Reply to government consultation on citizen engagement

Just submitted my response to the government’s ‘national framework for greater citizen engagement’ discussion document – one day ahead of the deadline for sending in comments. Here’s what the delectably named Laura Beaumont will find from me in her inbox tomorrow morning:

Dear Ms Beaumont,

While this government initiative to build a greater level of engagement, participation and consultation of and by citizens in the parliamentary process is commendable in its overall intentions – and in its recognition of the present high level of disengagement from Westminster politics on the part of a great many citizens – I feel that it does not address the root of the problem and that consequently its recommendations fall far short of offering a meaningful remedy.

The framework document is fundamentally flawed owing to its mistaken equation of the UK system of parliamentary democracy with representative democracy per se. Few informed British people would object to the statement in the preface, “Representative democracy remains the cornerstone of our constitution and it is widely believed to be the fairest and most effective system of governance”. However, many would take issue with the sentence that follows: “Parliament stands at the apex of our system of governance: it exercises power on behalf of the people who elect it”.

Essentially, this is a defence of the notion that parliament is and must remain sovereign: a premise that is reiterated and defended throughout the document. Parliamentary sovereignty – this wielding of ultimate power by parliament – is said to be representative by virtue of the supposed power of the people to determine the composition of parliament in democratic elections: “Through the power of the vote, representative democracy enables people to exercise power over politicians”. Hence, the ultimate power of parliament and the supposedly representative nature of that power (as effectively the product and expression of people power) are held together in a circular logic that expresses an implicit covenant between people and politicians: the people elect MPs to represent them – and hence the people hold the ultimate power – while those MPs actually exercise that ultimate power on behalf of the people in their deliberations and legislative activity; thus making parliament the perfect mirror and cipher of people power: representative democracy.

However, this closed logic is vitiated by a number of factors, some of which the framework document touches upon, and some of which it ignores. One such complicating factor is the extent to which this unspoken covenant – the people assenting to parliament’s assumption of the status as a body that represents the people – has broken down: citizens no longer believing that national politicians are genuinely concerned to listen and champion their concerns, priorities and wishes – to truly reflect the will of the people; and parliament passing legislation and taking decisions that are motivated more by party-political considerations and power politics than by a wish to reflect citizens’ values or even vaguely attempt to win a consensus among the broad mass of the people.

Clearly, the government is aware of this disconnect between the people – citizens – and the parliamentary process. However, a mortal wound cannot be healed by applying a sticking plaster. There is little point pretending that the great mass of the British people will feel that parliament is more responsive to their concerns if only relatively small groups of citizens are invited to deliberate on important issues as just one ‘constituency’ of opinion and influence among many competing for the ear of government; especially if parliament in any case does not ultimately feel bound to reflect those views in policy or legislation in any shape or form – in part, perhaps, out of implicit recognition that such citizens’ summits or juries are not a legitimate executive or legislative democratic body as parliament likes to think that it itself is.

One major cause of this disconnect between the people and parliament which the document completely fails to address is the wholly unrepresentative character of the voting system used for UK parliamentary elections. This produces parliaments whose composition grossly distorts the party-political choices of voters. The present government is based on the Labour Party having around 55% of the seats in the House of Commons, while it secured only 36% of the popular vote in the 2005 election. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, having obtained around 23% of the popular vote, were rewarded with only around 10% of seats. The two main parties have consistently ignored this huge injustice, which not only affects the Liberal Democratic Party but prevents smaller parties from ever gaining any representation in parliament and deters people from voting, as they know that only in a small minority of swing seats will their vote actually influence the end result.

Clearly, the two larger parties ignore the flaws of the so-called first-past-the-post system out of partisan self-interest, as this system enables them to command substantial parliamentary majorities on a minority of the popular vote: sometimes, as in 2005, a very small minority. The consequent disproportionate nature of party-political representation in the UK parliament entirely vitiates the contention in the framework document that the result of parliamentary elections confers a mandate on the party in power to fulfil its manifesto pledges – as in the document’s assertion of the primacy of parliamentary decision making over referendums – as those parties never command the majority assent of the people. This view about the legitimacy of parliament – i.e. the party in power – to carry out manifesto commitments in any case transforms elections into a sort of multi-issue referendum, in which people are invited to endorse a package of proposals rather than a single proposition, as in a referendum proper. It is clearly not true that every vote for a party adds up to support for every single policy proposal contained in that party’s manifesto. This fact makes the minority support those parties actually command even less of a real mandate for those policies to be implemented. On this logic, referendums would in fact be the most democratically representative form of government, in that at least majority support would be unambiguously canvassed on one issue at a time.

But in respect to the more specific issue of citizen engagement, how can any small-scale and non-binding deliberative processes command any respect on the part of the people when parliament itself – especially, the two main parties – abrogates to itself supposedly representative power that is so unrepresentative of the way the great mass of the people has actually voted? The problem is not how parliament should engage citizens more in its decision-making process; but how parliament can remodel itself so that it does reflect the choices of the people it claims to represent.

