Friday, March 03, 2006

A lot of people who are paid to commentate on political issues are ignorant of the basics of political science

Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve argued that there are a surprising number of people who think that the only argument against Direct Democracy (and in favour of Representative Democracy) is one of practicality. That we are a representative democracy because we are not yet able to upgrade to ‘real’ democracy.

My copy of Public Finance has a perfect example of this.

Writing in this week’s edition, ex-New Statesman editor Peter Wilby reports on a conversation he had with a Minister a while back:
“(the minister argued) …that voters should, for example, get the right to call a referendum. So what, I asked, if people wanted a referendum on capital punishment and duly voted in favour of it?

There was a brief pause and a prolonged clearing of the throat. Well, said the former minister, the result of a referendum would not be binding on Parliament. MPs would naturally decline to act on the result.

I hasten to add that I am not in favour of capital punishment. But that compels me to admit that I am not always in favour of democracy.”
Were Peter in front of me, I’d say “No it doesn’t Peter. It compels you to say that you are not in favour of direct democracy, and you understand why we've opted for a representative democracy in this country.”

This is a very simple piece of political theory that even appears to be lost on one of our leading political journalists. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that the very basics of our liberal settlement are being quietly discarded – not because they are unsuitable, but because important people have quite forgotten stuff that they learned at school during their puberty.

By way of illustration, have a look at Tim Garton-Ash’s recent piece in The Groan.

It is one of the blandest pieces of writing I’ve seen in a long time. I mean that as a compliment, by the way. I printed it off, started reading it, and when I got to the end, I had to check that I hadn’t left a page on the printer. The whole thing reads like the kind of throat-clearing that you expect before a writer makes a serious point.

Yet this dull statement of left-liberal values needs to be made more than the more adventurous propositions that litter most op-ed pages. Because writers are expected to make striking and original observations in their allotted 1200 words, the basics are often glossed over. Because they remain implicit, there is a danger that they will become neglected. Or in some cases, the writers have mastered the trick of looking like they can run when they actually never learned how to walk.

Both writer – and a portion of the readership – assume that the basic enlightenment values of tolerance are the basis for all sensible discussion in this day-and-age.

But during that last month alone, the MoToons / Pro-Test / David Irving / Livingstone stories have shown that – while these values are far from universal, the political class are so complacent about them that something as bland and obvious as Tim’s article needs to be written.

Candid friends tell me that this blog has an unhealthy obsession with another value that I’d regard as fundamental – that of representative democracy. In future, I’ll refer them to Tim’s article.

Secondly, Bob Piper has also picked up on this article and questioned the role of political parties in this context. I’d suggest that the answer to this is very simple. If candidates can develop a healthy dialogue with voters at election time, political parties will become more of a value-based club rather than the mandated centralised leadership cult that they have partly become at the moment.

This lack of communication (whatever it’s causes) can explain why pressure groups are so powerful, and that parties appear to be so dreary at the moment. And politicians like Bob are the ones who are doing something about it. If I lived in the Abbey Ward of Sandwell, I’d be able to vote (for or against) an articulate Councillor who wears his values on his sleeve.

I can’t do that where I live – I’ve met all of my local Councillors and it’s very hard to find out what their position is on anything, or what they stand for – beyond the rigid manifesto that they stood on (but weren't consulted on beforehand). That’s why I have to vote for a Party or not vote at all.

1 comment:

MatGB said...

Your headline caught my attention, it's so true of so many issues.

Dunfermline for example; Cameron has 'failed' because the Tories (in 4th place) lost vote share. No, the Tories were bound to lost vote share in 4th place, it's a natural process, loads of studies on it, and most of your spin doctors have read them.

Gah! You're right overall of course. Power thing on referendums and stuff is worrying; we don't do that sort of thing here. We need to fix the electoral system so it's responsive, of course, but if we do that, we don't need referenda style media feeding frenzies.