Towards democracy

Our friends and affiliates in The Cambridge Commons held a remarkable conference on democracy in Britain, Magna Carta 2015, at the Cambridge Union on Saturday 6 June (one of a series of events sponsored by the Heritage Lottery Fund to mark the eight hundredth anniversary of the charter). We present below the three reports written by one speaker, Guy Aitchison (King's College London), originally published on the Politics in Spires blog in its Great Charter Convention series.

We thank Guy and Politics in Spires for their kind permission to republish the reports.

  1. The prospects for democratic renewal
  2. Issues for democracy in the digital age
  3. The public realm, parties and corporate infiltration

Report 1. The prospects for democratic renewal

We are in a curious and uncertain period for the British state, its antiquated constitution and ways of doing politics. A number of serious challenges are on the horizon and it is unclear how much longer the political framework of the Westminster system can remain intact. The traditional attitude of the British elite has been to 'muddle through', introducing reform in a piecemeal manner in response to popular demands for change, while doing its best to preserve the core features of a monarchical system based on executive dominance of a 'sovereign' parliament via royally acquired prerogatives and patronage. A huge gulf exists between the empowered governance made possible by digital technology and the antiquated reality of the Westminster system. In its current ossified form, the British state offers an unpalatable mix of medieval hierarchy and techno-authoritarianism, symbolised in recent weeks by an enthroned Queen Elizabeth II announcing plans to deepen the government's already vast powers of electronic surveillance over her subjects.

Given these profound challenges to self-government, what are the prospects of democratic change for the peoples, nations and localities of the UK? How can we protect rights and freedoms in the age of Facebook, Google and a semi-permanent 'war on terror'? And what are the campaigns, forms and strategies to bring this change about? These are the some of the questions we discussed at the conference. Stuart Weir, of Cambridge Commons, began by noting an urgent need to think through the issues in an open way, maintain a critical voice and build alternatives.

One key question is how to secure popular involvement in the type of far-reaching democratic reform that is needed. This was the subject of the opening talk by Stuart White of Oxford University who gave us an overview of different options for a UK constitutional convention. We are at a 'constitutional moment' said White; an exceptional historical period when normal politics is superseded by the need for 'We, the people' to address fundamental issues about the content and distribution of rights in society and the basic nature of government.

The UK faces at least seven interconnected constitutional problems in the coming years: 1. Human rights and the government commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act; 2. The threat to rights from digital surveillance; 3. The relationship of Scotland to the rest of the UK; 4. The question of governance in Wales, Northern Ireland and England (the 'English Question'); 5. The electoral system for the Commons following an election that delivered the biggest ever mismatch between votes and seats; 6. The question of money in politics, lobbying and campaign finance; 7. The UK's relationship with the EU. While the government has promised a referendum on the last of these, why stop there? White presented two options for a constitutional convention for the UK, drawing on recent experiences in Iceland and Ireland.

Iceland became interested in constitutional reform following the 2008 economic crash. The government authorised an elected assembly that considered online input by citizens and produced a draft constitution over a period of just three to four months. The draft constitution was affirmed by the people of Iceland in a referendum, but the result was non-binding and so parliament was able to ignore it. In Ireland, a constitutional convention sat between 2013 and 2014. The convention was made up of a hundred people, with one third politicians and two thirds general public chosen by random selection so as to be broadly representative of the population. The constitution made eighteen recommendations. However, as happened in Iceland, the Irish government has not proven responsive: only two recommendations have been agreed to so far, including the recent referendum on same-sex marriage.

White highlighted four crucial questions for any constitutional convention in the UK: 1. Its membership (politicians, the public or both); 2. Its agenda and whether or not it has agenda-setting powers; 3. What happens to its output (whether it goes to parliament or straight to a referendum); 4. How co-ordinated it is across the territories of the UK. A convention based on parliamentary sovereignty would contain mostly politicians, have an agenda set by government and its recommendations would go back to parliament. A convention based on popular sovereignty, on the other hand, would have its membership selected from the general public, with only a minority of politicians (if any). It would have some agenda-setting powers to allow it to be responsive to popular concerns, while its output would go straight to referendum. The second model is to be preferred, said White, since it would provide external oversight and legitimacy to ensure the sovereignty of 'We, the people' is placed above partisan self-interest.

