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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The hollowing out of Democracy

Re-reading Denis Healey’s memoirs brought home to me how puny and spineless (“hollowed out” is perhaps the appropriate phrase) our current politicians now seem – compared with the generation of Healey and his friend Helmut Schmidt (who celebrated his 95th birthday just before Christmas). How has such degeneration happened? It was that question which prompted me to look again at Anthony Jay’s essay “Democracy, Bernard? It must be stopped!” and to reproduce parts of it yesterday. 
I was also prompted (by Healey's mention of "politics as a vocation") to look again at Max Weber’s classic talk on “Politics as Vocation” delivered in the heat of revolutionary Germany of 1919 - and to discover that a major talk on this subject was given just a week or so by the Head of a British Think Tank. For the moment, however, let me finish with the excerpts from the satirical piece from the Head of the Civil Service about the tactics for castrating the political process
5. Enlarge constituencies.  Our present electoral system derives from the 1832 Reform Act. It was a very dangerous system. The average number of voters in a constituency was only about 1,200, which meant that an MP could personally know virtually all of them. This meant that, if he was liked and respected locally, he would be re-elected, even if he disobeyed the whips and voted in accordance with the demands of his constituents and his conscience rather than the instructions of his party. This severely weakened the Prime Minister's control on which the system depends.But, since then, we have contrived, in the name of democracy, to increase constituency sizes to 50,000 or 60,000, so that no MP can be elected on voters' personal knowledge of him. They vote for the party, and if the party does not endorse him, he will not be elected. His job, therefore, depends on the Prime Minister's approval and not on the respect of his constituents; a splendid aid to discipline. Equally, we have increased the typical urban constituency ward to about 25,000, with some four councillors. Since one councillor to 6,000 people might have led to an undesirable independence of thought and action, we have arranged matters so that a group of four councillors jointly represent the whole ward, so that householders are unlikely even to know the name of their democratic representative. They, therefore, vote (the few who take the trouble) according to their party preferences, thus reinforcing the hold of the national parties on local government.
 6. Overpay MPs.  Even when MPs depend on the party machine for re-selection and re-election, some are occasionally tempted to step out of line. This risk can be significantly reduced if rebellion means not only loss of party support but also significant loss of income. Few will risk forfeiting the now generous emoluments and allowances of an MP and reverting to the humble salary of a school teacher, social worker or minor trade union official simply on a point of democratic principle. It is, therefore, our duty to encourage all increases in MPs' pay
 7. Appointments, not elections. Parliament, of course, has to be elected, but, as we have seen, this causes little problem so long as the government maintains its firm central control of the MPs. The system, however, is deeply flawed: it can substitute craven capitulation to the ignorant and irresponsible mob for sensible control by a cultivated and experienced elite.It is our duty to resist this with all our strength. The preservation of civilised values in a country of some 60 million people cannot be entirely discharged by a few of us in Whitehall: much of the task has to be delegated to people such as BBC governors, the ITC, the Arts Council, the Commission for Ancient Monuments, National Heritage, the Fine Arts Commission, magistrates, the Bank of England and a host of authorities, commissions, councils, tribunals, regulatory bodies, agencies, working parties, advisory committees and quangos of every description. The only sensible way to fill all these posts is by government appointment, so that proper care can be exercised in their selection and so that the incumbents, when chosen, will know to whom they owe their new eminence, while those hoping for such posts (as with honours and peerages) can be trusted to behave responsibly in the hope of favours to come. 
8. Permanent officials, rotating ministers. The task of preserving a cultured and enlightened nation requires continuity. That continuity must rest with those of us who know what we are fighting for and fighting against. It cannot possibly be entrusted to politicians. We have, therefore, built an excellent system of a few transient amateur ministers who are coached, informed, guided and supported by a large department of permanent, experienced officials who enable them to take the correct decisions.You have now served our department for 30 years; your present minister has held his job for 10 weeks and cannot, on average, expect to be there for more than another 12 or 18 months if he has any ability. If not, there is no problem. You will, therefore, I am sure, be able to prevent him making any foolish popular decisions before the music stops and he scrambles desperately for an empty chair. Furthermore, our electoral system ensures that when the populace becomes dissatisfied with the system, they can be deluded into thinking they are changing it by replacing one lot of inexperienced amateurs with another, leaving the professionals to continue uninterrupted, and relieved of the burden of the few ministers who were starting to understand their job. The new arrivals can quickly be helped to realise that the purpose of government is not to carry out the will of the electorate, but simply to secure its consent to the measures proposed by its betters. 
9. Increase the number of public employees. “Public ignorance is our ally".Any government must employ staff, if only in the Armed Services, the police, the judiciary, the Diplomatic Service and the Exchequer. But those basic functions on their own cannot justify the level of taxation and degree of control that we need to fulfil our historic function. We, therefore, need to increase the number of public employees whenever the opportunity presents itself.
There are three reasons for this: it increases the volume of government revenue, it extends the area of government control, and it enlarges the pool of voters who have an interest in preserving the system that employs them. 
10. Secrecy. One of our greatest allies is public ignorance. It is, therefore, imperative that the minimum amount of information be disclosed to the press, parliament and the public. Our success is based on the principle that no information should be disclosed unless there is a good reason why it should be.From time to time, opposition parties press for a freedom of information Act, but oppositions become governments and it does not take long for a government to discover that real freedom of information would make their job impossible. It is, however, a good idea to pass the odd freedom of information Act, so long as its provisions do not actually free up any important sensitive information. It is significant that the only party that has consistently argued for real freedom of information has not held office since 1915. 
Beyond this, I can only point you towards the breathtaking achievements of our colleagues in Brussels. To be frank, I do not see any prospect of our rivalling them. Their commissioners, like our permanent secretaries, do not have to endure the ignominy of grubbing votes from the plebs, and, unlike us, do not have to pretend to be subservient to a political master. 
Being answerable to 15 ministers from different countries, most of whom are hostile to each other, and would be even more hostile if they could understand each other's languages, gives them almost complete independence of action. They have also ensured that only the Commission can bring forward legislation, thus avoiding the tedious, irritating and ill-informed ministerial scrutiny we have to endure drafting Bills. 
And since the European electorate speaks so many different languages, it is impossible for genuine European political parties to form, thereby making any serious danger of democracy quite inconceivable.
Obviously, success on that scale is out of our reach, but we can look on Brussels as a guiding star which we must follow, even if we know we cannot land on it.

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