Monday, 27 December 2010

Popular Democracy or Prussian Democracy?

Daniel Hannan thinks plans to have popular petitions initiate debates and even bills in Parliament will restore our democracy. John Redwood, on the other hand, warns we should not get our hopes up.  I confess I incline towards the pessimism of the latter.

It is not that Mr Hannan's vision of a more accountable, responsive legislature is not thoroughly laudable; on the contrary, I suspect the implicit defence of elitism by those uttering predictable jeers of "populism" – another word for democracy – is motivated by the certain knowledge that the society they want to build is not the one people would petition for.

The problem, as Mr Redwood indicates, is that no matter how many people petition for a given measure, "it [will] not change the votes in the Commons."  Parliamentarians simply will not pass bills they do not like into law, whatever the level of public support.  There is every chance they will find ways to avoid even debating some petitions, not wishing to be seen to repeatedly ignore issues people are passionate about.

Consider the precautions taken by the EU Commission when provisions for citizens' initiatives were written into the Lisbon Treaty:  Commissioners reserve the right to reject not only the registration of proposals they consider "abusive" or "devoid of seriousness", but also the rather more vague category of those they consider "manifestly against the values of the Union".  Consequently the initiative procedure is entirely worthless; a senior British attaché I spoke with in Brussels actually went so far as to dismiss it as "utter bollocks".

Perhap the British legislation will not be as barren as the Commission's.  Perhaps it is Mr Hannan who is right, and this will be a positive step towards direct democracy.  But it would be wise to watch its progress through Parliament carefully, lest it instead develop into something which attempts to head it off, and we find ourselves left with an exercise in meaningless "consultation" worthy of Frederick the Great.

My people and I have come to an agreement which satisfies us both. They are to say what they please, and I am to do what I please.

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