A model for government

12 10 2010

When it comes to perceiving fault in a system, one can do so either in respect of the self-described purpose and agreed function of it, and how it measures up to those standards, but also by taking the principles of that system and seeing if there exists a theoretical construct that fits more ideally with those principles. I’m definitely one for saying that criticism without an alternative solution is unhelpful, so since I perceive fault in the way our society is governed, it falls on me to provide alternatives.

So, on governmental structure:

First of all, one must recognise that institutions come into being for a purpose whose origin generally has little relevance in subsequent times. I won’t turn this into a lengthy discourse on the origins of the British parliament, but let us sum up by saying: the two houses of parliament, right down to their names, are products of circumstances that are sufficiently far removed from the present as to be irrelevant, save only as a point of historical reference and interest. The important consequence of this point is that none of our current political institutions are necessarily, or even likely, to be fit for purpose, but rather are merely old dogs trying to do new jobs. They were not designed with their current purpose in mind but are merely adapted, only in so far as necessary, to do so.

Second, one must accept, without reservation, that any body that holds power will inevitably act to maintain and perpetuate that power. When I say without reservation, I mean in the sense that one needs to be realistic and not moralistic with the perceptions of power. It’s both rational and achievable for those with power to maintain it, thus bodies with power will, in general, continue to exist. I think the point I mean to make is this- while on an individual level, political actors can and do choose to act for e.g. the greater good/higher principles and so on, collectively speaking a given body will act according to a Machiavellian script.

Increasingly over time, as more and more people have sufficient power & influence to demand a share of the political cake, the government must inevitably claim to be acting as representatives of the people. With this admission comes the necessity to institute sufficient accountability into the structure of government to justify that claim.

Essentially I think that the ideal governmental set up would be:

Proportionally elected first house with legislative initiative and superiority.

Demographically selected 2nd house with role of scrutiny and longer term views.

Independent judiciary.

Independent public reporting bodies- like an OFGOV, whose job is to monitor the objective success of government against agreed targets such as literacy, life expectancy, crime etc. People need to have faith that governments are/were any good. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell.

Significant devolution. The national government should deal with national issues and provide templates, software and standards that authorities must adhere to e.g. interoperability. In the main power should rest with local councils to deal with local issues incl. public services, tax, construction. Devolution is good for lots of reasons, but one of the ones that isnt mentioned so much is that it would free the national government to focus more on future goals for the nation and problems in the longer term, since much of its responsibility for day to day affairs would be devolved.

Those who would argue that coalition makes for weak government miss the point that a strong government pandering to a multitude of views is no worse than an alliance of parties representing separate views. In fact this is what each of the main three governmental parties is, each having to pander to its left and right wing elements. Equally, speaking as an individual, I would much prefer a government that must perforce be moderate in order to secure cross-party support for the current ruling coalition, than one which, once securely in power, has nothing but the attempts of opposition to curtail its activities.

So what of the second house?

I think a bicameral structure is very important because it acts as a check and balance on the executive. Even those in opposition are still part of the institution of government (whoever you elect, the government gets in), so will e.g. never act to curtail its own power. It may act to curtail e.g. the power of any particular government, but not the power of e.g. the Commons. The only time a body would voluntarily curtail its own power is when forced to do so (Magna Carta, EU treaties). This makes separating the 2nd house from the first all the more important- otherwise they too are merely another limb of the institution and thus will act (collectively speaking) in the interests of the institution at large. The mission statement of the second house should be one of scrutiny, such that any Act passed by the Commons can be questioned on grounds of whether it is in the interests of the Country at large, and the people therein, as opposed to the institutions of governments and any special interests contained therein that are not representative of the wider populace.

Given that a proportionally elected first house would give a spread of the country’s political views, I think the second house should represent the spread of cultural and socio-economic views of the nation. So as previously one had Lords Temporal and Spiritual, now I think we can have Citizens religious, cultural and socio-economic. Based on the census, I would propose a house where citizens are selected (not elected, or possibly elected from a randomly selected pool), similarly to jury duty with proportional numbers of religious (including agnostic & atheist), urban & rural, rich, poor, ethnicities, ages and so on.

The benefits of this are manifold. Firstly, it takes away pressure from voters to choose candidates who they feel will represent their demographic interests. Whilst this may still influence voter choice, the principle will be that demographics are already represented, so candidates for the Commons can be chosen based on their ability, experience etc- their suitablity for the role. Secondly, and more obviously, it means that minority groups have a voice in government and that the liberty of our multicultural society can thus be maintained and celebrated.

I don’t believe it matters if every Prime Minister came from the same school as long as they had the ability to do the job. I do think it matters that the views of people in government come from a limited demographic background.