I have sometimes read your blog, Moraymint, and I share some of your concerns about the future. There are so many big changes taking place at the moment many of which both interact and have their own momentum. I suppose, however, that is generally the case but the difference now is that the associated dangers seem to be getting closer to home.
My major concern politically is that our democracy has been subverted by a relatively small number of very political, academically clever and ambitious people who become career politicians but lack real world experience or understanding. These people tend only to promote their political party’s views and when in power they seem to feel little obligation to engage with the electorate on important issues which can profoundly affect our country. Foreign policy, immigration, welfare, information gathering, crime, education and our relationship with the European Union are just some of the subject areas affected in this way. Instead we have to endure the “we know best” approach and the only time the electorate are listened to is if a cause is strongly supported by the national press or by another powerful lobbying group or vested interest. This approach to governing frequently looks knee-jerk rather than considered and does not harness the commonsense, wider experience and balance of the majority of people in our country.
A continuation of this concern about the narrowness of our politics is that politicians are often appointed to ministerial positions in areas where they have neither knowledge nor experience. They can also be rapidly moved between ministries – think of the very admirable Alan Johnson, a first rate man from all accounts but his ministerial moves were like a game of musical chairs. Such ministers must rely heavily on the senior members of the Civil Service who are themselves often generalists sharing a similar educational background and the same experiential weakness as their minister. Is this the best we can do?
I believe that we need electoral reform starting with a carefully considered system of proportional representation (PR) to broaden the debate and involve more people. I would also like to see more free votes in the Houses of Parliament. We might consider an independent assessment system for potential MPs and require a goodly percentage of them to have had something more than a life in politics. Perhaps candidates for ministerial appointments could be required to demonstrate to an independent body that they have some relevant knowledge or experience of the department(s) for which they are being considered and, in all cases, a decent understanding of economics. Alongside this we might consider some form of internship where potential ministers have the opportunity to learn more about the structure, workings and day to day issues of a ministry to which they aspire.
Many Brits now feel that politicians are all much the same and there is little point in voting. We need people to take a more active interest in politics – or at least sufficient interest to be bothered to vote. Government by the people for the people has a nice ring to it but that calls for education so that people understand something about: our political system; the precious value of being able to freely express our views and to vote; the lives expended to gain and maintain these freedoms and, the need to hold our elected representatives to account. PR would help by enabling smaller interest groups to have a voice and a vote in parliament – as it is and under the “first past the post” system many votes cast gain no representation in the House of Commons. Think of a constituency where one candidate wins by a narrow margin, many thousands of votes have been cast against the winning candidate’s proposals but even if the situation is repeated over and over again in other constituencies the “losing” voters gain no representation in the Commons. Under this system it is mathematically possible for the party with most seats in Parliament to have received significantly less votes than a “losing” party.
The above changes would make life more difficult for politicians and we would have some MPs representing views which are unpalatable to many in the country but the idea behind democracy is not to make life easy for politicians or big political parties. We might also consider how the procedures in the run up to elections can be changed so that wealthy political parties do not have an unfair advantage over smaller parties. There might also be a need for more referenda which, in the electronic age, should not be too hard to conduct.
As I write these words I can hear the counter-arguments. Fair enough, that is what democracy is about but if we can agree that things need to be done better and that a more representative democracy would be a step in the right direction then we can make it clear to our elected representatives that the expenses scandal was merely a symptom of a bigger problem which they need to be in the vanguard of correcting – or be voted out.
Thank goodness that in our country no one person can, as yet, make the kind of changes I refer to above. However, we can all vote and write to our MPs to make sure they know how we feel. On a day to day basis, and locally, it is possible to make a direct difference. In my case, I joined the Parish Council and became involved in running my local golf club; not things which will greatly change the world or increase my income but roles which need to be filled if the fabric of our society is to be maintained. So many people seem to expect someone else to do these and other local tasks and I see the same people volunteering all the time while many others do nothing more than grumble into their beer. So, my hope is that people will get more involved locally, learn what is happening in national politics and play an active part in our democracy. The danger if we do not do these things is that the people who think they know best will take more and more control and we will have less and less say in what happens in our country.