Friday, June 12, 2009

My despair for our democracy

As I look around the web at various news media sites, comment pieces and blogs I can't help thinking that the concept of democracy is being completely misrepresented again and again. One of the biggest misconceptions, in my view, is this belief that we need an elected second chamber which seems to be gaining ground. This really worries me.

Democracy is extremely hard to define in a nutshell. It is very hard to say in a single simple phrase exactly what it is. It is far easier to say what it is not and what it most definitely is not is more and more people having more and more opportunity to vote for more and more things. An elected second chamber will make us less democratic - not more. Please bear with me while I explain why.

First of all, let me just list the four things that I believe are necessary before there is even a possibility that true democracy can exist.

The first thing, of course, is the existence of a demos - a people who share a common cause. In the case of a General Election, that common cause is, of course, the interests of the United Kingdom.

The second thing is the existence of real political choice. There has to be a real alternative between option A or option B - if there isn't then democracy can not exist. It is not enough to have universal suffrage if all the people can vote for is the same. The lack of real difference between all the main parties is the single biggest influence on voter turnout and the existence of "the democratic deficit".

The third thing is popular sovereignty - the notion that the government we get is there by the true will of the electorate and govern with the true consent of the people. Again, for this to exist there has to be real choice between political options. In all honesty, it is hard to say whether true popular sovereignty is ever actually achievable - there have rarely been times when a government has enjoyed more than 50% of the vote - but there is no doubt that it has become increasingly less true in recent decades as governments govern with an increasingly low percentage of the total electorate.

The final thing is an effective check and balance on the elected government - which is where the second chamber comes in. It is, of course, impossible for there to be an effective check and balance on an elected government if that second chamber is elected too. People keep trying to tell me that they manage it in other countries - such as the USA - but this simply isn't true.

I'll use the USA as an example because I'm reasonably au fait with the principles of their governmental system - but I'm pretty much certain that just about every other country where they have bicameral parliaments with two elected chambers uses similar methods.

It's true that in the US, members of each house are much more free on how they vote than they are in this country, but even so they generally tend to vote with their party. Consequently, when you have a US President whose party dominates both houses that President is pretty much all powerful. If his party loses control of just one of those houses the President becomes almost entirely impotent and ineffectual - a lame duck President.

There is no effective check and balance in the US system of elected representatives. Where they do have a check and balance against abuse of government power is through the Supreme Court - a panel of just seven unelected people who possess extraordinary power. These people sit on the Supreme Court for life or until they step down. This is why it is extremely important for a party to have their President in power when a position becomes vacant as the President appoints the members of the Supreme Court and this gives them the opportunity to put in place someone of their choosing - a liberal or conservative.

A similar thing exists in Britain with the Law Lords, but their power is considerably more limited than the US Supreme Court. I'm not too sure how much more power the Supreme Court of the UK will have when it takes over from the Law Lords later this year, but I'm betting this is the precursor to an elected second chamber - so they will be pretty much all powerful.

What this means is that we will be reducing the check and balance on our government from some 700 persons to just 11 political appointees. I can not see how this will make Britain more democratic - on the contrary, it will make it considerably less so.

The trouble is, I don't think many people understand this concept. They think that just because they voted for a second chamber this somehow is a more representative government. It isn't because the second chamber does not govern! The government is the executive of the House of Commons - the second chamber is the check and balance against the abuse of power by that executive.

If the second chamber is elected that check and balance will not exist any more - particularly in a place like the UK where party whips ensure compliance with party policy. It is a simplistic idea to think that just having more elected representatives will make us more democratic. It won't. Indeed, by changing the House of Lords we open ourselves up to the possibility of a truly extreme government gaining power as they have all over Europe in times past.

Please do not let this happen.


North Northwester said...

All this electoral reform stuff is part of the Westminster bubble blinkered thinking. I do have some ideas of my own about the Lords, Stan, but have you noticed how trivial and myopic the professional politicians are in their concerns?

Which of them is seriously recognising the problems on my whinge list:-

..let alone proposing practical ways of solving them?

You have once more underlined the very important and very conservative point of the legitimacy of government deriving from the consent of the governed and the importance of representation - whilst trying to evade the problem of the mob.

My next post's shamelessly inspired by this one.


TheFatBigot said...

The crucial point, which you highlight so clearly Mr Stan, is that the House of Lords is not part of the process of Government it is part of the process of lawmaking.

The lawmaking process has two stages: (i) a decision on the principle of a new law and (ii) the drafting of that new law. The second is much more difficult than the first but is of fundamental importance.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the decision of principle, the new law must be workable. The House of Lords has been staggeringly good at knocking shoddy laws into shape. Sometimes they have had to point out that a particular provision passed by the House of Commons simply can't work. That is strength of our current system not a weakness.