Thanks to a constitution where elections prevail throughout the system the United States now faces one of the most hazardous moments for individual liberty in its history. It provides a warning about the dangers of a fully elected second chamber which is often suggested for the UK.
Currently in the US one party holds the Presidency and a workable majority in both houses of Congress. Moreover this is a party being dragged away from consensus politics by a charismatic leader intent on enacting policies which present a threat to the constitution itself. The situation is made worse by a willingness to appoint members to the US Supreme Court on a partisan basis which shows signs of destroying the balance of opinion for years or possibly decades.
There is now a real danger of what Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century called the ‘tyranny of the majority’, a situation where the Government takes action supported by the majority of voters which significantly harms the rights of minorities. To be strictly accurate, through a quirk in the Electoral College system the United States is in danger of falling into a tyranny of the minority! All this means that significant autocratic power (through Executive Orders and sackings of Government Officials) is being wielded by a President intent on pursuing an oppressive agenda.
It is for these reasons that while replacing the House of Lords is an urgent task, to make it a fully elected Chamber would be a mistake. Instead a new upper-house Senate should be only part elected with the majority of Senators appointed – but by a system vastly different from the present one. This would enable us to give legislative responsibility to groups which at the present time are grossly underrepresented in Parliament. Underrepresentation may occur for any number of reasons, for example, disability or prejudice against being selected by major political parties as candidates.
Appointed Senators will allow us to balance experiential gaps in the lower chamber. At present such groups are only consulted on specific pieces of legislation as expert witnesses. But it would be far more effective to have the possibility of every piece of legislation reviewed by, say, a group of blind or wheelchair-bound Senators.
Clearly the size of the new Senate must be greatly reduced from its current bloated size stuffed as it is full of toadies, oligarchs and the left-overs of an autocratic past. For this reason the second Chamber would have specific responsibility for liaising with special interest and civil society groups outside Parliament. Finally the appointment of Senators must be taken out of the partisan political domain with citizen nominations to the Senate overseen by an appointments commission. Such a commission would have a specific remit, for example, to check that nominees are resident in the UK for tax purposes. Nominees who do not meet these criteria will not be considered further.
Final selection would be undertaken by a citizen panel which would be drawn in a similar way as a jury but on a national basis. Appointments would be made for a fixed period, for example 8 years, which could be renewed once by agreement of the citizens panel.
The existence of such a Senate would mean the Government working much harder to ensure legislation is fair to all sections of the community. While certainly not ruling out wealthy Senators, the possibility of decisions hinging on people such as Andrew Lloyd Webber flying in for the express purpose of passing oppressive acts (such as the Tax Credit Cuts) would be eliminated. Likewise the increase in Senators committed to doing a competent job will mean the body is fully able to examine evidence on the effectiveness of enacted legislation and hold the Government properly to account. This is currently a woeful inadequacy of our system
It would also mean the feared suppression of rights which may occur in the United States over the next four years would be minimized!
Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future. An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.
Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet. Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information. Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of knowledge. This peer-to-peer interaction with established relationships (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.
But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government. The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us. They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.
It has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out. But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.
The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance. But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing. Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.
The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground
So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo. But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of ‘Alliance’. In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate. But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU. It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.
In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:
..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;
All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:
I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.
As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason. Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.
Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values
Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.
During World War II, much to the annoyance of his leader Clement Attlee, Aneurin Bevan insisted on holding Prime Minister Winston Churchill accountable for his actions. His reason was twofold; firstly believing that it was absurd to fight an authoritarian regime to simply abandon it at home and secondly, the belief that no matter how effective Churchill appeared to be, mistakes and inefficiencies were possible. I think Bevan was right
So the recent reports of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney holding confidential dinners with investment bankers and finance directors should ring alarm bells. The rumours of ‘secret deals’ as reported by The Independent newspaper is unacceptable. But as a banker, Mark Carney is naturally inclined to avoid accountability. Take two of the international groups which Carney is a senior member (for now), the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB) and the G20 Financial Stability Board. Neither of these bodies have any form of democratic accountability. Incredibly, the ESRB which has responsibility for avoiding another 2008-style crash is run by the European Central Bank (ECB) along with individual National Central Banks, the very people who failed to see the disaster in the first place. The ESRB, of which Carney is a Vice-Chairman, makes politically sensitive decisions and the fact that it that merely reports to the European Parliament is dangerously misrepresented as accountability. Lack of proper control means these bankers cannot practically be fired, demoted, reprimanded or subjected to a pay cut!
Make no mistake, Carney is either being disingenuous or simply naive in claiming he is not behaving politically. The idea of an independent Bank of England is a fiction and the role of Governor in particular is highly political. But in any case the demand that banks and regulatory authorities should be independent has somehow come to imply that these bodies are unaccountable. For all the populist nonsense about him being a ‘rock star banker’ he is a public servant paid by you and me and we have a right to know what he is telling these financial special interest groups. This is especially so when his audience wield considerable influence as donors of the Conservative Party. Irrespective of the issue of Brexit the stench of oligarchy is strong and inevitably provides more fuel for extreme right wing advocates . Carney tries to dodge accountability under the guise of acting in the best interests of the nation but as Bevan would clearly have understood, this must be demonstrated openly.
