Too much democracy? Time for 21st Century Democracy.on 10 July 2014
By Martin J Smith and Dave Richards
Britain is facing a major crisis in politics. There is strong evidence that people no longer trust politicians or political parties, that turnout and political engagement is in decline and support for parties outside of the mainstream is growing. There is a sense that the public are detached from a political class that is increasingly regarded as too similar in social background, career trajectory and even political aspirations. All politicians ‘seem the same’.
For some, ironically, the source of this crisis can be explained by the rise of a politically illiterate and complacent citizenry, who hold unrealistic expectations of what democratic politics can deliver and in so doing have become inured to the benefits of democracy. Matthew Flinders, a vocal protagonist of this particular critique, concluded in a recent TEDx lecture, the problem is not too little democracy but too much as politicians clamour to satisfy the overinflated demands of a politically naïve electorate in which the public see politics as a ‘spectator sport’ or ‘retail activity’ (can it be both?). He says:
‘democratic politics is not a ‘click-and-collect’ online shopping channel where you make your choice and expect your goods to arrive. And if you don’t get what you want, it has become too easy to heckle – or should I say to tweet or blog – from the sidelines’.
But where is the evidence that people do see politics as click and collect? And surely if people do engage in critical blogs that is part of the democratic process? What percentage even heckle from the sidelines? More likely the political classes than the general public. The problem is not too much sniping but too little. People are more likely to stand on the roadside to see 30 seconds of the Tour de France than vote in an election for a Police Commissioner. They do not necessarily want to engage in politics but they may want to engage in decisions that affect their lives. Flinders’ view is implicitly conservative, seeking to defend the position of political institutions and a related set of practices which are rooted in a nineteenth century model of top-down democracy and accountability.
Our argument is very different. To understand the source of contemporary political disengagement, we need to recognise that for too long political elites have been making decisions without reference to the public and that the role of the electorate has been to do little more than legitimise politics rather than to be involved in politics. Britain’s representative model of democracy is based on an out-dated set of ideas (the British Political Tradition), which sees democracy as elites making decisions that are chosen by and accountable to the electorate. It allows limited access for people to access the political system by being party members and working their way into elected positions.
What is fascinating about the British political system is the everyday operation of institutions. Hardly a day passes when there is not a revelation about a political actor or an institution taking a decision in secret that now seems dubious and in some cases explicitly deceitful or even illegal. In the last week we have seen:
- The revelation that the Metropolitan police destroyed allegations of sexism and racism
- Further questions over a BBC cover-up following the conviction of Rolf Harris
- Five men on the pay-roll of News International including the Prime Minister’s former Press Secretary Andy Coulson convicted for conspiracy to phone-hacking in which the presiding judge was highly critical of the manner in which the defendants had failed to ‘co‐operate with the authorities in revealing the true extent of criminal activity among journalists’
- A ‘missing’ dossier handed to the former Home Secretary Leon Brittan dating back to the 1980s of an alleged ‘Westminster’ paedophilia ring which has led to subsequent revelations that an internal review undertaken by the Home Office last year found 114 related documents were also unaccounted for. This has prompted Teresa May to establish an independent review into how public bodies have handled historic sex-abuse claims.
As our recent edited book reveals, these events are repetitions of similar events that have occurred across UK institutions including the scandal around Jimmy Saville, the falsification of evidence in relation to Hillsborough, the manipulation of mortality statistics in hospitals, MPs’ expenses, a range of banking scandals around mis-selling products and manipulating the Libor rate and of course issues around phone hacking and the links between the media and the political elite.
Such is the nature and regularity of these events it is difficult to dismiss them as ‘bad apples’ or one offs. In our views, these crises have occurred because of the way that the British version of democracy and accountability is embedded in every day activity. The norm is for institutions to make decisions according to their own rules, regulating the implementation of rules themselves. The Parliamentary expenses scandal occurred because MPs were developing, interpreting and policing their own rules. In their view they were doing nothing wrong because they were unable to see what they were doing from the perspective of the citizen who cannot claim expenses for a new television. What at the time may have appeared to individual organisations to have been an acceptable, rational and essentially utilitarian mode of internal accountability, in hindsight seems little more than a pathology which allowed for the sustaining of self-interested behaviour at the expense of the wider public interest. Norman Tebbit neatly captured this view when responding to the recent accusations over a cover-up concerning a circle of well-connected Westminster elites in relation to historic child sex abuse, saying that ‘: ‘At that time most people would have thought that the Establishment, the system, was to be protected. And if a few things had gone wrong here and there that it was more important to protect the system than to delve too far into them. That view was wrong then and it has spectacularly shown to have been wrong because the abuses have grown’.
Such a system worked when the process of decision making (and often the decisions) were not revealed. Allegations of sex abuse by Cyril Smith and Jimmy Saville were known amongst the elite but never made public. Whilst our rulers were left to rule, secretive decision making and self-regulation worked. These crises have occurred because the world has changed and increasingly citizens are getting to see inside the working of institutions. Examples include the role of the police in the death of Ian Tomlinson being revealed by mobile phone footage, the extent of internet surveillance by government being revealed by Edward Snowden’s leaks and the challenge presented to various government, religious and corporate organisations through the hacking activities of Anonymous. Ironically, the combination of new public management and digitization has opened up a world of information that allows citizens and social movement to analyse previously closed institutions in much more detail.
The way that the world has changed is leading to a clash between two contrasting cultures. Traditional, top down, elite models of democracy and accountability are no longer sustainable in an age of a digitally more open-society. As a recent Hansard Society Report reveals, people see politicians as out of touch and remote. What we need are two major changes. First, the recognition by institutions that they are now making decisions in an open world. That even if they make decisions in private (which in certain cases they clearly have to) they should recognise that at some point those decisions may need to be justified. Every decision should be made on the basis that if it were open it would be deemed as legitimate. Secondly, the development of bottom up accountability – we have to develop mechanisms where accountability is not mediated through institutions. The Hansard Society proposes using new technology to allow citizens rather than MPs to ask questions at Prime Minister’s question time. This is one of many forms of citizen led accountability that could reinforce the openness of decision making.
New technology creates the opportunity to move away from 19th century democracy. Technology can be used to change the way decisions are made, who and how citizens are involved and how institutions are held to account. This is already happening with social groups using social media, on-line petitions and mobile technologies as part of their campaigns. However, this process needs to be formalised. There is also a need for more user friendly ways of analysing big data around government performance. We also need much more explicit whistleblowing policies so that those who do reveal the inner workings of governments are not criminalised. Fundamentally, the real change is about treating citizens as grown-ups, recognising that they can be privy to the details of the policy-making process. The most important change is that institutions start to act as if they are operating in an open society where they are directly accountable and hence are in a position to start regain the trust of the people. A closed institutional world is no longer viable in a digital age.
Martin Smith is Anniversary Professor of Politics at the Department of Politics at the University of York. Dave Richards is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Manchester. Their edited book Institutional Crisis in Twenty-First Century Britain is published by Palgrave.
Image Nic Taylor (CC BY-NC-ND)