posts in ‘politics’

Brexit has little to do with the EU

in all the talk about hard/soft/clean/full/transitional Brexit, there is a dangerous assumption that it is in itself a solution to problems that the UK faces.

it is in fact a huge distraction from what government really needs be concerned about: a growing crisis in housing supply, the NHS, social care, education and the Prison Service,  to name just the most obvious. none of these will be solved by reducing the country’s financial contributions to the EU; nor by restricting free movement of people more than EU treaties already allow; nor by removing the country from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

the ills of this country lie squarely at the door of our own government.

an abuse of democracy

the value in democracy is not that it elects good governments; it is that it provides a civilised mechanism (as opposed to a military coup d’état) for removing bad governments. in the absence of a credible opposition ready to take over, a bad government remains in power. bad government is better than no government.

the Brexit referendum was an abuse of democracy: it allowed people to reject membership of the EU, but neglected to offer a viable alternative (the equivalent of a new government).

if the US election had been held in the style of this referendum, it would have asked the people, “Would you like Barack Obama to remain in the Whitehouse, or leave the Whitehouse?” it is then as if a working group of Congress deliberated amongst themselves and decided that Trump should be the new president. in this scenario, would Republican politicians feel mandated by the popular vote to support Trump?

fortunately the referendum does not bind MPs to any particular course of action. no MP should feel mandated to support invocation of Article 50 unless and until he or she believes that the consequences will be in the best interests of the country, their constituents and future generations. blind faith in a positive outcome is an abrogation of responsibility.

blame the EU

the EU has become the object of blame for a whole range of UK government failures – and not just by the Cameron/Osborne government, but more seriously by the Blair/Brown governments. the latter accepted immigration to the UK (on a scale even greater than they forecast) because it generated economic growth. migrants from Poland suited Britain well, providing productive workers for the building trades and arable farming in particular. our health service has long depended heavily on immigrants from the EU (as well as India and the Philippines).

but Blair, Brown, Darling, Cameron and Osborne all missed one stunningly obvious (with hindsight maybe) point: net immigration means a greater demand on housing, transport, education and health. when Labour under Blair was elected in 1997, the country was already severely underinvested in transport infrastructure, health and education. In its first term in government, it took steps to remedy those, but neglected housing until 2003.

immigration took off almost immediately after Labour was elected, initially from non-EU countries, but the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU shifted the balance. Labour governments took the bonus of increased tax revenue resulting from economic growth and banked it (running budget surpluses from 1998 to 2001).

the UK backed expansion of the EU in 2004, and opted to impose few restrictions on immigration from acceding countries, unlike, for instance, Germany and France. it also backed expansion in 2007 (but this time imposed restrictions for seven years, as permitted by the accession agreements).

EU citizens who are non-economically active (studying, retired or unemployed) have a right to reside in the UK as long as they do not place an “unreasonable burden” on the state. therefore the UK can already require such EU citizens to be able to support themselves and hold health insurance. (let us not forget that many of the UK citizens residing in other EU countries are also not economically active.)

after the banking crash in 2008, government investment was diverted towards bailing out banks and fire-fighting an economy in recession – and on the edge of depression. investment in housing, health, education and other local government services all took a back seat. but net immigration was still high and rising, so demands on housing, health, education and other local government services also continued to rise.

it was inevitable that people would cry foul. they voted Labour out in 2010, but the Conservatives offered no respite. in fact they tightened the screws and meddled with, without fixing, the NHS and education. they did however start to address the burgeoning housing crisis, controversially by relaxing planning regulations and offering financial assistance to first-time buyers. but the acceleration in house building was much too slow to catch up with demand.

the vote for Brexit was a natural and (in hindsight) predictable outcome of years of underinvestment by successive governments in housing, transport infrastructure, education, health, social care and other local government services. UKIP and the larger part of Labour and the Conservatives all scapegoated the EU rather than admit that the blame lay with UK governments.

it is therefore no wonder that the other 27 nations of the EU feel little sympathy with the UK. we have reaped benefits of EU membership, and now we are blaming the EU for our own governments’ mismanagement.