My own response highlighted the historical rarity of constitutional moments, which usually follow wars, revolutions or some other social upheaval. This was the case with the classic eighteenth-century founding moments of Philadelphia and Paris, but also in the three great waves of constitutional reform in the twentieth century: in Western Europe following World War Two; in newly decolonised countries in the 1960s and 70s; and in Eastern Europe after 1989. Where will the momentum for reform come from in the UK? It is difficult to say. Although large numbers of people are angry and disengaged from formal politics, this disaffection does not translate into demands for an alternative. Arguably, issues of democracy and self-government gain currency when they are tied to a compelling ideological vision, as happened with the recent independence referendum in Scotland that mobilised thousands of people, including a large swathe of new voters, in support of political autonomy not as an end in itself, but to create a more just and equal society.

Here, a number of contributors pointed out the urgent need to challenge the dominance of transnational corporate power. With the rapid privatisation of state functions and the legislative entrenchment of pro-corporate policies, citizens and parties are left arguing over an ever-shrinking stretch of territory: on current trends, it won't be long until the corporate tide submerges us entirely. In particular, unless it is stopped, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and US will severely curtail the ability of states to govern in the public interest by diluting consumer protections and setting up secretive investors' courts that hand corporations virtual veto powers over any policy that harms their bottom line.

There is no doubt that a hung parliament would have provided the best conditions to argue for a constitutional convention, which the Greens, Labour, and Liberal Democrats and UKIP all called for. Yet there are still a number of interesting initiatives to bring the public into the debate on constitutional matters undertaken by the Electoral Reform Society and the Northern Citizens' Convention Conference, as well as discussions in Wales and Scotland. As Unlock Democracy director Alexandra Runswick noted, there is public appetite for the ideas and discussion, but it will require a broad civil society campaign to build cross-party support for a convention.

Guy Aitchison


Report 2. Issues for democracy in the digital age

Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, opened the discussion on digital freedoms on an optimistic note by predicting that the UK will have a codified constitution in the next twenty-five years and can therefore become the first major democracy to harness the participatory potential of the web to found a new constitutional settlement. He laid out three pressing issues for democracy in the digital age: 1. What does it mean to be a person? 2. How do we address the corporate power of tech companies? 3. How do we define what we have in common?

There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to legal protections against state surveillance, suggested Carly Nyst of Privacy International. We have an established framework of human rights protections for privacy going back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which followed the experience of totalitarian surveillance. The battle should be about making the existing right to privacy relevant to the digital age: any new right to our 'metadata' (which reveals where you are and who you relate with online) should be seen as an expression of the existing right to privacy.

Nyst pointed out that the Tory government is committed to extending its surveillance powers, while the same powers are being cut back in the US, but suggested that the forthcoming investigatory powers bill provides an opportunity to alter the legal framework of surveillance. The legislation shows the government may have been listening to criticisms of the current surveillance regime following Snowden's revelations and thus offers the possibility to build in safeguards and potentially undo some of the worst measures. She further noted how tech can be used to harness popular participation with the example of Brazil crowdsourcing its digital rights framework last year, which was then adopted by parliament.

The tech author John Naughton suggested that we face unprecedented challenges as a result of the near unchallenged dominance over the internet of the 'Big Five' tech companies, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google. While we are roughly familiar with the nature and interests of the first three, Facebook and Google are new beasts entirely. It is very hard to conceptualise the type of power they wield with our existing political and legal vocabularies, but it a type of power that shapes our lives, identities, and experience of the world. The much-vaunted 'right to be forgotten', ruled upon by the European Court of Justice in 2010, he pointed out, is in fact a right not to feature in Google search, implying that one corporation now has the power to decide who is visible in our society. With its 1.44 billion users, Facebook have shown they can easily manipulate people's moods and outlook – and potentially even elections too.

There is, he warned, a symbiotic relationship between the national security state and tech companies: the rhetorical device of the 'war on terrorism' is being deployed to declare a permanent state of exception that sidelines democratic norms. How do we begin to address this type of power? Individuals can encrypt their e-mails and browsing, but in doing so they effectively paint a target on their backs for the security agencies. The tech companies would be vulnerable to a wide-scale boycott, given their reliance on the trust of their users, but there are few signs of this happening. It is a tragedy, said Naughton, that a technology that promises so much has become used for passive consumption to the profit of a few companies.

