Thursday, September 15, 2005

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Survey reveals global dissatisfaction

This is really interesting. Forget the results for the rest of the world. Let's just look at those for Britain. 70% of us think our elections are "free and fair" but 66% of us think our government does not rule according to the will of the people. The BBC commentator seems to think that's a contradiction, but it's not. I am sure that both opinions are correct.

I assume the 30% of voters who DON'T think our elections are free and fair take the view that the failure of the government to respect the people's will implies there's something wrong with the electoral system. They may think that an alternative to our "first past the post, winner takes all" system would somehow identify better specimens of that class of people who are attracted to politics. Or they may more reasonably think that some kind of proportional representation would inhibit radicals from making dramatic changes by creating a need for ever-shifting coalitions. Certainly this last possibility is attractive in current circumstances, with civil liberties disappearing in double time under an unprincipled government with no respect for individual rights.

I like our electoral system, precisely because it provides a clear result. I have always compared it to a steering a tank. You don't have a steering wheel, but two levers, marked "left" and "right". By pushing one or the other every four or five years you can ensure that, over your lifetime, successive governments take more or less a reasonable direction. During the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments however (i.e. all my adult life) it has not worked. As a student politician, leading my university's Conservatives, I remember telling the leader of the Labour students that his party was betraying the nation by failing to provide an electable alternative to the then invincible Tories. Now I feel the Tories are betraying the nation by doing exactly the same. For most of our democracy's history, HM Opposition functioned as, in some ways, the most important part of the system - challenging what the government did and exposing incompetence or corruption. Prime Minister's Question Time was the very symbol of our feisty and aggressive democracy, and the Leader of the Opposition was never out of the public eye. Now the Opposition sulks in its tents with its spin doctors, or wastes what public interest there may be in its actions by bickering its way through endless, pointless leadership contests between equally useless contenders.

Disraeli famously remarked to a dissident, "...damn your principles, stick to your party...". For generations we could smile at that, precisely because our Parliamentarians were a famously bolshy, independent-minded bunch. Sir Gerald Nabarro or Alan Clark might suck up to the leader (or an anticipated replacement leader) for immediate political benefit, but in their hearts they marched to their own drums. Now we have craven, grey, professional parliamentarians who follow Disraeli's injunction to the letter. One reason they are so craven is because they are rarely financially independent. I would like to retire at 55 and dedicate 10 or more years of my life to politics - to put something back and give some public service. No party will currently take candidates over 40 however. Why? Because they would not as easily submit to the party whips. As mature, financially-independent politicians, they might actually follow their consciences. That's not acceptable to party leaders, to whom their parliamentary parties are mere armies to be marshalled.

In a Parliamentary democracy with no written constitution to protect individual rights, we rely entirely on Parliament. Our consitution can be summed up in three words; "Parliament is sovereign". If Parliament wanted a final solution to the Muslim problem, for example, there is nothing in our system to stop it ordering the construction of gas chambers. If a future Parliament with a Muslim majority wanted a final solution to the kaffir problem, it could do it.

The "separation of powers" between Executive (PM and Cabinet), Judiciary (the courts) and Legislature (Parliament), requires Parliament to make the law, the government to implement it and the courts to interpret it. Our system currently uses Parliament only as a pool of "talent" to staff a Cabinet which then, through the "whips", exercises ruthless discipline over the rejects. The Executive makes the law. Our judiciary implements it (to my personal knowledge, often with a heavy heart) because it has no significant role of constitutional oversight.

Without an independent Parliament, we are always going to have the present unhappy circumstances. The Whips are the problem. The Parties are the problem. The people are the problem for sticking to their historic parties rather than running as independents or at least voting for them. Unless we can find a way to get better-quality people into Parliament and put the Executive back in its cage, any repetition of the BBC's interesting poll will produce the same result. More worryingly, if the Parties continue to see themselves as competing brands positioning themselves from day to day according to focus groups and opinion polls, rather than consistent political principles, our people may lose all confidence in democracy itself. Let's face it, that's already happening. Many of us don't vote, precisely because the "free and fair" result does NOT produce a government which will govern according to our will. In such circumstances, when economic circumstances don't keep us happy and relaxed, more and more of us will turn to political extremism.

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Survey reveals global dissatisfaction

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