The Case for UK Democracy

Read Time:12 Minutes

Originally published on ‘Civilise’ substack. Please consider subscribing to Real Left’s substack, if you haven’t already.

This is the second in a three part series. You can read Part one here.

Should we create a UK constitutional democracy where the scope of Government policies verifiably reflects the aggregated priorities of the citizens?

This was the closing question in ‘The Misrepresentation of UK Democracy’. The article explained why party-political, representative democracy ensures that Government policies do not and cannot reflect the priorities of UK citizens. So, more simply, should Government do what citizens want?

If you have traditionalist sensibilities you may be inclined to answer ‘No. The UK didn’t get where it is today by being a democracy!’. Which is true. England was a monarchy until 1649; primarily an aristocracy until 1928; and for the last 96 years has been an ‘elective dictatorship’, according to former Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham.

Elective representative democracy was first institutionalised by and for the ‘landed gentry’ with the formation of the House of Commons circa 1323. For a further 300 years the monarch ruled via the House of Lords, until a revolutionary tipping point was reached. In 1649 the House of Commons bravely declared:

“The people are, under God, the original of all just power; that the Commons of England, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation.”

The subsequent English Civil War between Royalists and Parliamentarians saw King Charles I executed; the House of Lords abolished; and the Commonwealth of England established under the victor, Oliver Cromwell.

However, English republicanism and Cromwell’s puritanism failed to stick. The restoration of King Charles II in 1660 saw the House of Lords reinstated, Christmas reinstated, and the commonwealth constitution repealed. We’ve been living under a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary supremacy ever since.

Our history shows how the British establishment created the political institutions and processes – the constitution – that we live by today. If you ever got the impression that members of the British establishment (royalty, nobility, upper class) come across as entitled to govern, now you know why.

The trick to the establishment’s control over the people for those six hundred years, was to deny almost everybody the right to vote. With no vote, you couldn’t pick a representative who may be more aligned with your interests than, say, a knight or a town burgess. And surfs campaigning against their Lords was not a popular pastime.

The key to all citizens acquiring the vote in 1928 (universal suffrage) was their increased health, wealth and education – thanks to the industrial revolution – being channelled into political campaigning and civil disobedience. This was exemplified by the growth of the politicised middle class, the Chartist movement, trade unionism and the Suffragettes.

As the British people gained political power, our Government got busy abstracting it away. First to international organisations such as the UN, WTO, IMF, World Bank and WHO; then to supranational bodies like the EU; and then to approved establishment organisations such as NGOs and the insidious World Economic Forum (WEF).

The second establishment trick to keeping control was through the use of political parties. With a FPTP voting system, only two parties needed to be funded and directed to secure an inevitable win and the desired establishment agenda. It was a conspiracy of vested interests, if you like.

The approved political issues of the left (~cooperation) and the right (~competition) have successfully driven national and international division for generations. Party politics became a professionally orchestrated ‘democracy theatre’ with the occasional applause of our voting… or ‘showbiz for ugly people’, as quipped Paul Begala, political consultant to President Clinton.

Chief of the theatrical promoters are the billionaire-owned traditional media; the Government controlled public media; and now the ‘tracking-nudging-censoring’ billionaire-owned digital media. International issues are particularly useful fodder to distract us from national issues, avoid scrutiny, and promote solutions from those distant international organisations.

How did the establishment get to be in control in the first place? Think of it this way: There was a competition for who gets to decide how things are run. Those in the establishment won because they are better than you. And because their ancestors also beat your ancestors they have a justified head start in life. It’s a cumulative meritocracy – and, they would claim, the natural order of things.

In summary then, if you are a member of the establishment or a contending member (upper middle class) it seems logical that you would support your representative democracy system. The mere mention of ‘democracy’ should be managed with polite, well dressed and extreme prejudice.

So, what of the general public’s view on democracy – to the extent that they’ve given it any thought at all?

There are many ‘traditionalist’ people who favour the order of being subjugated by others. This is their daily experience at work. They may honestly feel that they and their interests are inferior to their ‘betters’. Democracy is ‘above their pay grade’.

The spirited group of people known as ‘activists’ are more sceptical. They take it upon themselves to do politics without being politicians. They use their ‘soft power’.

Activists for the Labour or Conservative party will have little appetite for altering the rules of a game that they win half the time. In theory, their goal is to have their ideology rule over other people that don’t want their ideology. Democracy is not about that.

Grass roots activists for minority political parties or campaigns, on the other hand, are often vocal advocates for political reform – to get themselves on the agenda. Proportional representation, Swiss-style referendums or citizen assemblies are attractions that they imagine a Labour or Conservative Government might one day decide is the right thing to do. Democracy may seem a distant utopia – and perhaps one which may not even secure a win for their preferred policies.

As for the majority of people, common sense thinking seems preferable to political thinking. They have a reasonable sense of what’s going on and what the Government’s not doing about it. They may tick a ballot box for the least-worst option every few years but are just as likely to not bother.

Their 9% approval rate for UK politicians (IPSOS) indicates a strong desire for reform but their imagination of what that actually means has yet to be captured. The media tells the people that reform means a change of Government, but they know it doesn’t – and the media know that they know it doesn’t.

But is this really how the general public think? I’m happy to admit that my description of the general public was – like all commentators – a bit of logical conclusion, combined with a bit of lived experience, some bias, and a real opinion poll.

And therein lies the rub. Nobody has any idea what individual people (and collectively the general public) really think because the UK doesn’t have the public information system that is inherent to being a democracy.

This is a fantastic environment for the establishment and the media to decide what’s best for us; tell us what we think; determine our priorities; and to add or remove policies from the Government agenda at will. We get what they tell us we want.

