A democratic perspective upon Gordon Brown's constitution speech
to the Commons 3rd July 2007 (1) (2)
Mr Speaker these measures I
have just announced represent an important step forward in changing the
way we are governed. But it is possible to do more to bring government
closer to the people.
While our system of
representative democracy - local as well as national - is at the heart
of our constitution, it can be enhanced by devolving more power
directly to the people and I propose we start the debate and consult on
empowering citizens and communities in four areas.
I&R ~ GB
While we can welcome the assistance of our elected politicians, the
meaning of democracy is that the citizens are in charge. More important
than receiving gifts of devolved power and being empowered by others is
that people begin to use their political rights and power more
effectively. For instance, we could demand the right as voters to call
a veto referendum on unwanted policy or law, such as road charges and
the so-called european "amendment" (Brown) treaty.
First, powers of initiative,
extending the right of the British people to intervene with their
elected local representatives to ensure action - through a new
community right to call for action and new duties on public bodies to
involve local people.
I&R ~ GB
The "powers of initiative" sounds impressive but does he mean, as found
in other comparable countries, the right of citizens to propose laws?
Or does this refer to the sort of glorified petition which has been
suggested by a Tory pressure group? To "intervene with their
elected local representatives" could mean that if a large number of
voters endorse a proposal then the council must debate and decide on
this proposal. Is that what Brown refers to? And what does a "right to
call for action" imply? Under freedom of speech we already have the
right to call for any reasonable course of (political) action --
currently no-one is obliged to listen. Does Brown mean that if a
citizens' proposal as just mentioned be rejected by the council that a
binding referendum of the whole electorate shall follow? That would be
a good democracy.
Sadly, given that most power is held by central government, Brown
limits his offer of "devolved power" to "local" government. Why? The
people of Italy, Slovakia and Switzerland have the right to make or
change and veto law by citizens-initiative-referendum at the State
level, and local levels too. Are we people of the british isles less
intelligent or less politically responsible than our neighbours?
Second, new rights for the
British people to be consulted through mechanisms such as 'citizens
juries' on major decisions affecting their lives.
I&R ~ GB
The citizens' jury process is indeed only a form of consultation. It
has nothing to do with "devolving power" and involves just a small
group of citizens. The authority which establishes the process is *not*
obliged to abide by the verdict of the jury, which furthermore may not
be representative of the views of the whole electorate. In short this
is icing on the cake of democracy. First we must improve the quality of
the cake by mending our democracy deficits.
Third, powers of redress, new rights for the British people to scrutinise and improve the delivery of local services.
I&R ~ GB
This could cover a spectrum of reforms from the placebo to the radical
cure. Will citizens receive the right to expect effective local
government response to their critical scrutiny and proposals for
improvement? How will this be organised?
And fourth, powers to ballot
on spending decisions in areas such as neighbourhood budgets and youth
budgets, with decisions on finance made by local people themselves.
I&R ~ GB
This is a paternalistic approach, an attempt to still people's desire
for meaningful participation in public affairs. It echoes a strategy of
conservative (with “small c”) left wing groups to parry proposals for
truly democratic reforms, that is to suggest instead "citizens'
budget", a procedure allegedly developed in South America. What is
*not* said is that the vast majority of public money remains under the
control of the authorities. Well over half of local government funding
in England and Wales comes from the centre, so it would be easy to
earmark a small portion for the electorate to decide upon. Preferable
would be to strengthen democratic control of the whole range of (here
local) government activities.
1. Citations are taken from the BBC's "full text of Gordon Brown's
statement setting out his plans for constitutional changes to MPs on 3
July, 2007“ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/6266526.stm
2. Selected are G. Brown’s references to those possible reforms which
ostensibly are aimed to improve involvement of citizens in public