My last two posts were entitled If All Politicians Are Bad… and …We Must All Be Politicians… respectively. Now you have seen the title of the third, and concluding, post in this series. In most minds, government is something done by ‘them’, a largely faceless and nameless group, generally loyal to a party leader who we might recognize. We have forgotten it has not always been so. The corruption we see in our rulers, and our antipathy towards them, are born of an unhappy marriage. On one side we have a form of democracy where we elect representatives. On the other, we have political parties; these hierarchies organize, control and fund candidates before they are elected, and continue to organize and control them after they are elected. We are so used to this wedding of a popularity contest with power-hungry tribalism that we tend to treat it as synonymous with the word democracy. It is not. As I pointed out in my first post, the word democracy is the conjunction of the Greek words “dêmos”, meaning “people”, and “krátos”, meaning rule. Our democracies would be unrecognizable to the Athenians responsible for the first democracy. The greatest difference is that, for the Athenian citizens, democrat government was something they participated in. In contrast, most of our citizens are disaffected by government and their relationship with it. They view it as something done by ‘them’ to ‘us’. That feeling, that we do not participate in government, begs the question of whether we deserve to describe our constitution as democratic.
Our era is the most legalistic the human race has ever known. We have more rules today than have ever been before. Rules for what taxes to pay, rules for our benefits entitlements, rules for our health and safety, rules for how we got or lose a job, rules for what expenses we can claim, and many more rules besides. Rules supplant the need for reason. Rules supplant the need to judge what is right, and what is wrong. Instead of being responsible for the affect of our actions on others, we are only responsible for obeying, or breaking, the rules. When a terrible wrong is done, but no rule is broken, our rulers immediately set to work on changing the rules, in order to make the world a better place. I am not sure if that is the right approach. It seems guaranteed to generate evermore rules, but not better rules. During this most recent scandal, when so many Members of Parliament engaged in petty scams to enrich themselves, the near-universal excuse has been: “but we were following the rules!” Of course the MPs were following the rules. They followed the rules just like a taxpayer follows the rules but tries to lower a tax bill, or a benefits claimant follows the rules and tries to increase the value of the benefits received. Rules are like lines on a sports field. They define limits. So long as we stay within those limits, then we have abided by the rules. So long as we stay within the rules, then we are in the right…? So long as the referee does not blow his whistle, then we have done nothing wrong…? We make a slippery slope to climb, when we build a mountain out of rules.
There is such a thing as right and wrong, and it is not the same as a set of rules, no matter how long or perfect they may be. If we all stopped doing everything else, and sat, and constructed the most perfect rules we could ever imagine, and then went back to our lives, we would soon discover the folly in our actions. There would still be people who did wrong, but broke no rule. There would still be people who did right, but broke a rule. Our sense of right and wrong is infinitely sophisticated. It outstrips any set of rules we can devise.
In law, ignorance of the law is no defence. That is lucky for lawyers, because the law is no so extensive that no lawyer knows mores than a fraction of it. Knowing the law is like knowing familiar roads. I might know every road from my home to my work, but I have no idea about the roads between Rome and Milan, and still less between Ulaanbaatar and Beijing. If being good means never breaking the rules, you might as well expect me to drive from the Mongolian capital to the Chinese capital without ever taking a wrong turn or getting lost. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of GPS for the law. Even the British law-makers, many of whom are lawyers by profession, do not know all the laws that govern them. As has also been pointed out recently, time and again they made mistakes in their expenses claims. Claiming for porno films was a mistake. Claiming for mortgage interest on the wrong house was a mistake. Many MPs have said they did not mean to enrich themselves by breaking the rules, the rule-breaking was an accident, and often because they did not know they were breaking a rule. So even the people who make a career of writing rules find it impossible to follow rules. Ignorance is no defence, but the MPs offer it as explanation. This should give us a clue as to whether we expect too much from endless writing and re-writing of rules, and should be looking for other ways to promote right over wrong.