Of course, this is also how companies work. They create a product or service which they hope we want and they also tell us that we want it. In a free market this drives innovation and human flourishing. The price paid is 60% of start-up businesses failing in the first three years; and an annual business death rate of 11%.

The problem with free markets is that winners consolidate their power and wealth. This leads to monopolies, increased inequality, and the undermining of the market. If our democracy was ever a free market, those days are long gone.

The Conservative Party (190 years old) and the Labour Party (124 years old) have cursed us with their immortality. They are not subordinate to any free market constitution, they are the constitution. Their self-perpetuating duopoly, by its very nature, will have diminished social innovation, dismissed human capital, and suppressed our human flourishing. It’s ironic that they regulate monopolies.

There are many political reformers who proclaim the death of this left-right politics. The traditional divide of socialist versus capitalist economics has been brushed under the carpet in favour of more modern concerns. Right-wing Labour policies and left-wing Conservative policies have further pulled the rug from under our party affiliations and psychological well-being.

Reformers claim that the axis of political contention is now authoritarian versus libertarian. “Our Government has become authoritarian and democracy is dying. We must replace them with a libertarian Government – or at least have the authoritarians introduce some direct democracy reforms”. I sympathise.

However, the problem with this framing is that representative democracy is always authoritarian. This is regardless of whether the Government is left wing or right wing, authoritarian or libertarian. Why? Because we concede all our decision-making power to politicians who exercise absolute authority over us. At no point since the fall of Cromwell’s commonwealth, 364 years ago, have British citizens ever formally agreed to this.

The fallacy is thinking that libertarianism, in the sense of freedom, will cure this authoritarian problem. Why? Because libertarianism is a philosophy in need of a governance system – it’s a snail without a shell. Authoritarianism is more slug-like – its governance system is inherent to its philosophy.

The governance system that libertarians – left, right or other – need to embrace is democracy. They can’t impose libertarianism, of course, but they can help citizens to enact constitutional civil liberties and pay heed to those when making democratic political decisions.

Authoritarians on the other hand, can help citizens to enact temporary or constitutional power delegation – to the extent that citizens choose to do so. Authoritarians may also find solace in the fact that people will still suffer under some democratic decisions that they personally disagree with. This is the ‘tyranny of the majority’ or ‘populism’ that our representatives like to scare us with… as opposed to their much more sensible ‘tyranny of the minority’.

Partisan intellectuals Milton Friedman (right wing) and Noam Chomsky (left wing) agree that to be more effective and to prevent corruption, we must move from centralised representative democracy to decentralised democracy.

A principle that supports the decentralisation of democracy is subsidiarity. It asserts that decisions should be made at the lowest level to where they will have their effect. As a founding principal of the EU it aligns with country or state federalisation. But subsidiarity also enables the federalisation of national policies to specific constituencies and regions – minimising the imposition of unwanted or unnecessary policies. The devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are a case in point.

Subsidiarity is rooted in the same Christian social teaching that lead to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire: that every person’s free will is sacred – and that suppression of our ability to make our own choices about our lives is morally wrong.

Revolutions notably arise when Governments undermine the inalienable (human) rights of their citizens and cause them harm. The invention of the printing press was instrumental in the success of the American and French Revolutions. The invention of the internet is far more potent as a platform to manifest the (r)evolution of representative democracy to democracy.

Let’s paint a simple picture to illustrate the opportunity:

Imagine a popular political issue that you feel strongly about.
There’s a ‘Political Issue App’ on your phone.
You may choose one of the following options for your issue:
Start | Stop | Maintain | More | Less
You choose ‘Stop’.
70% of UK citizens also choose ‘Stop’.
The Government stops the issue.

How do you feel about this? It’s a bit shocking.

If you’re an expert in software security; privacy; accessibility; market research; psychology; public policy; data science; or human rights, you will certainly have professional concerns. Imagine that these had been addressed to your satisfaction, perhaps because you helped to decide how to address them.

What if the Government did not stop the issue? Maybe they gave a good explanation as to why not – and the majority agreed by changing their choice to ‘Maintain’. If the Government gave no adequate explanation, would they lose their mandate to rule? Or would we the people lose our ability to communicate as they accelerate building a tyranny system?

A key factor in deciding the viability of a system for citizens to tell the Government what to do, is our comfort with fellow citizens being able to make reasonable choices that may affect us. This should be always regarded in contrast to our local, regional and national politicians making those choices for us.

Logic would indicate that if UK citizens can choose a Government by voting then we are a trustworthy bunch. Referendums may stretch this assumption too far for some but the concept of direct democracy is supported by 66% of citizens (Pew Research).

It’s also worth having regard for the fact that the average political constituency contains a few hundred lawyers, accountants, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, architects, engineers, civil servants, small business owners, skilled trades and other professionals that can add their expertise to the process.

And what of our children? When they reach the age of majority, should they not go through the right of passage of acquiring responsibility to do democracy? Or should they remain infantilised by only voting?

In a recent interview, Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg MP (dubbed the “Honourable Member for the 18th century”) said the following:

“Every week my constituents come and see me and that’s how I stay in touch. Nobody leads anybody else’s life. Nobody else knows how anyone else is really living. I’ve always thought this ‘man of the people’ stuff is pretty much humbug.”

You will always know your own issues, priorities and conscience better than any politician. All MPs are clueless of their 75,000 constituents. Only a system where Government policies reflect the aggregated priorities of the citizens – where all citizens can tell the Government what to do – can claim to be a democracy fit for the 21st century.

The question is: How do we manifest UK democracy?

The answer to this question is the subject of my next article. Your contribution by commenting below would be most welcome.

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