it might also be added that the refugee crisis faced by continental Europe is a direct consequence of military actions that the UK advocated and pursued independently of the EU, including invading Iraq, bombing Libya, and intervening covertly in Syria.

no way back

once Article 50 is invoked, the UK is committed to leaving the EU within two years. the law (British or EU) might provide a let-out. the other member states might allow us to change our mind (though this is unlikely because it would set a precedent for other countries wanting to bully the EU into agreeing a better memberhip deal). but if Theresa May (or a successor) tried to play those cards, people (and most of the media) would cry double-foul. if there is one point on which everybody can agree, it is that the referendum was a vote to leave the EU.

a proportion of those who voted Brexit believe that the EU is a bloated bureaucracy that we can do better without. probably most people would agree with the first part of this assertion. the real point of disagreement is over the consequences of Brexit, which are necessarily unprovable. hence no argument is likely to change the mind of a principled or optimistic Brexiteer.

a larger proportion of those who voted Brexit believe that leaving the EU will reduce pressure in the UK on housing, employment, health, education and other local government services. it may do in the short term, but the loss of labour will quickly result in a crisis in the construction industry, farming, health and social care, academia, and other parts of the UK economy. there will inevitably be a loss of tax revenue, from a smaller population and slower growth. this will put even greater strain on central and local government finances at a time when the population’s needs (especially for social care) and expectations (especially for health care) are rising. (see the ‘low migration’ scenario produced by the Office of Budget Responsibility.)

the brain drain

perhaps less discussed is the likelihood of a ‘brain drain’ of academic researchers. universities have become highly productive engines for the economy, spinning out start-ups to exploit new discoveries and inventions. the loss of foreign postgraduate researchers, and more attractive opportunities for British academics to work abroad will lead to a reduction in entrepreneurial activity in the UK.

the UK government may wish to offer sweeteners to companies to remain in the UK, for instance by lowering corporation tax. but that will disincline EU or EEA member countries from agreeing to grant privileges to UK companies, such as ‘passporting’, as part of a future trade deal. the Netherlands has already made this point.

without incentives and facing years of uncertainty, major banks, car manufacturers and other multinationals may choose to minimise risk by relocating their headquarters, R&D, manufacturing and service centres away from the UK. the consequences for the UK economy and future competitiveness could be dire.

is there an alternative to Brexit?

if there is an alternative to Brexit, it is not a legal loophole that annuls or blocks the referendum. nor is it a vote in Parliament to reject the Brexit agreement (which, in all probability, would mean that the UK drops out of the EU without an agreement).

it would need to be a credible commitment by government to embark immediately on a massive programme of investment in housing, transport, health, energy, policing, education, social care and other local government services. but that will be needed even if we leave the EU – possibly even more so.

investment on the scale required will entail increasing taxes and/or government borrowing.

the national debt already costs £39bn/year, four times the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget. that cost will rise significantly if the UK government is seen to become a riskier borrower. long-term gilts currently trade at around a 2% return. an increase of a fraction of a percentage point would make new and renewed debt considerably more expensive.

UK public sector spending 2016-17

Public sector spending 2016-17 from the Office of Budget Responsibility

there is little appetite to raise income taxes (including National Insurance), sales taxes (VAT and duties) or corporation tax. so government will need to be more creative about tax-raising opportunities: for instance, on multinational corporate earnings, land, intellectual property, financial transactions, commodities, CO2 emissions, pollutants, and infrastructure usage (including roads and airports).

local governments are losing the Revenue Support Grant from central government, but are constrained to raising Council Tax by under 2% without a referendum. there are more efficiencies yet to be gained, e.g. through greater collaboration between local governments and other agencies, and better use of technology; but these savings will take many years to realise, and require considerable up-front investment of money and expertise. most savings are now being found by cutting or reducing access to services, such as social care, public transport and legal aid, which poorer people depend on.

conclusion

the law does not provide a let-out from politics. if the UK government does not offer a radical alternative to Brexit, then Brexit is inevitable (as most now believe it is anyway). but Brexit is not a solution.

Brexit creates huge new challenges, for which the civil service is ill-equipped to handle. it is also a huge distraction from the work that government really needs to be doing: reversing a decade of underinvestment in core infrastructure; correcting the mistakes made by previous and current governments; and relieving the financial straightjacket from local government.