We humans pride ourselves on our ability to learn and adapt. So it must be a triumph of greed over intellect that well we fall into the same traps despite being warned about them for over two thousand years!!. Nowhere is this more stark than with the rise of oligarchy, the problem where a small group of people gain control of a country or an organisation. Writing as long ago as the 4th Century BC the philosopher Aristotle identified oligarchy as a deviant form of aristocracy and pointed to two specific aspects which concern us at this time. Firstly he regarded wealth as the important issue in the rise to prominence of a few powerful rulers. Secondly, he regarded an oligarchy as ruling solely for its own benefit (hence deviant), disregarding the plight of the poor and dispossessed.
So its worth spending a little time finding out what we can learn from the beardy old Greek thinker. Aristotle warned that rule by the few alone (just like the rule of an absolute monarch or unrestrained democracy) is unstable and liable to collapse. In fact in America and Europe today the power of the few has grown markedly while the power of democratic forces have been consequently in decline. In the US this is exactly the danger which former Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders has been warning about. As a result, aside from the election of Trump, it has brought about an increased threat of instability and authoritarian government in almost every western country.
But we can learn a lot more from those old Greeks. For a start, Aristotle was writing from experience of oligarchic rule which mobilised sages, poets and artists in the maintenance of their power. Discussing public speech in a republic, Barry Strauss noted that:
The Sophists, with their corrosive relativism, taught rich and talented young greeks that power was better than truth. Socrates [Aristotle’s illustrious predecessor] sat out the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy at the end of the Peloponnesian war’.
Who were the Sophists? They were peripatetic intellectual coaches who taught the children of wealthy ‘excellence’ in order to gain power and fame. So little difference from our modern day Eton, Harrow, Oxford or Cambridge, apart from the fact that the students travel to them rather than the other way around! Strauss’s point about corrosive relativism is telling with ancient poets and artists now being replaced by journalists, branding and PR experts employed in media outlets. Today we call it ‘post-truth’ journalism, beloved of both the hard copy media such as The Sun newspaper and online outlets such as Breitbart. Socrates may have ‘sat out’, as Strauss puts it, the civil war in Athens between democracy and oligarchy, but such disengagement is not advisable in the modern age or we may experience the reappearance of the find the mass slavery of his time.
In the Spirit Level book Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out how initial wealth inequalities become entrenched into a class system. They state:
Over time, crude differences in wealth gradually become overlaid by differences in clothing, aesthetic taste, education, sense of self and all the other markers of class identity. Think for example of how the comparatively recent emergence of huge income differences in Russia will come to affect class structure. when the children of the new Russian oligarchs have grown up in grand houses, attended private schools and travelled the world they will have developed all the cultural trappings of an upper class.
Apart from Russia, there are many examples of this happening, especially in the United States. Already some members of the Democratic Party speak of persuading the Clinton daughter Chelsea to stand for President thus proving that at least some are intent on repeating the disaster of Hillary’s candidature. The only saving grace is that the Trump family look to be making the same mistake with daughter Ivanka raising eyebrows with her presence at some early high level meetings alongside her father. To the great surprise of almost no-one, rather than ending the Washington oligarchies, Trump is simply replacing them with new forms including his own family.
In the UK we have lived with this reciprocal arrangement of wealth and power for a long time. The House of Lords, once the bastion of aristocratic power (though to what extent they fulfilled Aristotle’s claim of wielding power with the poor in mind is, to say the least, doubtful) is rapidly in the process of turning into a seat of oligarchic power. The fact that the transformation is not yet complete can be seen in their flat rejection of George Osborne’s punitive Tax Credit cuts. But time is short and reform is now desperately urgent in the over bloated chamber. The scandal of rewarding corporate donors with seats in the Lords is a well-known scandal.
So can we do anything about oligarchy as individuals. Unfortunately this is where the Greek experience can no longer help us since their solution was to apply their advice to prevent oligarchy arising in the first place and civil war is hardly a recommended remedy. But we are not powerless. Firstly, we can overcome ‘post-truth’ politics by looking at a variety of news media, combined with twitter and other online sources. Also, combine it with what you actually see in your daily life. Are people sleeping rough, what are NHS services like, and so on. Then draw people’s attention to it. Secondly, there is an idea gaining ground that voting changes nothing. But tell that to Trump’s supporters! Make no mistake the current economic system was facilitated by politicians. Claiming they are powerless is a convenient distraction from this simple truth. A different system can be instigated by electing more egalitarian-minded politicians. Ownership of news media can be restricted and the rules on corporate board composition can be changed. ‘Too big to fail’ banks can be broken up. In reality it will take an international change to bring about profound and lasting improvement, but the UK with the City of London means that we can punch way above our economic weight in controlling corporations. So, whenever possible vote for a representative in any General or By-Election whom you think represents the best chance of change irrespective of their party. Vote for an individual, not a party. Finally join and support a party whose aims are to being about the end of oligarchy. Don’t be like Socrates the philosopher, don’t give up and sit this out!!