The English language is full of mental gymnastics. One of my favourites is a phrase we have heard a lot recently: “the spirit of the rule”. The spirit of the rule is what you would get if you could write a rule to say what you actually want it to say, except you cannot write a rule that way. The funny thing about “the spirit of the rule” is that people can know what it is, even if they cannot put it into words. Such is the nature of right and wrong. We can know what is right, and what is wrong, even if we cannot put it into words. If we did not have this innate faculty for telling right from wrong there would be no point to having laws, and, by extrapolation, a legislature or government of any sort. There would be no sense to writing a law if we had no way of conceiving the right things we want, and the wrong thing we want to prevent, before they were put into words. What is more, many of us share this same ability. We can agree what is right and wrong, because we perceive right and wrong the same way. This is no coincidence. It is fundamental to our idea of what it is to be a human being, an animal with moral attributes as well as physical and intellectual attributes. Democracy depends upon this idea. We, the people, can judge right and wrong. We can do so independently of any rules previously written down. This ability guides us, making us strive for an ideal society where right prevails and wrong is curtailed. It is something we give to the world, not something handed down to us. It is not something that comes from books of law, written by people for people. It is already within people. The difficulty is not that we lack it and must compensate by getting someone else to give it to us. The difficulty is that any of us might chose not to follow it.
The crisis around the abuse of expenses by British MPs is slowly turning. If it continues the way it has, it looks likely that we will soon head down the same road that got us into this mess. For a while it will feel like we are making progress, but after a while we will soon notice that the landscape seems eerily familiar. A while later we will realize we have been here before, and gone precisely nowhere. Most voters want to vote in somebody new to rule. Like motorists going from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing who then got lost in the wilderness, we have decided the problem was with the directions we took, so we need a new driver at the wheel. Throw out the one-eyed Scots idiot, and replace him with the telegenic old Etonian or the one who used to amuse us with funny vegetables. We can go to sleep on the back seat, and when we wake up, we will have arrived at our destination. When you say it like that, the problem is pretty obvious. Whoever is at the wheel will drive the car in the direction they want to go.
The usual suspects, hoping to get power, only rarely have to listen to the ballot box. As I noted in my earlier posts, in most constituencies in this nation, the voters pick the same party every election, no matter how good the individual candidates are. The real influence is not held by the voter, but by the parties that select which candidates will stand for them. Political parties are fundamentally undemocratic. They represent the wishes of groups within our society, not the wishes of the whole people. They also represent the wishes of the people most motivated to get power, whether their reasons or good or bad. It should be no surprise that bad people are likely to be drawn to party politics, because it offers them opportunities to get power without merit. The party machines work like any other selective network, giving favours for favours received, and serving rewards for time served. Loyalty to the party, and to the party’s quest for power, is more important that caring about what is right. Bad behaviour, so long as it is not disloyal, is often hushed up or ignored by political parties. It gets rationalized away. Why admit to doing bad, when it is easier to point fingers at the bad things done by the other side. Dedicated political activists are little better than naughty children. Try getting a Labour party activist to admit invading Iraq was all about supporting George Bush’s hunt for oil, or getting a Tory grandee to admit tax cuts are not only good for the economy, they are also great for the rich. Political parties can never be anything more than groups of people with a mutual interest in getting power. Everything else is window-dressing. Power is a magnet to those made of corrupted mettle. When political parties are such an obviously warping influence, the real surprise is not that our rulers fiddle their expenses, but that their corruption seems to be so modest.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle classified the rule of the many as being the worst of the good constitutions, and the best of the bad constitutions. If it strives to do the best for society, it will be less effective than either the rule of the one or the rule of few. However, if it is corrupted, and serves the interests of one group rather than society as a whole, the limitations on its power mean it will do less harm than an oligarchy or a tyrant. The British constitution is a democracy, and per Aristotle’s categorization it delivers a perverted rule by the many. We have a system where the many play a part in deciding the government, but their decision is mediated by a party machine that ensures the interests of a subset must inevitably and regularly be placed above the interests of the whole. That much is essential in order to maintain party loyalty and to keep the parties functioning. If parties handed out no favours, there would be no reason for anybody to support one party over another. Forget the dewey-eyed sentimentalism about ideology and all that guff. If it was just a case of picking our rulers based on what they thought, we could simply ask them and vote accordingly. Parties are not necessary in order to find rulers we agree with, but they are a good way for our rulers to exert more control than they otherwise would.