MPs must take their responsibility to future generations as seriously as their responsibility to those who voted to leave the EU. they must use their judgement to interpret the referendum’s meaning, and act with courage.

EU Referendum

[updated 7 August: Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties eliminated as possible recourse.
updated 2 July: article restructured; proposal simplified; information on Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties added; paragraph on election communications added.]

on 23 June 2016, disillusioned people across the United Kingdom voted to give government, Brussels, the Establishment a bloody nose. some had no real expectation it would make a difference; some had been fed a simplistic idea of how disengagement from the EU would yield immediate benefits; but probably the majority still believe that leaving the EU is the right move for Britain. those people now also fear that the governing ‘elite’ are seeking a way to wriggle out of obeying this inconvenient popular mandate.

who’s to blame?

in times of hardship, people seek out scapegoats: this time it’s not the monarchy, Catholics, Jews or Communists; it’s Brussels and immigrants.

the truth however is that the blame lies squarely at the door of our own government, under Labour, the Coalition, and the Conservatives.

successive British governments welcomed rapid immigration to increase the productivity of our economy, and the concomitant increase in tax revenue; but they did not invest adequately in the infrastructure that a growing population and economy requires: housing, schools, healthcare delivery, and transport. they permitted banks to risk ordinary people’s savings and pensions on speculative investments that amounted to little more than ponzi schemes, artificially inflating the economies of Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Italy and Greece. they manipulated the capital markets to erode the savings of the working poor and increase the wealth of the rich. they conducted deeply divisive military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, empowering Al Qaeda and Islamic State, precipitating genocides, indiscriminate terrorist attacks around the world, and the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War.

these are just a few of the actions of our own government that have created a toxic farrago of poverty, inequality, isolation, job insecurity, unaffordable housing, unfairly rationed health and social care, devaluation of public service, religious extremism, and xenophobia. the EU referendum result is the culmination of years of misunderstanding, misjudgement, dishonesty, arrogance and narcissism by political leaders.

where next?

so how do we rescue the situation? the government is not legally bound to act by the 23 June EU referendum nor any EU Treaty, but it is under a moral obligation to carry out the wishes of the majority and to eliminate uncertainty for the other EU member states.

negotiating an exit must start immediately, to reassure Leave voters that government is not going to betray them. but, if the point of no return can be delayed, it should be. when it becomes clear what exiting the EU actually means, some Leave voters may change their mind. and that’s OK.

a second referendum

holding a second referendum before any new information is available would be insulting to the vast majority of those who voted Leave on 23 June. it would most likely lead to civil unrest and further evaporation of trust in government. the only fair and reasonable course of action is to determine what exit actually means and put that to a second referendum:

  1. leave the EU on whatever terms have been agreed (or a clean break if there is no agreement).
  2. remain on whatever terms the EU is offering at that time.

this second referendum should be binding on the UK government to act, so as to give people confidence in the validity of the process.

this proposal recognises that:

  1. the referendum on 23 June gave the government a mandate to negotiate an exit agreement with the European Union.
  2. no-one knew on 23 June what form an exit agreement might take.
  3. people voted on the basis of speculation about the terms of an exit agreement, and on the likely impact on people’s quality of life, net immigration, the economy, and Britain’s global political standing.
  4. it is therefore only fair to those who voted, to remain or leave, that they be given a chance to review the actual terms and implications of leaving the EU.

process

Germany, France and Italy have ruled out the option of UK and other EU member states negotiating the final terms of an exit agreement before the UK invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty (see BBC News report), but it could be in everyone’s interests for the UK not to rush into invoking Article 50.

legal advice is that the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties does not apply to the Lisbon Treaty because the European Parliament has jurisdiction to determine the treaty’s interpretation and application. it also seems highly unlikely that all EU member states would agree to allow the UK (or any other EU member) to temporarily invoke Article 50 in order to negotiate a better deal with the EU.

since invoking Article 50 is a one-way street, the question is how long invocation may be delayed. the only justification for holding a second referendum before invoking Article 50 will be if significantly more detail has be established as to what Brexit means, domestically and internationally (in terms of diplomatic, social, cultural, scientific, economic and trade relations with EU and other major nations). this is in the best interests of the UK, even though it could take many months.

