As we entered the period of campaigning by the various political contenders, it became clear that for many the current political system has not been able to deliver and more and more people are feeling disillusioned by politics. This is leading to the rise of new and previously minority parties, as electors struggle to find a new, fresh approach which may serve us better.
We have dismissed the extremes of communism or fascism as highly flawed alternatives, so the political flavours we pursue today are far more moderate. Unfortunately, it is hard to see how any of them have any of the answers. All we see is lack of leadership, no answers to the big questions and cheap bribes to buy our votes by borrowing yet more money.
We could suggest, however heretical it might seem, that at the heart of the problem is the democratic process. Politicians have to satiate the current needs and desires of the population and that leaves little or no room for making the difficult decisions and planning for the future, especially the long term future. No politician is going to risk their job to push through difficult and controversial policies to resolve fundamental issues, such as the environment, when we have to take the pain today and reap the benefits in 50 to 100 years' time.
This leads to "gesture politics" where we are offered solutions today which on the face of it address a problem while in fact doing little or nothing to resolve anything of consequence, usually because it makes so little difference it is totally pointless. But it allows the leaders to tell us they are at least doing something, however futile it might be. The environment is the best example here where we have wind turbines and solar farms sprouting everywhere, making no meaningful contribution to saving the planet's environment while costing us dearly and diverting resources from much more viable long term solutions such as nuclear which can only show the true benefit in decades hence, but will ultimately prove the proper solution to the problem and not just a sticking plaster.
The lack of leadership qualities amongst our politicians mean that they impose little or no confidence in their ability to see us through whatever crisis we face. Proper leadership would enable us to feel an integral part of the process of government and enable us to make our contribution to the resolution of our problems, but with little or no true guidance we have no one inspiring us to follow. We cannot see characters with the leadership qualities and character of the likes of Winston Churchill or John F Kennedy.
We need to address the fundamental structure of government and how our democracy functions. We need to be looking at the issues we face and moving to resolve them and this often requires the input of experts in their field, people who are not tainted by politics or self interest. Perhaps we need a government that is more like the board of a company where some people are there on the merit of their experience and qualifications to do the job and some people are there as representatives of interested parties and some are there as elected members. Periodically some of these people can be changed by a process akin to an election and they can also be removed by an executive that judges them unfit for the position. They would all have a responsibility to the principal, ie the country, and they would all be paid to do their job and like any other employee, they would not be permitted any other sources of income. They would not receive anything from political donors seeking to further their own interests.
We would end up with an executive, the lower house, responsible 24/7 for running the country, and a non-executive upper house which would oversee what was happening in the executive to ensure they are prioritising things appropriately, especially balancing short and long term issues and the wider issues of groups within society. This upper house would also manage the logistical aspects of legislation, perhaps even being responsible for a constitution.
The last election and the EU Referendum have highlighted some of the major weaknesses of democracy, but specifically the basic problem of how voters are able to judge issues that are extremely complex. It is now self-evident that very few people really had any idea what Brexit would actually mean, despite the many that voted to leave the EU. How many really understood how the European Union had contributed to our nation and continues to do so today and how many really had a clear view of how the problems we face are down to the EU? Did the EU just become a convenient way of finding someone other than ourselves to blame for our current state of affairs?
During the election people were offered so much by all parties, but is it likely that the full implications were understood by many people? It is easy to offer students free tertiary education, no student loans and even grants, it is easy to offer re-nationalisation and substantially more money spent on the NHS, education etc, and to fund it all from higher taxation and lots more borrowing, but what does that mean for the future? Is it just another opportunity to increase the level of state debt that will be a burden to future generations?
To begin with the main issue of the election was the Brexit negotiations and terms. Negotiating such a complex arrangement is a huge undertaking and likely to take a long time, and it is obvious we will not be in a strong position to dictate terms. So, what are people’s expectations of the negotiations and where do they think we are likely to end up? Are we going to find the EU being responsive and friendly or will they be robust in negotiations?
It could be argued that for the electorate to make a proper and informed judgement about such complex issues requires significant engagement on their part and an ability to grasp wide-ranging aspects of government. It can also be argued that few people, even those in parliament today, can really claim to be as conversant and familiar with these issues as they need to be to make a proper balanced judgement as to which is the right way to go.
The solution in the past has been to have parties which have general inclinations to one political philosophy or other and to back the party that most closely represents your perspective on social issues and politics in general. That invariably meant that the parties pursued idealistic policies with unreal expectations of life, glossed over many of the critical issues, avoided those factors that made their philosophies look flawed and distracted voters with promises they knew would be hard to deliver on. Voters on the other hand were happy to back the general philosophy and trust that would result in policies in line with a certain expectation and this removed any need for people to make serious value judgements about the detailed issues. You didn’t even need to agree with everything your party promoted.
It also meant that the parties offered specific bribes to voters to get their vote, which in the end is all that matters. Promises of things that people find attractive and endearing today, without addressing the longer-term consequences.
But more recently this has become a much harder proposition as politics addresses specific complex issue such as Brexit. Voters are forced to make judgements about these issues, even though they do not understand them and the people who in the past have done the interpretation for them, have absolved themselves from the responsibility of doing it this time, and probably were in no better position to do so anyway. What was even more alarming was that our elected representatives left to make the judgement for themselves, as we would normally expect them to, would have come up with an entirely different verdict.
How has democracy served the American people? It is hard to believe that Donald Trump represents the best available in the US.
Democracy of sorts exists in other aspects of our social system. For example, we assume a jury with 12 people chosen at random is the best overall arbiter for the guilt or innocence of the accused. However, again we see a level of complexity in many cases, not to mention issues of prejudice and pre-judgement, that must inevitably result in dubious outcomes. How many innocent people have been found guilty through the basic inadequacy of people to make such judgements in complex cases?
