to research publications, it merely adds cost. Any value that is added derives from peer review, which in most case costs nothing at all and can in any case be done independently of any publisher.

I’m afraid this is yet another example of publishers putting their own profits before the needs of researchers. The fact that IOPP’s profits also support the activities of the Institute of Physics is beside the point. I hope that before long the IOP remembers what it is actually for and changes its modus operandi to support the community it purports to serve, rather than exploiting it. The days of the traditional publisher are numbered in any case, and the IOP along with the other learned societies will have to find a way of surviving that doesn’t rely on income from the academic journal racket.

The Athenian Option

Posted in Politics with tags , , on August 25, 2009 by telescoper

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?