there is a good case to be made for the EU to flesh out Article 50 with a detailed framework of procedures. this would ensure that, if any other country considers leaving the EU, it will not be taking the same leap into the unknown that the UK has done. whether there is the will amongst EU members to do this in advance of the UK invoking Article 50 has yet to be seen.

delay in invoking Article 50 will prolong uncertainty for the whole EU. but Article 50 negotiations could see two years or more of uncertainty anyway. preliminary work could reduce the time required for post-invocation negotiations, and create a scenario in which Brexit does not happen. all EU member states should recognise that as a worthwhile path to tread.

Brexit will be destabilising for all EU members, and hugely costly for the UK. if cool heads can prevail, Brexit can be avoided, and meaningful EU reform achieved. let’s not break the EU; let’s mend it.

section 2.5 of the House of Commons Briefing paper Brexit: how does the Article 50 process work? examines the question Could a notification be withdrawn? one conclusion is that, given that the Lisbon Treaty is silent on the matter, Article 68 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties would apply: a notification of intention to withdraw from a treaty ‘may be revoked at any time before it takes effect’. there may be some legal dispute over when revocation ‘takes effect’, but the most obvious interpretation is that it is when withdrawal from the treaty is concluded. in this case, that would be when an exit agreement is signed or the negotiation period expires.

it would however be helpful if the European Council declared that Article 68 does apply, and that invocation of Article 50 may therefore be revoked at any time before the UK officially withdraws from the EU. it is not in other members states’ interests for the UK to leave the EU, so it seems unlikely that they would refuse the UK this escape. (Britain may be a thorn in the side of the Mediterranean EU states, but its membership does bring benefits, not least of which is its ‘special relationship’ with the US.)

the time and effort involved in negotiating terms of exit will not be wasted: it will benefit the EU if the process and terms of exit for a member state are thrashed out and codified for all to see. then if and when another country considers leaving the EU, it will not be taking a leap into the unknown.

there is an argument that if the UK states an intention to hold a second referendum, then other EU member states will deliberately offer a lousy deal in the hopes that the British public will reject it and opt to remain in the EU. that would be an uncharacteristically risky gamble. it is in the interests of other EU member states to continue constructive and cordial diplomatic, social, cultural, scientific, economic and trade relations with the UK, inside or outside the EU, so I would expect negotiations to be fairly balanced.

electoral reform

it is deeply saddening that some people are claiming that they voted Leave as a protest, not expecting their vote to change anything. this is proof of how broken our democracy is: that for decades, generations even, people have voted in general and local elections knowing that their vote counts for nothing, because they live in a ‘safe seat’.

government can regain some political capital by reforming the electoral process to make it more inclusive and honest.

in the first place 16 and 17 year olds must be permitted to vote in all elections and referendums. society allows anyone aged 16 to marry, have a baby, join the armed forces and, at 17, to drive a car; but not to vote. the arguments against lowering the voting age sound eerily similar to reasons used in the past to deprive women of the vote or, before that, anyone who wasn’t a landowner: it would be dangerous; they’re not competent to vote; they’d vote irresponsibly. it’s bunkum, and the British government should admit it, and follow the Scottish government’s lead in lowering the voting age for Scottish Parliament and local government elections.

first-past-the-post voting typically produces a clear majority for one of two major parties, at the expense of fair representation for all other parties. the solution is a system of proportional representation. not only will more people get their political views represented in Parliament, politics will attract and catch a wider range of candidates, people whose ideologies do not align neatly with one of the established parties.

to make a change to proportional representation viable, it will be necessary to split the role of an MP into two: a non-partisan local ombudsman and a national political representative. a local ombudsman would serve as an advocate for people within a geographical area, ideally corresponding to a local authority area, since much local advocacy involves issues and disputes between residents and their local councils. a small team of national representative would, like MEPs, represent larger regions, taking a strategic overview of local, national and international issues and ideas that should inform and guide government policy and legislation.

