In 1972, the Glaswegian trade unionist Jimmy Reid was elected rector of Glasgow university on the back of a work-in he led of Clydeside shipbuilders.
The speech he gave accepting the post was so powerful it was re-printed in the New York Times. In it, Reid railed against both the market, and the centralisation in the local government reforms going through at the time. He opened with a stark claim: “Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problems in Britain today”.
In the 46 years since he gave his speech, the extent of alienation has only got worse. The claim is even more true today than it was at the time. But three major things have changed.
The first is that progressive governments at both local and national levels across the world have developed a range of techniques to support citizens to make large-scale decisions through participatory and deliberative processes. Since 1989, the people of Porto Allegre in Brazil have come together every year to choose how to spend the city’s multi-million pound budget. And the scheme has been such a success – even the World Bank has accepted that it’s been more efficient in alleviating poverty than the conventional process of leaving budget decisions to political elites – that it’s been repeated in cities across Latin America, and even the world. In Edinburgh, where I live, the people of Leith have an annual process for divvying out community funds, inspired by lessons from Brazil.
One of the most remarkable effects of such processes though is not just the way in which it changes how money is spent, but how it changes the people involved. As the World Bank report mentioned above says:
information disclosure through meetings involving public representatives has facilitated a learning process that leads to a more active citizenship. Citizens have become aware of new possibilities, and this has helped them to decide on civic matters influencing their everyday lives.
Participatory budgeting and democracy
A study by the University of Columbia in 2005 of the impact of participatory budgeting on the people of the Argentinian city of Rosario came to a similar conclusion. People they interviewed talked about how the process had helped bring together the community and give them a sense of ownership over it.
The various experiments in radical democracy that have taken place around the world stretch beyond budgeting, and they don’t always involve mass assemblies: as mentioned above, Ireland’s recent constitutional referendums were the result of a citizens’ jury, and the participatory processes have been used to look at a whole range of questions. But what they have in common is that they allow space for people to have conversations about the future, outside the endlessly atomising force of the market.
The second thing that has changed since Jimmy Reid railed against alienation is the arrival of the internet, and with it a series of tools to facilitate collective decision-making. While it’s important not to fall into the perils of tech-utopianism, the web can be a powerful tool for radical democracy.
And the third change is the arrival of big data. Mostly, this important new tool has been used to sell us things and spy on us. But the depth of information humanity is now able to gather on how to understand major problems ranging from cancer rates to climate change is vast.
Westminster: absurd anachronism
In this context, the centralised British constitutional system – where 650 MPs plus 792 Lords make the vital decisions which affect all of us, is an absurd anachronism, designed more to protect a ruling elite than to unleash the collective wisdom of the country.
As Peter McColl has argued, the mix of near-universal literacy, the power of pervasive and ubiquitous data to help us better understand the challenges we face, and success in trialling and developing the tools of radical democracy, means that now is the time for a participatory society.
Such suggestions are often contentious among those who worry that decentralising the power of the state can be a divide-and-rule tactic which allows capture by big business. But in reality, the states which have managed to stop being entirely controlled by big business are the least centralised, because the best guardian against corporate capture is an empowered citizenry with hands-on control of public investment.
In practice, what I’d propose is a mixed model of direct and representative democracy, with powerful local government facilitating participatory processes for decisions like budgeting and the production of urban plans, and national government using jury-style processes as a stage in the writing of major new laws, to oversee the work of public bodies such as government departments, police forces, regulators and the central bank, and in public inquiries as Dan Hind has proposed.
Any basic politics course will teach you that such a society is anathema to the British constitution. In the UK, we’re told, the Crown in parliament is sovereign. In reality, however, this principle is already broken, as Anthony Barnett and I pointed out last year.
First, there’s the question of Scotland. Here, there is a strong cultural belief that the people of Scotland are sovereign, sometimes claimed to date back to the declaration of Arbroath in 1320. In 1989, the majority of Scottish MPs (mostly Labour and Liberal Democrat) signed “the Claim of Right”, which declared “We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs” A majority of MSPs currently sitting declared, as they were sworn in, that “the people of Scotland are sovereign” – a position taken by both the Scottish Government and the Church of Scotland, but in direct contradiction to the sovereignty claimed by Westminster.
And when David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband signed “the Vow” ahead of Scotland’s independence referendum, they declared that the Scottish parliament is permanent: a promise restated in the 2016 Scotland Act, which bans future incarnations of Westminster from abolishing it without consent of the people of Scotland, meaning that there is a level of sovereignty greater than that of the Crown in Parliament.
This principle went further in 2017. When the activist Gina Miller won her case at the supreme court determining that MPs had to vote on Brexit, two things happened. First, the three dissenting Supreme Court judges argued that they could not instruct Parliament to vote on the matter, because to do so would be to declare that the court had power over Westminster, and therefore that Parliament was not sovereign. They lost 8-3, but the very fact that three of the country’s most senior judges believe that this means that the Supreme Court – another product of Blair’s constitutional tinkering – can now overrule the Commons is vitally important.
Secondly, MPs then voted, overwhelmingly, for something they believed was a bad idea, because, they said, the will of the people must be respected. They abdicated responsibility for deciding on the matter. In other words, the Brexit vote produced the best display that, in reality in modern Britain, we have no idea where sovereignty really lies.