One way to reduce corruption, and to strengthen democracy, might be to do away with parties. Of the 646 MPs that are currently sitting in the British House of Commons, there was only one who was both elected as an independent and who has never used a party machine to build a popular base. He is Dr. Richard Taylor, MP for Wyre Forest. In 2005, he successfully held the seat he won in 2001, being the first incumbent independent to win since 1949. The few other independent MPs were either elected whilst standing for a party and have since resigned the party whip, or were elected as independents but have benefited from former party allegiances. Only 12 independent candidates have been elected to Parliament since 1950, and of those only two, Taylor and former news correspondent Martin Bell, could say their political careers owed no debt to any campaign by any political party. However, political parties have not always been as important as they are in Britain today. In Britain’s history, parties used to be a lot looser affiliations of like-minded people, with less obvious leadership and not such stringent control over how its members voted in Parliament. As more people gained the vote, and more money was needed for campaigning, parties have become more influential, and now they have a stranglehold on the Parliamentary system.
In the US, political parties are not as powerful as they are in the UK. The US President is a foremost an individual, and not the leader of a party. Compared to the UK, US political parties are more concerned with fundraising than with ideology. Given the vast sums of money involved, political parties are naturally keen to select popular candidates. This is the inverse of the British system, where it there is an assumption that voters vote for the party, and supporters give money to the party, but people care little about the actual candidate. Perhaps of most importance is how US parties pick their candidates. Many people get to participate, unlike the British parties who tend to give more control to a smaller group of party activists. In some cases US candidates are selected through an open primary, where people can vote even if they are not affiliated to the party. Tory Leader David Cameron recently floated the idea of open primaries, though he stopped short of fully endorsing it.
Proportional Representation (PR) might be a way to decrease the power of parties, if it helped a wider spread of people to get into Parliament. Unfortunately, PR tends to increase the power of parties, by emphasizing that people most vote for a party, and not just for an individual representative. It also tends to give increased power to the hierarchy within parties, who get to decide things like the ranking order in which its candidates get elected. There is an argument that PR makes parties more powerful because it leads to lots of back-room deals between party high-ups. There may be some truth in that, but I suspect that argument is really about the distribution of power between big parties and small parties, and not about the power of parties per se. One big party with a big majority will still conduct plenty of back-room deal-making and deal-breaking amongst the leaders of its internal factions. These deals, completely internal to party politics, have nothing to do with democracy or the will of the people. Tony Blair did a back-room deal with Gordon Brown about when he would hand over leadership and the role of Prime Minister. Gordon Brown then moaned and groaned about him breaking it, as is now well-documented in various autobiographies of others who bore witness. I see no great reason to prefer back-room deals between parties over those within parties. The only difference is that the former are much more obvious, and arguably that is an advantage to the voter.
Another approach might be to make parties less powerful by making it easier for independent candidates to raise funds and raise their profiles. If there were more independent MPs, the power of political parties would be reduced because there would be an increased need to build consensus within Parliament rather than just relying on gaining a majority and using party discipline. This is the reasoning behind a new party-but-not-a-party that will promoting a slate of candidates in the June 4th European elections. They are called the Jury Team and their main sponsor is Sir Paul Judge, a former Director General of the Conservative Party and Ministerial Adviser. Aside for the clever play on words with the name of its prominent member, the name Jury Team is very apt. Their core argument is that many ordinary people, without party political affiliations, but with an interest in public service, have the necessary skills and experience to be good Members of Parliament. It is essentially the same argument about what should qualify people to do jury service. Unlike career politicians, Independent MPs are not hamstrung by the corrosive influence of political parties, and are free to put the concerns of the whole of society above the interests of any particular group. It is not necessary for an MP to be vetted by one or other ideological-cum-fundraising camp in order to be a good MP, just as the qualities of a good juror are not determined by preselecting the kinds of jurors more likely to find the accused innocent rather than guilty, or vice versa. Independent MPs are more likely to judge each decision based on the evidence and the arguments and their relative merits, like a jury does when judging a court case. This is unlike party politicians who frequently subordinate individual judgement to the collective will of their party.
