Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Power to the people – part 3

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 17, 2009

John Locke

John Locke

As John Locke pointed out, democracy relies on electors allowing a small group of individuals to have power over the rest of us.  We give them our consent to let them govern us.  Here in the UK the general mood of the public suggests that we have – mentally at least – withdrawn it.

The expenses scandal which is currently, to put it mildly, fuelling much debate here and has led to this state of affairs is pretty small beer compared with the kind of outright corruption I’ve come across in many of the countries I’ve visited (e.g. Ireland).  However it has seriously undermined the public’s trust in those we have put in positions of power.

Writing in today’s Observer newspaper, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, suggests a range of ideas aimed at restoring that trust.   He argues for proportional representation (something that the Libdems have wanted for many years) and the development of a “short constitution setting out what rights people enjoy and making clear the subservience of Parliament to the people” which would be drawn up by “A constitutional convention, overseen by 100 randomly selected voters”.

I’ve blogged before about the idea of involving randomly selected members of the public in governing the country.  I have never previously thought that the idea would fly – apart from it’s general wackiness, there are far too many vested interests in and around Westminster to allow it to happen.   The 21st century’s version of the establishment – big business – depends on its ability to lobby and exert pressure via networks (all those senior ex-ministers and permanent secretaries who end up on the boards of banks, for example) and they just wouldn’t allow it to happen.

It’s a nice thought, though.  When I’ve mentioned the idea of the self-immolating ‘Systems Party’ (as soon as it it gains power, it introduces legislation replacing voting as a means of selecting members of parliament with random selection) to others, one of the principle objections is that they wouldn’t want most of the people who one sees wandering up and down our local high street to be given power over anything.   I disagree with that view: I think most people, when given actual responsibility, treated like adults and shown the arguments for and against a particular idea or policy are perfectly capable of thinking things through and making good decisions. The fact that the popular press, for example, treats most of the public as if they were idiots doesn’t mean that they actually are.

Clegg says in the Observer item that we need a system of government that’s fit for the 21st Century.  I think that there’s a strong link here to another recurrent theme in this blog – Clay Shirky’s idea of ‘cognitive surplus’.  As you’ll recall (see link to my review of his book in the right hand side bar) Shirky argues that we only needed pyramid shaped, hyerarchical organisations in the past because there was no other way of organising.  However, the ‘social media’ alongside a carefully constituted jury-like system, so that as many people as possible could play an active part in politics, might just work.

Not on this planet, though.

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