There are two reason for this collapse in the idea that the Queen-in-parliament is sovereign. First, the contemporary concept of parliamentary sovereignty dates from AV Dicey’s famous book, ‘Introduction to the study of law of the constitution’ from 1885. When he wrote that parliament is “an absolutely sovereign legislature” with “the right to make or unmake any laws”, London was the capital of the biggest empire in human history. It was a literal description of the power of a chamber which, ultimately, could enforce its will across the world. This, clearly, is no longer true, with power shifting both east and west, and capital becoming increasingly footloose.
Secondly, Anglo-Britain (the Welsh, Irish and Scots have different stories), maintains a cognitive dissonance about the monarchy. On the one hand, they are at once the deities of reality TV Britain and icons of empire-kitsch sentimentality. They are the zenith of a nationalism so ubiquitous it goes unmentioned, which permeates the society of a past-it empire desperate to remain cool in the modern media market. On the other hand, the absurdity of the idea of the divine right of kings in a country where fewer than one in fifty actually attend a Church of England ceremony each week is overwhelming. We are left with a Schrodinger’s sovereignty, where the compromises of the seventeenth century are alive, until you look at them too closely.
People v monarchy
Looked at another way, at the core of the British constitution lies the creaking old class system. Only five British universities have produced a prime minister, and more than twice as many have gone to Eton as to non-fee paying schools. And at the centre of this system, reminding us all that it’s the natural order of things for posh white people to be in charge and that vast inequality is part of our national culture, is the monarchy.
To clean up our current constitutional mess means therefore means resolving the question of who is sovereign. For any democrat, the answer to that question is “the people”. But that means a head-on confrontation with monarchism: whilst, of course, it would be possible (though undesirable) to maintain a Nordic style monarchy, with a role that is genuinely only ceremonial, even such a cautious move would almost certainly be treated by the tabloids as what it was: an all-out assault on British traditions, and so would likely provoke a confrontation with Anglo-British nationalism.
To understand the scale of this challenge, you need to understand that the UK is currently spending around £170 billion renewing its nuclear submarines, with the support of both main Britain-wide parties, despite MPs knowing them to be technologically redundant, because it’s easier to do so than to explain to the voters of Anglo-Britain that the sop they got for losing the empire was designed in a world before maritime drones.
A new economy is impossible without democracy
There will be those who read what I have proposed above and feel that none of it is a priority. There are people starving on the streets of Britain, and we need to hurry on with sorting the housing crisis and income inequality. The planet is burning, and we must prioritise the transition to a low carbon economy.
Others might argue that this is all a side-show: power in our system lies with big corporations, not governments. The system we should be focussing on is neoliberal capitalism, not archaic questions about constitutional sovereignty, and provoking a bare-knuckled fight with revanchist nationalism is a dangerous game.
But a political system built to ensure elite rule will always mean that decisions are steered towards the interests of the elite. Powerful property owners still have huge sway. Shell and BP still have their teeth deep into the Foreign Office. And we will never succeed in taking power away from corporate elites if the only alternative is a laughably anachronistic system of quasi-democracy that is deeply in hoc to those elites anyway.
Deep down, people understand this. When Scotland’s independence referendum campaign kicked off, it was the height of austerity, and the response from much of Scottish Labour was to treat it as a sideshow to ‘bread and butter’ issues. But the vote produced huge levels of political engagement, unseen in a generation, because people understood that without mending the system somehow, the bread and butter questions would never be answered. Similarly, the biggest turn out in England in recent years was the European referendum, when people voted for a campaign promising them the chance to “take back control”: the ultimate desire in the age of alienation.
If a future UK – or its consciously uncoupled constituent countries – is to transform itself into a democracy, then it’s imperative that the rules of that state are written not by the politicians of any one party, but through a process which itself is seen as legitimate, democratic, and plural. The best evidence seems to be that mixed models work well: where a randomly selected and representative jury is interspersed with a small group of elected politicians from across the party spectrum (who are there mostly to advocate for the process in the old institutions), and given the power to determine its own direction and ask advice from the experts it chooses. Such a group, I would hope, would bring a string of proposals similar to those I’ve sketched out above, to the public, through carefully thought through referendum processes, which would lead us to democracy. Perhaps one such proposal would be a return to the EU.
In the last five years, these islands have seen four iconic, culture-shifting referendums. Scotland’s independence vote shifted attitudes in the country, making them more progressive as thousands became enthused about politics once more. Ireland’s votes on abortion and equal marriage awoke a progressive spirit and helped the country cast off its conservative Catholic heritage. England’s Brexit vote (because that’s what it was) pulled in a different direction, unleashing a negative energy which often feels scary. This certainly reveals the risk of badly run democratic process in a noxious context. But the risk of progressives retreating to a belief in elite rule is much greater.
National identity and national institutions help create each other. England, specifically, desperately needs to find a way to escape the prison of imperial longing, and emerge as a modern democracy. A vast national debate about how to really ‘take back control’ from those who have hoarded power for generations is long overdue. It’s time to complete the democratic revolution.
Abridged version of the final chapter (Trying to milk a vulture) of New Thinking for the British Economy (edited by Laurie Macfarlane) published as a free e-book by Open Democracy and reproduced here with permission
See also Citizens’ Assemblies: How can the UK learn from Ireland? via the Constitution Unit
Featured image via The Alternative UK
Opening of Parliament image via Visit London