Bill Thompson, of the BBC, suggested that any model of citizenship for the digital age must take account of the fact that we now exist across time and place, while our very consciousness is shaped by our online interactions. The network does not respect physical space, existing across multiple jurisdictions, something the tech companies are far better positioned to exploit than territorially-bound governments.

While it may be tempting to think the internet itself is anti-democratic, it is the domination of profit-seeking companies that poses the biggest threat to freedom: if code is law, as Lawrence Lessig has said, then capitalists are currently writing the law in their interests. The net needs to return to its early idealism, said Thompson, so that citizens can define a digital commons to engage online as citizens and not consumers. Intriguingly, Thompson also talked of citizens' responsibilities online and speculated on the possibility of a responsibility to organise one's own digital footprint, rather like how we now organise our financial affairs today.

Guy Aitchison


Report 3. The public realm, parties and corporate infiltration

The gathering heard from the historian David Marquand whose latest book, Mammon's Kingdom, explores the history and values of the public realm and its relationship to democracy. The public realm is an elusive term, noted Marquand, which denotes a sphere of human life that is not the market, but not the private realm of family and friendship either. It is the belief that we are mutually interdependent, with perhaps the best definition given by John Donne when he noted that 'No man is an island, entire of himself'. The public realm includes the public sector, but is not reducible to it. It is also the realm of our rights and responsibilities, which includes universal human rights, but also certain British rights, such as the right to the NHS.

For Marquand, the nineteenth century was the great age of the public realm when Gladstone's reforms to the civil service enshrined an ethos of professionalism and public service and a civic pride and energy was unleashed across the country, as captured in the great civic architecture of northern cities. Over the twentieth century the BBC, trade unions, the Arts Council and other institutions joined the public realm, but since 1979 it has suffered 'steady remorseless attrition'. In Marquand's analysis, the problem is not simply one of privatisation but marketisation: the myth that the best method to deliver all services is through a mixture of competition and incentives. To protect the public realm, he said, we need a robust culture of active citizenship without which rights are just words on a piece of paper.

We then heard how the process of marketisation is accelerated by the system of revolving doors, campaign finance and corporate lobbying, which was the focus of Tamasin Cave of Spinwatch's talk. Commercial lobbying is now a booming £2 billion industry in the UK, she said, and having successfully moved to take over the NHS, they are now eyeing up schools. Their success is achieved by deft management of the media, party funding and by embedding their people in key positions in government. They manage the opposition of public sector workers either by persuasion or by deprofessionalising them, as with the increasing use of technology to replace qualified teachers. An extraordinary number of MPs and Lords are set to benefit financially from the privatisation of the NHS, which has been an established pattern ever since Thatcher outsourced cleaning. Although lobbying is part of the democratic process, it needs to be transparent, said Cave. Unfortunately, the current government has not furthered the case for transparency in lobbying and has created only a very limited register of interests for lobbyists, leaving out the vast majority of them, combined with the censorious act for charities which limits their campaigning.

'God is dead, and the Labour party is not coming to save you' was the dramatic warning from the Guardian's John Harris in the final session on prospects for change. Alongside Siân Berry, who is standing to be the Green candidate for [London] mayor, he noted that some of the most interesting forms of democratic organising are taking place at a local level in a reaction to capital's homogenisation of our towns and cities. Berry talked of the many interesting campaigns in the capital around issues of housing and resistance to gentrification. She noted how public space in London is increasingly being privatised and protest curtailed and that the same is also true of digital spaces like Facebook. In Harris's hometown of Frome in northeast Somerset, a network of independent councillors has gained a majority on the council, introducing bold new measures and new participatory ways of working modelled on Peter Macfadyen's idea of Flatpack Democracy.

According to Harris's analysis, Labour's general election defeat is rooted in the long-term decline of social democracy following deindustrialisation. The monolithic idea of social democratic parties with an industrial base, he suggested, is out of step with the turbulent capitalism of today, where things are fragmented and moving at speed. There is now a heightened awareness of particularities across the UK in response to globalisation. The new politics won't come overnight, suggested Berry and Harris, but a deeply-rooted democratic movement based on hope may just stand a chance in the long-run. It was an appropriately modest yet hopeful forecast after a fascinating day of high-quality debate. The contributions from participants in Cambridge are being fed into a People's Charter 2015* that the Unlock Democracy team are pulling together from the events they have conducted across the UK.

Guy Aitchison

* Unrelated to the six-point People's Charter taken up from the labour movement by the People's Assembly.

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