there is an urgent need to legislate to require election and referendum communications comply with basic standards of accuracy, honesty and equality. the Advertising Code, enforced by the Advertising Standards Agency has no powers with respect to political advertising. Parliament needs to publish a code for election and referendum communications and decide what body, if not the Advertising Standards Agency, should enforce it.

what you can do

  1. feed back here if you have any suggestions for changes, additions or corrections to this article.
  2. talk to people who voted the opposite way to you to understand what their reasons, frustrations and fears are. it’s easy to dismiss another person’s view as stupid, ignorant or perverse, but their reasons may make sense only when you understand their context.
  3. write to your MP to tell them what you would like to happen (feel free to copy and paste anything from this article into your email).

further information

fixing local democracy

local democracy is broken:

  • there is a deficit of trust between the public, councillors and council officers, owing to poor communication and, in some cases, poor performance.
  • the deficit of trust extends to central government’s view of local government, leading to a reluctance to devolve more power.
  • councillor allowances are so low that few people can afford to be a councillor, severely constraining the pool of potential candidates.
  • councillors who have to earn a wage find themselves working an unhealthy number of hours, leading to burnout and strain on their family life.
  • the quality of committee debate, decision making and policy is often unsatisfactory, partly because councillors rarely have time to read, yet alone digest, meeting agenda packs, which can run to hundreds of pages.
  • constituents have a poor understanding of which councillor to contact about what issue.

but it needn’t be this way: a radical reorganisation of local democracy could lead to better representation and governance at no greater cost.

allowances for councillors representing the 14 wards of Cambridge city in 2014-15

Cambridge allowances
councillors basic average leader annual cost*
Cambridgeshire 14 £7,700 £11,747 £22,700 †£164,464
Cambridge City 42 £2,782 £5,756 £13,632 £241,737
total 56 n/a £7,254 n/a £406,201

*not including travel and subsistence expenses (which are not income).
†pro-rata from total cost of £810,577 for 69 county councillors.

fewer, full-time city councillors

imagine that, instead of electing three City and one County councillor per ward, you elected just one, full-time councillor to represent you on both councils. if the £406,201 of allowances paid out in 2014-15 to local councillors had been paid to just fourteen, their average remuneration would have been £29,014. that could equate to a pay scale ranging from around £25,000 to around £50,000 for the leader – livable (though not generous) salaries: £25,000 equates to £12/hour (based on 260 8-hour working days).

by comparison, Cambridge’s MP represents thirteen wards (Queen Ediths is in South Cambridgeshire constituency), with the assistance usually of a part-time researcher/administrator, and receives a salary of £74,000 (as of 8 May 2015). therefore it is not unreasonable to think that local matters could be well-represented by a team of fourteen full-time councillors.

by further comparison in 2014-15, the chief executive of the County Council received remuneration (salary plus pension contributions) of £228,177; and the chief executive of the City Council received £138,820.

benefits

this arrangement would have many benefits:

  • councillors would be committed full-time to representing their constituents, and guiding and scrutinising the work of council officers.
  • having all councillors involved in both city and county councils would ensure more joined-up thinking, and facilitate collaboration leading to cost savings.
  • fewer councillor positions and more people feeling able to be councillors would create greater competition for the best talent, commitment and performance, ensuring consistently high calibre elected councillors.
  • constituents would have a single point of contact for local issues.
  • councillors could be reasonably expected to correspond in a timely manner, to hold weekly surgeries, and to communicate regularly (e.g. via a website) with their constituents.
  • more effective local democracy would argue strongly for more powers to be devolved from central government.

part-time councillors

being a councillor part-time works well for some people, especially those who have caring responsibilities or have their own business. job-sharing could be the answer. in a sense that is what happens now, because each ward or district is typically represented by between two and four councillors, but there is no formal job-sharing arrangement; in fact quite the reverse when councillors are from different political parties.

if each ward or district is to be represented by one full-time councillor, then anyone who wants to do the job part-time would need to arrange a job-share with someone else, and stand together with that person for election on the same ticket. the terms of the job-share should be made public at the time of standing for election so that it is clear who would be responsible for what; how they would split the allowance; and how they would be contactable (ideally offering a single point of contact).