And this brings me to another question that the consultation document conveniently ignores: who are the people whom parliament is said to represent? Are they the British people or the English people? Only in one place does the report indicate that some instances of citizen engagement might have a UK-wide remit, whereas some may be specific to England: “Juries could be rotated throughout the UK, or just in England depending on whether issues are devolved. There may be a case for holding some juries in areas where an issue is particularly relevant”. This limiting to England of citizen engagement on issues affecting only England runs counter to the way parliament itself proceeds: parliament allows MPs from across the whole of the UK to deliberate and vote on matters relating to England alone, thereby further compromising the representativeness and democratic legitimacy of the parliamentary process. Why should citizen engagement proceed on different lines? Is not the limiting of citizen engagement on English matters to English people an implicit admission that parliament’s own conduct on English matters provides inadequate expression to the voices and choices of English people? And does parliament think that citizens’ summits and juries can really remediate this democratic deficit and offer a sop to English people, so that they will not demand democratic parity with the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who do have democratically – and proportionally – elected parliamentary bodies to make decisions on devolved matters?

The people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were offered referendums to give their assent to the establishment of devolved government in their countries. The report glosses over the fact that the people of England have not been offered a comparable choice. It appears that the sovereign will of the UK parliament takes precedence – in the matter of a prospective referendum on an English parliament just as in general elections – over the will of the English people: the people proposes and parliament disposes of the proposition. The unwillingness of the UK parliament and government to engage with the idea that the people of England should have the right to choose whether they wish their internal affairs to be governed by an English-elected body or by the UK parliament is a clear instance of parliamentary sovereignty asserting itself over against popular sovereignty – giving the lie to the report’s basic assumption that parliamentary sovereignty reflects and represents people power. The way the UK government tries to counter this idea that the English people, too, have a right to their own representative democracy is to deny that the English people and nation as such exist. For the government, there is only UK governance and parliamentary sovereignty, which applies in all matters to England and in only some to the devolved nations. This makes England wholly subject to the absolute power of the UK parliament, which in theory could continue indefinitely to disregard any notion of English popular sovereignty because it decrees that this runs counter to the purported interests of the UK as a whole that only it appropriately represents.

In the light of these massive disconnects between the British, and more specifically the English, people and a parliament which that people no longer views as representing its interests and choices – and which, in fact, does not adequately represent those choices – the government’s whole model of citizen engagement is fundamentally defective and indeed puts the whole issue totally the wrong way round: it is not people that need to be re-engaged with government but government that needs to re-engage with the people whose will it routinely, comprehensively and self-servingly ignores.

That was the end of the email. In conclusion, just another quick plug: please sign the England nation petition, if you haven’t done so already. Thanks.

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4 Responses

  1. I don’t understand why the question of a country that no longer officially exists is being asked.
    If you look up England in the Encyclopedia Britannica you’ll find these words:-
    “Despite the political, economic and cultural legacy that has perpetuated its name…England no longer officially exists as a country”.
    The English are almost the only ethnic group in the world to have been deprived of their identity without a shot being fired..

  2. Well, Ray, there are statements on official UK government websites that do still name England as a ‘country’: see here, for instance. The term ‘country’ – also used in the Encyclopedia Britannica entry you refer to – is used in official documentation instead of ‘nation’. A nation is perhaps what the Encyclopedia understands as an ‘official country’; so perhaps this is semantics. But the point is the government is insidious and dishonest about this, avoiding referring to England altogether by any term in order avoid the spectre of an English nation rising up to challenge its legitimacy. By contrast, Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland – the last two of which are definitely not ‘nations’ in any official sense (a principality and part of a province) – are referred to, rhetorically at least, as ‘nations’, as in the infamous ‘Britain of nations and regions’ statement.

    The point of my analyses of government statements about these issues of nationhood is to point out the logical inconsistencies and rhetorical tricks involved in the way England is referred to, or not referred to, by comparison with the UK / Britain and the other nations. This is, if you like, the linguistic expression of discrimination and injustice. The point being that, really, it’s about more than just semantics: the one sure way to confine England to the scrap heap of the history of nations is to suppress mention of it as a nation. And that’s the one thing I want to challenge the government to be explicit about: England, nation or not? Once they have to be explicit about it, then they can be openly challenged and taken on.

  3. So sorry, we found you too late to sign the petition.
    If there is any future petition, please contact the ukcolumn.org website. We have may like-minded friends.
    Don’t worry, WE know it is and always will be our beloved England. They cannot take away God’s good earth.
    We are led by thieves and liars but the people still have much power if only they knew it.

  4. Thanks, Kacey. Don’t worry, we got over 200 signatures; so the government has to reply! I wonder how long they’ll keep us waiting.

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