Perhaps the biggest issue with political democracy is the candidates. People need no real qualifications to become MPs, or even cabinet ministers and prime ministers, and yet these are significantly challenging roles and the responsibilities which they carry.
Many alternative political philosophies exist around the world and it is hard to identify any that might be better. However, if you ever choose to join the governing body of a state school you will discover that only a proportion of the people on the board are elected. The remainder have a position based on their role or qualification or the organisation they represent and some are invited to join by existing members. This gives a chance that the people involved can contribute in a meaningful way and to bring skills, expertise and experience that proves valuable to the governing body.
Perhaps we could have such a system in parliament? Groups of people who qualify to be a part of Government and a number elected to parliament. Perhaps we could have some form of qualification to be able to stand for election and those selected, probably by parliament, would be those with special skills and expertise and a willingness to contribute to the nation in service. People could be selected from all sorts of walks of life to offer their valuable experience to the process of government.
Again, as it is with the school, we could ensure all those members, in whatever way they become members, arrive in parliament and then elect their government and their leaders and ministers. Although party politics would play a part in the election, it would carry no specific weight within parliament and every member would act independently according to their own conscience and in defence of their constituents.
Legislation would be proposed by anyone, but would require a specific level of support. This support might come from party allegiances, or from government departments, ministers or even the prime minister, and then all members would vote on that legislation. Each bill would have a specific champion and it would have to be presented, not just in terms of what it entails, but also considering every aspect of its implementation, including resourcing and financing.
Although such a system would be more complex in some ways and would require the government to promote its legislative programme much more it would result in a far better outcome for the nation. I realise we are much constrained by tradition here and those existing players do not want to see a change here, but it would be good to see us make some changes that might actually help us to improve the current situation we find ourselves in.
In the 19th century this country undertook several phases of parliamentary reform. Perhaps the last of any consequence of these was granting universal suffrage. Since then, little has changed. Custom and tradition seem to dictate that however unsuitable and inappropriate the conduct of our representatives might be, we are lucky to have such an outstanding system.
However, one could argue that it is fundamentally flawed and no longer fit for purpose. The environment within which we live, the impact of the media, etc dictates that the time has come for radical change. I am no believer in revolution as that just replaces one failing system with one that is far worse. However, we should look to different and alternative ways of doing things which will lead to some key improvements and we should not be afraid to question existing ways.
A good model would be the way a company which is well managed is run, with a board and an executive team. This model has many benefits. It has some democracy with the shareholders, it has a team which runs the business on a day to day basis with a chief executive in charge and it has a group of directors who advise and support the company to bring to bear their expertise for the benefit of the company.
Some ideas of how this might work in practice:
The objective must be to get Parliament working much more effectively, breaking down the destructive and negative nature of confrontational politics and making sure that those tasked have the competence, experience, support etc. that their role necessitates.
Substantial change is needed and a more collaborative approach to politics ushered in. Perhaps we will stop this shameful catalogue of avoidable errors.
In many ways it is unfortunate that immigration has become an issue of race. This obfuscates the real issue and prohibits intelligent debate on how our small island might cope with an inflow of people from other nations.
Global society has huge variations in wealth, organisation, stability and religious doctrine, which leads to vast numbers of people around the world living in poverty and deprivation and with very poor education.
On the other hand, within the developed countries of the world, we have learned how to manage our resources, to invest in education, research and development and to build successful commercial enterprises to support our own indigenous populations within the context of a modern, developed society. However, in common with so many other countries of the world, we suffer hugely from excessive population, struggling to sustain its way of life within its own restricted infrastructure.
This crowding is manifest in so many ways, from queues in A&E, to schools without places for local children, to heavy traffic congestion on our roads. But perhaps more importantly than that is the inability of the commercial system to create the wealth necessary to support our chosen standard of living. Adding more to our populations only makes this problem worse.
It is not just the numbers, but also the level of education people have and their ability to contribute in a modern developed society which is increasingly dependent upon people with professional skills and developed background that comes from a sound education and solid experience.
One way of looking at this problem of population and the extent to which our infrastructure is challenged, is to consider the contributions made by people through taxation to the various services and facilities the government provides from which we all benefit. Whether it is schools, hospitals, roads, armed forces, emergency services, government and civil services, the judiciary and, of course, the benefits system, or the many services and facilities ostensibly provided by the private sector, but in actual fact heavily subsidised by the state, such as rail transport, we can see the need for us to pay a certain amount to cover our contribution to these costs in comparison to the amount we benefit from them. In practice one has to pay quite a lot in tax to be a net contributor, especially as some are not able to contribute at all.
Many people entering the country may pay some taxes, but in fact they are in many cases net recipients of benefit, especially as they are very often economic migrants and unlike the resident population, they have no history of contribution.
Immigration per se is not the issue; it is the scale of it that is the problem, and this has been understood for some time, although successive governments have been incapable of dealing with it.
Many of those entering our country continue to live the life of their home, following their own traditions and practices. This in itself is no problem except when it impacts some of the services we provide and hence impose extra cost. An example would be managing many different languages with those who rely on their native tongue and who have very limited English. Attitudes to family size also vary, while amongst indigenous, professional classes the birth rate is falling, amongst immigrant communities it is rising. This not only increases the cost of supporting immigrant communities, but also creates a shift in the very nature of communities.
Of course, immigrant populations can add very much to modern cosmopolitan societies, but as our economy is so challenged and our infrastructure, both physical and operationally, is so very stretched, we have to manage these changes so much more rigorously to ensure they are genuinely affordable.
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