political party organisers should be able to arrange suitable matches, but independents would need to use their initiative. once the principal is established, there should be no reason to stop three or more people standing together for a single councillor position.

beyond the city

outside the city, each district would elect a single councillor to represent them on the relevant district and county council. (in reality many already stand for election to both councils.) since many rural wards have small populations (as low as 1,200 – compared with around 6,000 per ward in the city), there would need to be a radical redrawing of ward boundaries to enable a 75% reduction in the number of councillors across the whole county.

further information

contributors

Edward Leigh

national identity cards

purpose

fears relating to terrorism and illegal immigration, and the growing problems of identity theft and fraud have induced several countries’ governments to propose national identity card schemes, most recently the US, UK, Japan and France.

identity cards are nothing new: in developed countries most people own numerous identity documents: passport, driving licence, bank cards, library card, entry cards for school, office or sports club, and so on. a national identity card is primarily used to identify people to government agencies, in particular immigration, social/welfare and health departments.

proposed schemes

most proposed schemes centre around a national identity register, containing key details about each resident and the identity numbers allocated by government departments, encapsulating in one record an individual’s entire relationship with the state. each presentation of an identity card involves contact being made with the central register to verify identity (typically with a biometric signature) and retrieve an identity number (which can then be used to retrieve records held by that particular government agency).

there are three main grounds for serious concern with such schemes:

technically flawed

  • the risk of failure of a centralised system is high.
  • the tolerable level of risk of failure, sabotage and snooping is virtually zero.
  • the costs of commissioning and maintaining such large scale systems rise exponentially as the risks are reduced towards zero.

civil liberties infringed

  • large numbers of civil servants at many levels will have access to the national identity register on an ongoing basis.
  • safeguards to ensure that information is only released on a need-to-know basis may be flawed, circumvented illegally, or deliberately removed for misguided reasons.
  • it is a golden principal of civil liberties that nobody in a position of power should know more about an individual than necessary to do their job.
  • if you have nothing to hide, why worry? because, even in a stable country run by a benign government, there are people at all levels of power who are prejudiced, indiscreet, vindictive or paranoid; and because anyone may become a victim of injustice.

unnecessary

  • the data stored in the central register could just as well be stored on the card itself.
  • all information on the card could be encrypted in such a way as to make it tamper-proof and updatable only by authorised agencies.

the alternative

do away with a central identify register, and you can have a safe, robust solution that does not infringe civil liberties. chip-and-PIN cards do not use a central database: that’s why stand-along card readers, issued by many banks, do not need to be connected to the Internet (whereas chip-and-pin terminals do, because they need to communicate with the card holder’s bank to check that the card is not stolen and that there are sufficient funds).

simple cryptographic techniques make all of this possible: an individual’s signatures (which can range from a PIN to a photograph of the person’s retina) can be encoded (‘hashed’) in such a way that the the actual signature can never be retrieved. this creates a unique ‘signature hash’. external identifiers (such as a National Insurance number) are encrypted using the signature hash as a key, and can only be decrypted with the same key. since the encryption hash is never stored (and does not contain anything that can link it back to an individual), it must be created afresh from the individual’s actual signature every time an external identifier needs to be retrieved.

all that is required is a framework of standards defining how an individual’s unique signatures are generated and verified; and how those signatures may be used to secure third party data. if a government or, better, an independent standards organisation, defines and publishes open standards, then any government or private body could issue a universal identity card, which any other body could use to store and retrieve identity information. every application would be completely independent of all others, and could employ the most appropriate type of signature (from a PIN to multi-factor biometrics), balancing security with equipment costs.

specification requirements

  • the technical and procedural framework for storing, updating, and retrieving data from an identity card should be published as an open standard.
  • the standard must allow for different levels or combinations of identity verification to be used by different bodies depending on the risks entailed by misidentification.
  • the standard should allow for verification by PIN or password entry (since biometric verification will not be possible or cost-effective in all situations).
  • the standard must allow for remote identity verification, for instance over the the Internet.
  • the standard must allow for the technology used to verify identity and encrypt data to be changed over time (as more reliable systems are developed).
  • all information on the card must be encrypted in such a way as to make it tamper-proof.
  • an individual’s biometric signature must normally be stored only on the individual’s card. (temporary exceptions would apply for criminal investigations and medical emergencies, and permanent exceptions for certain classes of convicted criminals and those with impaired mental function.)
  • any public or private body should be able to store its own identity number for an individual on his or her identity card, allowing it to be used in place of other identity cards.
  • it must be possible to make a backup or copy of an identity card with minimal difficulty.
  • the card should be able to hold critical medical details (e.g. blood group, severe allergies, organ donation preferences) and emergency contact details if desired by the holder.