I will be voting for the Jury Team at this coming election, though I can of plenty of reasons not to. For a start, the way politics currently works, they are unlikely to prosper, though I also recognize that a defeatist attitude tends to benefit the status quo to the detriment of much-needed change. Then, the Jury Team, despite all its assurances that elected representatives will be free to vote according to their conscience, still has a minimalist manifesto focused around constitutional change. That makes the Jury Team something of a diet version of a political party. It still runs campaigns about voting for a collective group, rather than voting for individuals, and it still pursues funding and membership like any other party would. One merit it that it has chosen its candidates based on completely open primaries. The Jury Team was dubbed the ‘X-Factor Party’ because candidates were selected based on the SMS votes of the general public. Even so, there is a problem with the idea of a group that is not a group, a body of people who work together for mutual interest, but have no mutual interest. Right now there is no leadership or hierarchy in the traditional party political sense, and no common manifesto. However, power corrupts. If the Jury Team is successful, it will doubtless attract the involvement of all sorts of people who are rather keener on getting power than on upholding the very high-minded principles that currently define the Jury Team’s minimalist shared agenda. They will want to recreate hierarchies, and authority, and all the other mechanisms necessary to help them exercise power and compromise less. My political antennae started twitching the moment that has-been showbiz personality Esther Rantzen started turning up to Jury Team press conferences. Does she represent a happy coincidence of a person who loves the limelight and has deep-held beliefs about reforming party politics? Or is the happy coincidence that she would like to be back in the limelight and a furore about corrupt politicians might help her do that? Now David Van Day, formerly one half of pop act Dollar, says he wants to stand for Parliament to help clean up the system. I fear for any political system that is going to be ‘fixed’ by people whose most prominent recent qualification is that they appeared on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
Instead of electing faded celebrities and party apparatchiks into positions of power, going to sleep, and occasionally waking up when we realize what a mess they have made and how corrupt they are, we could all do with a democracy that lets us, the people, make decisions. There is a way, and we still use it today. The Jury Team allude to it in their name. We pick representatives to make important decisions all the time. Those people are representatives not because they have some special skill or because they won an election. They are representatives because we have built our society on the guiding principle that most people can tell good from bad, and will choose good over bad. Jurors are people like you and me, as ordinary or extraordinary as any one of us. They get to make important decisions, that determine the future of the individuals on trial, and the safety of the general public. We trust jurors to decide that murderers are put in prison, so they cannot murder again. We trust jurors to acquit the falsely accused. They are twelve people, picked by a lottery. We trust their judgement. Their judgement is assured not by some special qualification, not by some vetting of an organization of like-minded people, and not by any absurd claim to fame. Their judgement is assured by the same moral compass, as reliable or unreliable, as found within all of us. We trust them to make the most important legal decisions not because they know the law, but because they know the difference between right and wrong.
In ancient Athens, in the first democracy, they had not evolved all the rules and mechanics and procedures that determine how we live today and how our government works. They did not have laws and lawyers like we do. No small and ancient society could have borne the tremendous cost of the enormous bureaucracies we have around us today. Athens had neither the manpower, the technology, nor the motive to install vast and expensive institutions to govern a populous supposedly too busy to govern themselves. That did not stop them having right and wrong, and finding ways to agree, as a collective group, on how to get more of what is right, and less of what is wrong. In terms of participation, they were far more democratic than we are today. They had direct democracy, quite unlike the representative democracy we have today. Every citizen could participate in government and vote on specific laws and executive orders. They were far more participatory in how they made every judgement. For example, juries might consist of 500 citizens picked by lottery, unlike the 12 we use in Britain today.
In ancient Athens, the population was probably around 300,000 in total, and 10% of these would be citizens eligible to participate in all aspects of democratic government. The current population of the United Kingdom is just under 61m. Nobody could imagine a direct democracy involving 61m people, or rather of the 45m citizens who would be eligible after you applied an age threshold, barred prisoners and the mentally incompetent. But we also would struggle to imagine the scale of the democractic assemblies that the Athenians held, where it might be necessary to attain a quorum of 6,000 to make a decision, and where the decision was made according to the vote of everybody who attended (with no postal votes or votes by proxy). Athens was powerful, wealthy and successful. They were prosperous. They made good decisions not by electing good representatives, but by trusting the whole citizenry to make good decisions. If they could do it, why not we?
