On Monday at lunch time I joined an invited audience in the Speaker’s House in the Commons to debate democracy for the BBC. They filmed and recorded 90 minutes of debate.
They invited an American Professor to lead the discussion. He was intelligent and articulate but not grounded in the realities of UK democracy. His starting issue was John Stuart Mill’s idea that well educated people should have more votes than anyone else. This out of date and unpopular idea was never going to fly, but he was determined to find someone in the audience who would argue for it, for no obvious reason. We wasted the opening minutes on an anachronism.
I was not allowed to comment throughout most of the programme despite trying to do so. I listened patiently to a long debate about proportional representation and new systems of voting. Some there seemed to think this would solve the problem of the disjunction between many voters and current politics. The Professor seemed in BBC style to encourage this viewpoint, and he had himself introduced the topic as his second important issue. He did not of course point out we have recently had a national debate about this and voted against a change in voting system. Nor did he or anyone allowed to speak on this topic point out that where different voting systems have been adopted – for EU and devolved Parliament elections – it has not resolved the problem of the gap between voters and politicians.
When I was finally allowed to speak at the very end of the session I made two big points. The UK debate about accountability, relevance and the relationship between electors and elected is dominated today by the questions of who is the demos and what powers remain for the government? The Professor had not mentioned or called anyone else likely to mention the words European Union or devolved governments. You cannot today talk about democracy in the UK unless you examine the transfer of substantial powers to the EU and ask what that has done to democratic accountability. Nor can you understand UK democracy without examining the relative and changing roles of the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Irish and Welsh Assemblies and the Westminster Parliament.
The rule of law and habeas corpus democracy is 800 years old this year, and the English Parliament at least 750 years old. On these large anniversaries we need to ask ourselves the fundamental question, is our democratic inheritance compatible with our current terms of EU membership? What do we do about all those laws and decisions that are made by the EU, which we cannot change if we change the MPs and government in the next Parliament? Those self same laws cannot be changed by our MEPs either. When if ever will there be an EU demos? And do we want to be part of it?
Maybe it was accident that these matters did not get discussed. Maybe it was by design. Maybe next time the BBC could ask one of us UK acadmeics and political thinkers to lead the discussion, or at least to be allowed to point out what the real UK issues are today. They are certainly not the question of giving educated people more votes. They include do we get a vote at all to influence the European laws that rule us? And does England get a vote to decide its issues?