further reading

contributors

Edward Leigh

system of government

what’s wrong with democracy?

the fundamental principle of democracy is beyond question: that government is for the benefit of all people, and so must answer to their needs and aspirations. but implementations of democracy are flawed:

representation

  • disempowerment of minorities whose interests (e.g. religion, language and culture) are opposed or ignored by the popular majority.
  • parties elected on manifestos of incompatible or contradictory promises, especially in different areas of government (business and environment, social security and tax, public services and minimal government, law & order and civil liberties); the biggest contradiction, which leads to recurrent disappointment, is the promise of improvements in public services and lower taxes.
  • politicians who assume higher levels of responsibility become unable to honour their obligations for local representation.
  • party line overrides individual views and inhibits proper representation of electors.
  • governments make decisions that have consequences for people of other countries to whom they are virtually unaccountable.

communication

  • unregulated lobbying of elected representatives, with influence correlating with financial resources.
  • public scrutiny frustrated by secrecy, arbitrary application of ‘classified’ status, and controlled presentation of evidence, inferences and decisions.
  • dependence on distorted and partial coverage by the media to present government policy.

professionalism

  • elected representatives having no proven competence to do the job – compare this with the qualifaction requirements for lawyers, accountants, doctors or teachers.
  • poverty of technical expertise amongst elected representatives for assessing scientific and statistical evidence.
  • personality being the principal criterion for candidate selection, tending to favour vain, ambitious, corrupt and sociopathic individuals.

accountability

  • autocratic decision making owing to lack of accountability during a term of office.
  • candidates for election to high office requiring commercial sponsorship, creating obligations that may conflict with constituents’ interests.

continuity

  • periodic hiatus in government in run-up to elections and following changes of government.
  • planning, statistics and decision-making manipulated to improve a governing party’s chances of re-election.

what should a reformed government look like?

government should satisfy the following standards:

  • transparency: there should be total transparency of planning, policy, decision making and spending. government should publish (electronically) minutes of all meetings; details of experts consulted, evidence and counter evidence acquired, assumptions, lines of reasoning considered, and conclusions drawn; detailed accounts of revenue and expenditure and formulae governing apportionment. where security or diplomatic issues are concerned and publication is believed to be inappropriate, an independent body of ‘civil auditors’ should scrutinize information on behalf of the public/media, publishing material as and when it ceases to be sensitive.
  • avoidance of conflicts of interest: potential personal conflicts of interest should be identified, recorded and avoided. this would be made easier if responsibility were vested in groups rather than individuals.
  • taxation policy should follow from other policies: people should vote for policies and feel the tax implications that follow; if people want to pay less tax, then they must vote for policies that entail lower taxes, not vote for lower taxes as a policy in itself.
  • empowerment of special interest groups: special interest groups, such as those that represent the environment, trade, employees, people with disabilities, heritage, should participate directly in government in proportion to their popular support.
  • professionalism: anyone involved in higher levels of government must have a proven competence in the disciplines required and knowledge of the framework (social, political, legal, historical) within which government operates.
  • ongoing accountability: the electorate should be able to re-invest their vote at any time, not just at termly elections. a delay between the election and transfer of a vote (of, say, 60 days) provides a ‘cooling off’ period during which an elector may reconsider their decision; it also ensures that power shifts can be predicted and prepared for.

how can this be achieved?

modern government is a mammoth and enormously complex business that, barring war or disaster, will not change rapidly. therefore reform will only be achieved through incremental changes, each of which must be fully thought through, readily comprehensible and will have to attract popular attention and overwhelming support. a tall order!

further reading

contributors

Edward Leigh