Of course, I am not suggesting 45m people all walk down to London and have a big debate. That would be foolish. I am also not suggesting that everything be decided by referendum. Most of the real politicking, when it comes to referenda, revolves around the question to be asked. Any pollster can tell you that you influence the answer by how you ask the question. Referenda give bad decisions because they encourage people to think of one question at a time, and not to resolve any inconsistencies. You would no more want government policy decided by referendum than you would want the outcome of a murder trial to be decided by a public vote of people who may or may not have paid attention to the trial. The science of the referendum is the science of the leading question. Should we spend more on healthcare? Yes! Should we spend more on education? Yes! Should we allow the Gurkhas to settle here, do a better job of protecting children at risk and clean up the litter from our streets? Yes, Yes and Yes! Should we pay more in taxes? … erm… (coughs and looks around sheepishly)… erm… maybe other people should pay more in taxes but… erm… (hushed voice) not me.
You cannot get good decisions from a lot of barely interested people. We trust the public, which is why our juries are composed of the public, but we also know they are weak, and busy, and easily distracted, and have a lot on right now, what with the children playing up and auntie being unwell and the problem with the damp spot in the guest bedroom. With juries, we take the public away from their normal lives and ask them to perform a public service for a limited time, concentrate on the job, do it well, then go back to their normal lives. In other words, we expect a jury to be quite unlike a careerist politician, for whom public service (or their version of it) is normal life. The model works well for some of the most serious public decisions that need to be made. We could apply it more widely. We should include the public in the making of decisions by our legislature, and our executive, as well as our courts. I hesitate as I type those words, because for a hundred people who read them, ninety-nine will believe we need an elite to do those jobs for us. Ninety-nine out of every hundred believes themselves too busy to participate in government, or unwilling to trust others, or is convinced that some people have a special talent to rule and that those special people are the ones who rule. Saying an ordinary person might make good decisions is almost a taboo, we have become so used to the idea of experts and specialists and careerists running every aspect of the world around us. I challenge that notion. There are no people with special qualifications that make them much better to be legislators, or Foreign Secretary, or Minister for Housing, or Speaker of the House of Commons, or Prime Minister, or Chancellor of the Exchequer, Shadow Education Secretary, or to sit on the Public Accounts Committee, or to do any of the hundreds of very different jobs we now seem to believe should only be done by career politicians. Harriet Harman may care deeply about social justice, and David Davis may feel strongly about preserving our liberties, but I fail to see why that would make either of them automatically superior at deciding how to test schoolchildren, which sources of energy the nation should invest in, or the punishments that should be handed out for fox hunting or kerb crawling. We are all equally competent to decide those things, or if not equally competent to make a decision, we are all equally incompetent at deciding who should decide except to prefer the people who would decide the same way we would and not the people who would decide the opposite.
We could do away with having people to make decisions, especially as we currently pick the people who make the decisions on the basis that they make the decisions we would have made if we were in their position. We could just make the decisions ourselves. We are too busy to do that, of course, but not too busy all the time. Jurors are busy people too, but some sacrifice is necessary for the public good. Jurors give up their time for the well being of us all. By picking jurors at random, juries are perfectly representative, without all the silliness, fuss, cost and bother of an election. In fact, picking people by lottery is a lot better way of getting representatives who actually represent who we are. In elections, we chose people who look good on telly, or who have the right-sounding names, or because they sound like they know what they are talking about, and for a hundred other reasons that makes them good at winning elections but not necessarily any good for making decisions. Geoffrey Archer, Jonathan Aitken, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, Norman Tebbett, Edwina Currie… if these self-serving, self-important, pompous, odious, objectionable and despicable people have special qualifications to be our rulers, then we should pick rulers who have no qualifications.
Picking people for high office based on lottery is not new either. Once again, the ancient Athenians got there first. Apart from a few special roles which required particular expertise, like being a general in the army, most officials were picked by lottery. It was not compulsory, but large numbers were willing to do their public service. Forcing somebody to take on an important job against their will would be foolish, but otherwise it was assumed that every person had the innate talents to fulfill their duties. There was trust in the honesty and integrity of the common person. Furthermore, the Athenians selected officials by lottery because it was the most democratic way to do it. As they appreciated, voting favours people who are rich, or eloquent, or famous. Picking lots prevents corruption, at least in the selection process. The Athenian democracy did need measures to impeach and punish corrupt officials, just as we do today. If anything, they needed these procedures less often, though it would have been easier to instigate the removal of a corrupt official in Athens; the participatory nature of the democratic assembly meant any citizen could propose and vote on the removal and punishment of someone corrupt. Contrast that to the corruption inherent to and hidden by the party machines, notoriously unwilling to eject the corrupt from their ranks and punish them for their sins. Under Athenian rules, it would be hard to imagine Peter Mandelson enjoying the lengthy political career he has enjoyed under the patronage of the British Labour Party.
In ancient Athens, there were limits on how often people would be picked for an office. Most offices were one term only, some permitted the same person to be picked twice. Compare that to these tedious career politicians, more motivated by the fear of losing their jobs and expenses than caring about doing their jobs well. There has been a riot of activity to clean up Westminster since the news of MP’s fiddles became public. Contrast that with the total inactivity for so many years before, followed by a period where the only activity involved stratagems to keep the truth from the public. Jurors make the right decisions because they have no reason not to. Politicians have plenty of reasons to make the wrong decisions, motivated as they are by keeping their party happy and their bills paid. Inevitably, the longer a person does a job, the less keen they will be to find themselves forced to find an alternative line of work. This is the well-spring for corruption: when decisions are made not because of what is right and wrong, but because of the needs of the person making them.
It would not take that radical an experiment to bring ordinary people, picked by lottery, into the democratic decision-making process. We have a two-chamber Parliament in Britain, but one chamber is now utterly dysfunctional due to a mix of historical inheritance, creeping decrepitude and Labour’s half-assed reforms. The House of Lords is now an anachronism in every possible sense. Rather than being an effective buttress to the House of Commons, and a way to bring other skills into government, it is at best irrelevant, at worst, another tool to aid corruption. The Lords are full of people who were ennobled (even that word now bears the taint of repeated corruption) in exchange for a lifetime of service to party machines, masquerading as a lifetime of service to the public. Peter Mandelson is now Baron Mandelson, and sits in the Lords. Need I say more? Given the need to reform this abomination, we could simply do away with this gratuitous hall of toadies and replace them with people who genuinely represent the nation.
Imagine a chamber of ordinary people, not motivated by greed and with no long-term career plan, debating and considering what is in the best interests of the nation. Pick, by lottery, a thousand willing candidates from the public, and give them the power to block legislation they disagree with. Let them sit in their own debating chamber, and vote separately, acting as a balance to the party-dominated House of Commons. Give them the right to propose new legislation, and make the careerists in the Commons debate ideas that come from outside the narrow circle of party activists, lobbies, trade unions and business interests that currently determine the legislative agenda. Allow these citizen volunteers to sit on Parliamentary committees, and hence to dilute the importance of parties in all aspects of Parliamentary scrutiny and review. Ask them to serve once, for the term of a year. Pay them a fair reward for their time, and allow them to talk to the political parties if they like, but punish any attempts to influence them through promises of rewards or positions in exchange for how they vote. I believe there will be plenty enough willing volunteers to give a very good spread of the beliefs and principles of British people. Because they would have time to focus on detail, they will be informed and make good judgements, like a jury would. They would be independent, and as free from the taint of corruption as is possible to imagine. Would they do a good job? Perhaps not. On the whole, they will be average. Being thoroughly average, they would provide the best guarantee that our government is the least worst of all options. Aristotle thought rule by the many was the least best when good, the least worst when bad. He was not thinking of a democracy like ours, which is more like an elective oligarchy than the democracy through participation that was found in ancient Athens. The need for support from the many puts a limit on power. It limits the power to do both good and bad. Party politics also imposes limits, but there is plenty of reason to suspect their influence is bad overall, turning our rulers into members of self-serving clubs that represent factional interests first and foremost. We can limit the parties by increasing the participation of people, the dêmos, in the job of making important decisions. And if you do not think it is a good idea to let ordinary folks make important decisions, I have only one question for you. If you do not trust your fellow citizens to act like good rulers, how can you expect them to select good rulers? We either believe in democracy, or we do not. If we do, then let us have more, and that involves taking power from self-serving groups and giving it back to people. The only way to do that is to bypass the need to form those self-serving groups, by involving people directly.